Like millions of other Americans, I spent the weeks after September 11, 2001, struggling to understand how the tragic events of that day could have happened. CNN’s Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn came to feel like permanent guests in our living room. I watched Frontline documentaries. I scoured obscure websites on Islamic fundamentalism. I read – or, rather, tried to read – Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban, one of the few English-language books then in print on recent Afghan history. I wasn’t a complete moron. I had heard of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and I was old enough to remember the tales of the plucky Afghan mujahideen bringing the Soviet military to its knees in the waning years of the Cold War. But none of what I already knew, even when combined with the new facts I learned that fall, added up to 19 guys hijacking four planes and flying them into buildings full of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
It is only recently, through Steve Coll’s masterly Ghost Wars, first published in 2004, that I have begun to feel like I understand, viscerally as well as intellectually, what started the terrible train of events that ended that bright fall morning now almost ten years ago. There are armloads of first-class histories of the period, ranging from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower to the U.S. government’s own 9/11 Commission Report [pdf], and I heartily recommend all of them, but if you only have time for one book on the subject, make it Ghost Wars.
Histories of Islamic extremism written for an American audience have to confront this country’s fundamental ignorance of the Muslim world. In Taliban, Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, deals with this problem by ignoring it and diving headlong into the hellish cauldron of military alliances that beset the Afghan capital of Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 as if the rival Afghan leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Mohammad Najibullah were household names. For this reason, Taliban may be one of the least-finished bestsellers in recent memory. In contrast, in The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan refugee who has lived in the U.S. since 1980, presents the rise of the Taliban in a way guaranteed to make Americans feel at home. Hosseini, who lived only a few years in Afghanistan as a child, portrays the sectarian conflicts between the Pashtun and Hazara factions in the country of his birth as analogous to racial strife between white and black people in the American South, and in case that isn’t familiar enough, he gives his principal baddie, a neighborhood bully who becomes a Taliban leader, a Hitler fixation. The Kite Runner has sold millions of copies and been made into a Hollywood film, but really it says more about the lenses through which Americans see the Muslim world than it does about how the Muslim world actually works.
Coll handles his readers’ ignorance of his subject by rolling up his sleeves and explaining, in a remarkably patient, non-partisan way, the whole ugly history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Naturally, this takes some time – the book is almost 600 pages long – but it makes for riveting reading. One comes away from Ghost Wars with two seemingly paradoxical impressions: 1. unlike most American civilians, U.S. politicians and military leaders saw 9/11 coming years before it happened; and 2. barring a run of stupid luck, they had almost zero chance of stopping it, given the geopolitical realities of the pre-9/11 world.
American diplomats and spies spent years pressing our Islamic allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to force the Taliban to give up bin Laden. President Clinton and his security team spent hundreds of hours poring over satellite images and intelligence reports, trying to pin bin Laden down so they could kill him before he attacked us. They failed, and thousands of Americans died, followed by thousands more in the two wars that followed, but a fair reading of history suggests they were fighting with both hands tied behind their backs.
The Original Sin of America’s involvement in Afghanistan – our clandestine arming of the mujahideen and our abandonment of the country after the Soviet retreat – makes a great deal more sense when viewed in context. It would have been politically foolish, and morally craven, to leave the Afghans defenseless against the Soviets in the 1980s, and once the Soviets left, there was exactly no political support for getting in the middle of a civil war in a distant country many Americans would have had trouble finding on a map. Likewise, while in hindsight it is hard to understand how American politicians allowed Pakistan to so openly drag its feet in challenging its Islamist allies in the Taliban, at the time the far greater worry among Western policymakers was that nuclear-armed Pakistan would pick a fight with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India, and blow Central Asia off the map.
The past is a foreign country, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously said, but every now and then a work of history offers a guidebook to that country, not as it looks to us now, but as it was then. It is a cause for celebration, then, that in an age when telegenic polemicists like Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow dominate the public debate, that real journalists like Steve Coll can still do their work.