Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ghost wars - Steve Coll

This is a superb book charting the history of the CIA's involvement in the Middle East from the Afghan war through to September 10th 2001. The narrative is a chronological look at how the US covertly supported the Mujhaden , via Pakistan's secret service, when the Soviets moved in to support Afghanistan's faltering government. The mujahaden was made up of a pathwork of warlords fighting in the area. The US, sensing a Soviet march to oil in the middle east, supplied political, humanitarian and eventually, military aid to the resistance. They chose not to back an Afghan nationalist warlord, General Ahmed Massoud, because he did deals with the Russians. Instead they chose to back the General Hekmatyar; an Islamic radical and a ruthless idealogue.

By supporting Hekmatyar the US failed to recognise how the increasing surge in political Islam could grow to threaten all non-Islamic nations, including the US. When the Soviet Union withdrew so did the Americans, allowing the civil war to continue. Political Islamists; Hekmatyar, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban built a foundation from which al Qaeda could build its strength. What's more they were able to spread their influence through Pakistan, the Islamic world and through terrorist networks - employing tactics which attracted a high media profile and using modern technology to spread the word.

The Afghan war jihadists came from all over the region, including Saudi Arabia, partly attracted by the concept of religious war against the Soviet infidels, and also disillusioned by the increasing westernisation of traditional Muslim nations, modernisation which arose from the oil wealth in the region. Afghanistan, its chaos and poverty, represented an opportunity for a fundamentalist version of Islam to be built; the birth of the Umma - the community of Islam. with the fall of the Soviet Union, American interest in the region was limited to speculative commercial opportunities such as tapping the gas fields of Uzbekistan. Even when concerns were released reactions were stymied by relations with Islamic states including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, a poor understanding of the region or political islam, and their residual commercial interests in the region (a lot of time was spent trying to do commercial deals with the resolutely pious Taliban).

Having let al Qaeda's influence fester for years, when the US government finally decided that Osama bin Laden was a serious threat to the US, Bill Clinton, paralysed by the Monica Lewinsky impeachment, got the yips when it came to an assasination. Several opportunities were missed. By September 10th 2001, President Bush had become tired of 'swatting flies' when it came to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and decided it was time to take affirmative action. As the wheels began turning to provide arms to Massoud's Northern Alliance; Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda suicide bombers and the 9/11 mission was commencing...


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