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The White House and the warlords
Steve Coll explains the systemic errors that caused five U.S. presidents to fail the most important foreign policy challenge since WWII

An Afghan fighter
An Afghan fighter (AP PHOTO, 1998)
Apr 18, 2004

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April 18, 2004

GHOST WARS: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll. Penguin, 695 pp., $29.95.
Most Americans didn't know the name Osama bin Laden prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

No political leader made foreign terrorism a high-profile issue during the prosperous, post-Cold War days of the 1990s or in the 2000 presidential campaign. Partisan debate flared for a time in 1998 following bin Laden– inspired bombings against two U.S. embassies in Africa, but it was largely to belittle the Clinton administration's retaliation -- cruise missile strikes against suspected bin Laden terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan -- as a wag-the-dog scenario to deflect attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Such public indifference and wrong-headed politicization were hardly surprising. The events that led up to the Sept. 11 cataclysm occurred in countries far away, and U.S. decisions that can be seen as failing to prevent it -- in retrospect -- were shrouded in secrecy.

Steve Coll, in "Ghost Wars," lays out that secret history in monumental and excruciating detail that goes a long way toward explaining the systemic errors that caused the United States, through five administrations, to fail its most important foreign policy challenge since World War II.

"Ghost Wars" is not a book that assigns blame, certainly not in the spirit of the current controversy over the accusations by former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. Rather, in reading this sobering cascade of diplomatic and intelligence miscalculations, one is left with the feeling no configuration of political leaders and foreign policy specialists could have gotten it right.

Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner, covered one of those far away places, Afghanistan, from 1989 to 1992. His central thesis, if that is not too formal a word for the thrust of 600-plus pages of relentless narrative, is that the United States failed to shape its own strategy to deal with the rising menace of religious fanaticism growing in Afghanistan. Instead, it took its lead from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose governments -- for their own internal reasons -- channeled financial and military aid at first to radical jihadists fighting the Soviets and later to the even more radical Taliban movement that provided a haven for bin Laden and al-Qaida.

"Ghost Wars" is a powerful book, impeccably reported, containing hundreds of interviews with the principals in the U.S. intelligence and national security establishments. Although understandably less comprehensive in its treatment of the inner workings of Afghan, Pakistani and Saudi organizations, the book is enriched by Coll's interviews with -- and critical evaluation of -- high-level players in the intelligence agencies of those countries and top officials such as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Coll builds his narrative loosely around the figure of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the heroic Tajik guerrilla leader who faced down the Soviet armies that invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviets were routed a decade later, the United States disengaged almost entirely, with officials dismissing the ensuing civil conflict as "warlordism" and saying "they just wanted them [the warring groups] to go away."

Coll argues that although tainted by narcotics trafficking, Massoud was the last, best hope to unify Afghanistan against the radical Taliban, and ultimately to capture or kill bin Laden.

Bin Laden emerged as the focus of U.S. antiterrorist attention as early as 1994, when it became clear that he was creating and training a private army of Arab terrorists from his base in Sudan. His targets were first the royal family of his native Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab governments, particularly Egypt's. But he was also known to be plotting the assassination of the CIA station chief in Khartoum, Sudan.

Still sketchy evidence linked him to a series of terrorist attacks, including bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. With little fanfare, the CIA opened an unprecedented "virtual station" dedicated to tracking bin Laden's terrorist activities. But bin Laden already had slipped out of Sudan and into Afghanistan, just as the armies of the Taliban were spreading their radical Islamist revolution to almost the entire country.

It is at this point, 300 pages into the book, that Coll's account takes on a stunning and tragic immediacy as he chronicles the events leading to the disaster we know is coming. Evenhandedly, he documents the ironies and contradictions of a feckless U.S. policy apparatus struggling to cope in secret with a mounting wave of terrorist attacks and evidence that even more attacks were coming.

Blame, what little he casts, is assigned primarily to a national security establishment -- intelligence, military and diplomats alike -- that was incapable of breaking from the overweaning leadership of our closest friends in the region, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, even as it became obvious that their approach to Afghanistan, the Taliban and bin Laden was counterproductive to U.S. interests.

The key decision, so long delayed that it was finally implemented only after Sept. 11, was to provide U.S. military support to the only army still opposing the Taliban, that of Tajik leader Massoud. The Afghan government that emerged after the U.S. invasion centered on Massoud's organization (he himself was assassinated just before Sept. 11) in a federation of other anti-Taliban forces. That same collection of forces had been available for U.S. sponsorship a decade before, Coll points out, but the United States instead bowed to the opposition from the Taliban's own sponsors, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

"irst out of indifference, then with misgivings, and finally in a state of frustrated inertia," Coll writes, "the United States endorsed year after year the Afghan programs of its two sullen, complex and sometimes vital allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia."

This is not a book about unheeded warnings. Coll makes clear there was no lack of information and -- at least during the Clinton years -- plenty of urgency, especially after the simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the near sinking of the battleship Cole in 2000.

In this regard, his account tracks closely that of Richard Clarke, who appears to have been one of Coll's many sources inside the U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence apparatus. Like Clarke, Coll paints an engaged Clinton administration in contrast to a slow-moving, distracted Bush administration that waited nearly nine months before giving priority attention to the looming threat of al-Qaida terrorism. (The book devotes only 37 pages to the period Bush was in office before Sept. 11 and asserts that Bush "never spoke in public about Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida during his campaign.")

No U.S. president who dealt with Afghanistan -- not Carter, Reagan, Clinton or either Bush -- ever managed to fashion a coherent policy for the country and the roiling religious and tribal battles of which it was the center. Lacking the singular focus of the Cold War, U.S. decision-making reeled from indifference in the immediate wake of the Soviet withdrawal, to periods of crass oil- industry marketeering, to wishful thinking (inspired by Pakistani intelligence) about a moderate Taliban faction that never materialized.

Just one example, albeit a morally disturbing one: Coll points out that against the Russian invaders, the CIA easily skirted the ban on involvement in assassinations in providing long-range sniper rifles used to pick off Soviet officers. Yet against bin Laden, even after he had committed clear acts of war against U.S. overseas targets, the CIA consistently held back from operations that might result in his death.

A strong lesson from this extraordinary account is that the rigidities and legal restraints of U.S. foreign policy-making -- more than the errors or oversights of any set of individuals -- are deeply flawed and will fail us again unless they are changed.

John Dinges' latest book is "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents." He teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. |  Article licensing and reprint options


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