Through A Glass, Clearly: Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars

July 28, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 5 4 min read

coverLike 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.

covercoverHistories 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.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. What a wonderful review! My husband and I have read Ghost Wars a number of times — we have a dogeared copy that is our treasure. Steve Coll is our hero. BTW, his book about the Bin Ladens is also a work of excellent journalism.

  2. I was in the same boat as you and that’s why I picked this up after hearing about it after it won the Pulitzer. Since that time I’ve urged loads of people to read it with no success unfortunately.

  3. Why do you continue to present the official line that a man in a cave was able to outwit the greatest air defense system in the world?
    How did this same man manage to nullify physical constants for his plan to work (melting point of steel and the value of G?)

    How did he manage to provide his men with fire proof passports?
    How did he know that the US air defenses would be running a drill on exactly that day, mirroring the same scenario, so that confusion would reign and planes would be sent away? (similar to drills in the UK on 7/7 by the way)
    How did he manage to plant Nanothermite in the ruins (what is left after it was sooo rapidly removed from the largest crime scene in US history)?
    How did he manage to let Silverstein rig WTC7 for “pulling” and why?
    How did his crews manage to disappear the mess of wreckage of a huge airliner from the lawns of the Pentagon? A task that usually takes weeks appears to have been accomplished in hours) How did soft airliner punch its puny radar nose through 5 layers of high strength reinforced concrete to leave a scorch mark uncannily like that head of a armour piercing missile?
    How did passengers on Flight 93 make mobile phone calls when it is technically impossible?
    Why did the commission ignore all of these troubling FACTS?
    It goes on and on and on…
    One day the American public will understand that you can not outrun or ignore SCIENCE and LOGIC, however hard to try. But then maybe that is why they are so underfunded by the government, to keep the mushrooms in the dark

  4. Let me get this straight..
    It would have been politically foolish, and morally craven, NOT to help the mujahideen to defeat the Soviets, but it would not be politically foolish, and morally craven to abandon the Afghan population to the consequent and predictable civil war and mayhem…?? Did I get that right?
    If one is a highly probable consequence then I submit that America’s military and politicians are even less capable that the rest of us suspected. Sadly, Western ‘leaders’ are no better whatsoever in their craven kowtowing to the Israel Lobby.
    Amazingly (?) there is no mention of PNAC or Rebuilding America’s Defenses in this review, which are central to this entire criminal enterprise

    Do you see how America has utterly lost any moral compass it ever had?

  5. There is a huge difference between fact challenged Glen Beck and the careful fact based analysis of Rachel Maddow. Why do you feel the need to engage in the tired journalistic trope of false equivalence? And is it really true that it would have been morally craven to avoid the Afghan struggle when you consider that Casey’s CIA was supporting attacks within the Soviet Union itself, as well as terrorist attacks against students and professors at Afghan universities during the war? The US armed the groups that gave rise to the Taliban – a clear case of blowback? Ghost Wars is a modern classic

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