Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book review: Charlie Wilson's War and Ghost Wars

Want to depress yourself? Read these two books. Charlie Wilson's War is the story of one Congressman's love affair with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980's and possesses a certain jauntiness. It's not surprising that it got made into a movie as Congressman Charlie Wilson was colorful enough to be entertaining. Ghost Wars is the much more depressing report of the 20+ years of idiotic foreign policy, stupid covert activities, and bureaucratic infighting that led up to September 11, 2001. No one's ever going to make a movie about the United States kissing up to Saudi princes and Pakistani religious zealots and simultaneously ignoring warning sign after warning sign about the rising influence of religious nutcases all while relying on that over-funded black hole of bad intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency.

Charlie Wilson's War does some hinting at the flaming incompetence of the Central Intelligence Agency, but not too much. It's implied, not explicit, because author George Crile is obviously rather enamored of the spies hanging out at Langley. He's also seduced by Wilson's larger than life personality. He's not nearly as critical as he could have been about a Congressman who knew absolutely nothing about Afghanistan before deciding it would be a good idea to pour gazillions of dollars into the pockets of the mujahideen simply because they were fighting the Soviet Union. There must be something in the water in east Texas because the Congressmen who come from that part of the state all seem to be crazy, albeit in different ways.

Charlie Wilson was an alcoholic womanizer who was politically liberal in every area except one: Communism. He was rabidly anti-Communist. All it took was hearing that the mujahideen were trying to get the Commies out of Afghanistan and Charlie was on board. According to George Crile, Charlie managed to take what had been a low-level "let's annoy the Russians" operation that provided just enough assistance to the mujahideen for them to be a nuisance and turn it into a full-scale war that eventually culminated into giving a bunch of hardcore Islamic fundamentalist fanatics several thousand Stinger missiles. The CIA was quite literally handing over shopping bags full of hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars to various warlords about whom they knew very little. As I was reading this book and saw the descriptions of the multi-million dollar no-strings-attached handouts, I kept thinking that if the wingnuts really wanted to pay down the deficit and stop wasting government money, they'd push really hard for pulling the plug on all the spy agencies. It also made me wonder just how many pet projects various Congress critters have that they funnel money to without anyone bothering to question it much. Charlie Wilson's War made it sound like a savvy Congress critter could do stuff like saying, "Oh, by the way, how about giving the CIA another $10 million?" and it would get signed off on without a whole lot of hassle. This was the Proxmire Golden Fleece era -- why was Proxmire worrying about a few thousand here and there for oddball scientific research projects when the CIA was giving cash away by the bushel basket?

Okay, Charlie Wilson's War was depressing because it concludes by describing the way the U.S. government turns its back on Afghanistan almost as soon as the Soviet Union pulls its troops out. No aid money to help rebuild the country, and, even worse, any money that does go into the country goes to the most Islamist groups because they were also the most anti-Communist. The Soviet Union may have been crumbling, but the U.S. still wasn't going to do anything that might inadvertently help someone who had once been associated with the old Marxist regime. I finished reading Charlie Wilson's War knowing what happened next: the civil war in Afghanistan culminates with the Taliban coming to power, and the Taliban was headed by Mullah Omar, an ignoramus from the sticks who was the Muslim equivalent of an Appalachian self-taught snake-handling preacher. Although the word "taliban" has its roots in a Pashto word meaning "student" or "seeker," Mullah Omar was not a scholar. He was a fundamentalist who could just barely read Arabic and who possessed an extremely parochial view of the world. And, although he may have started off professing to be just a poor, unworldly preacher, he got seduced really fast by access to Osama bin Laden's money. That money, along with the palace bin Laden built, meant Mullah Omar was the guy who welcomed Al Qaeda to Afghanistan.

I learned a lot about Mullah Omar from Ghost Wars, a book that is guaranteed to leave the reader thinking, to put it bluntly, "oh shit, we are so fucked." Ghost Wars covers a much longer time span than Charlie Wilson's War. It begins with the Carter administration and the animosity being shown towards Americans in the Middle East and ends on September 10, 2001. The book won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 2005. It earned it. Ghost Wars was meticulously researched and provides a remarkably nuanced account of the persons and events leading up to Al Qaeda's attacks on September 11, 2001. Author Steve Coll does a yeoman's job of detailing the stunning incompetence of the CIA and the equally mind-boggling idiocy of various presidential administrations.

I don't think Steve Coll set out to argue that the CIA is astoundingly bad at gathering and analyzing intelligence. Over and over he describes the dedication and hard work of various personnel within the agency and different administrations. They want to do good work, but a combination of factors have the unintended consequence of various agencies figuratively shooting themselves in the groin over and over and over. The CIA's collaboration with the Pakistani intelligence service is the most egregious example of stupidity reigning supreme, but there are a lot of others. The U.S. government flat out refuses to recognize that the Saudis are not our friends. The Saudis tolerate the Americans, but repeatedly lie, stall, or sabotage American intelligence efforts. Ditto the Pakistanis. When the agents closest to the action tell higher-ups that the Pakistanis or Saudis are lying, upper management blows them off. Can't piss off the Saudis because they control oil, and can't piss off the Pakistanis because they've got The Bomb. So successive administrations decide to ignore inconvenient realities and keep right on pretending both countries are our allies. Pshaw.

The only thing Pakistan really cares about is its never-ending border war with India; they see the religious fundamentalists as helping with that border war (the madrassas can provide an endless supply of fanatical cannon fodder), so more and more Pakistani policy is driven by trying to keep the Muslim fundamentalists (the mullahs running the madrassas) happy. Within Afghanistan, there are a wide range of factions fighting the Soviets; the Pakistani intelligence service makes sure the overwhelming majority of American aid (dollars, weapons, whatever) goes to support the most extremist, the groups that will eventually emerge as the Taliban.

Then, once the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, the U.S. basically decides to ignore the area, decides to let the various factions fight it out in a civil war while pretending not to notice that Pakistan is actively helping the religious extremists. Pakistan rather naively believed they could control the extremists; by now they may have figured out they unleashed something that no one can control. There is still a small group within the CIA that is keeping an eye on various players (the nascent Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the different factions within Afghanistan) but that part of the world is viewed as fairly low down on the foreign policy list of priorities. The more astute analysts keep saying "bin Laden is a threat," but no one really believes them until 1998. Following the embassy bombings, the government as a whole starts paying attention to bin Laden, but agency turf wars, compartmentalization of information, and the unwillingness of anyone to face the reality that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were systematically providing false information meant that nothing much happens for the next three years. There's a lot of talking and fantasizing, but it really does look like the FBI, CIA, and the Defense Department spend more time taking potshots at each other than they do working on anything substantive.

In short, Ghost Wars is yet another book that depresses the heck out of a reader by demonstrating (again. as usual) that this country's supposedly elite intelligence forces actually have a lot more in common with Maxwell Smart and CONTROL than any of us would like to believe. Read it and weep.

[Pointless question: Now that I've badmouthed the U.S. intelligence agencies and used the words bin Laden and Al Qaeda multiple times in a post, I wonder how long it'll be before I end up on a no-fly list?]


  1. thanks: think I will read them.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. Much of this trouble is due to our addiction to fossil fuel. If we can get off it and out of that market then we can view the world through a different lens. I belong to Operation Free, a veterans group that advocates for wind, solar, and alternative energies as a way to keep us out of wars.

    Thanks for the reviews, I will watch for these, add them to the pile.

  3. Dependence on fossil fuels is definitely one of the major themes running through Ghost Wars. The U.S. needs Saudi oil, and then after the Taliban take over the U.S. keeps trying to work with them, i.e., figure out a way to recognize their government and cut deals because an American oil company wants to run a pipeline from Uzbekistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, Mullah Omar wasn't sufficiently corrupt to fall for the proffered bribes.

  4. If we can free ourselves of fossil fuels what will the big and powerful oil companies do?

    What will Alaska do? I guess they make a lot of money off of them.

  5. This is what happens when I don't read blogs for a long time. You certainly got Ghost Wars right. Great review.
    On the other hand, while the CIA may be hopelessly incompetent, they are the government of USA.
    I just finished A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination
    by Philip Shenon. A great read, explains much about where all the conspiracy theories came from. Both CIA and FBI lied and hindered the investigation in every way possible. That Oswald acted alone is a given but the who put him up to it is not really dealt with other than it was not the Cubans or Russians. The guy who killed RFK also "acted alone". Funny how there is always a deranged killer around when you need one.


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