U.S. Policy / Afghanistan

Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004. 695 pages.

There are three types of books that get written about recent events. One pretends that history is created by a single colorful personality ("Charlie Wilson's War" by George Crile). It is written with an eye to the movie rights. Another might be described as sound-bite partisanship that broadcasts questions more than it pursues answers ("House of Bush, House of Saud" by Craig Unger). Steve Coll's book is the third type -- explanatory journalism that is both detailed and broad, reads like a sober textbook, and explains events and circumstances chronologically without emphasizing the role of extraordinary individuals. A screenwriter would have a tough time with this one. The only reason it's in bookstores today is because U.S. publishers ignored the Middle East for twenty years, and then after 9/11 suspected that history might sell -- even if Charlie Wilson is mentioned on only a few pages!

Steve Coll was the South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post between 1989 and 1992, where he covered Afghanistan, and has been managing editor of the Post since 1998. He won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism in 1990. Although a good portion of this book deals with hot-button issues such as the CIA, Coll's reporting has to be described as "uncritical."

Crile, George. Charlie Wilson's War. New York: Grove Press, 2003. 550 pages.

George Crile spent fifteen years collecting the material in this book. He chronicles how a minor Congressman from east Texas, Charlie Wilson, became the secret sponsor of "the biggest operation in the CIA's history," the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Crile adds that "it remains one of the great mysteries of this entire history that virtually no one in the press -- or Congress, for that matter -- seemed to care." (page 423)

Crile falls in love with several of his characters, and avoids boring topics such as morality. When describing the background of Gust Avrakotos, a major CIA player in Afghanistan's dirty war, it's merely another colorful detail that Avrakotos was one of the key CIA officers behind the military junta in Greece that seized power in 1967. The fact that this brutal junta tortured many political prisoners is inconvenient, and unimportant for Crile, as it's all part of Gust's war on terrorists. Likewise, only one sentence in the book brings up drug trafficking by the CIA's proxies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, because this messy detail gets in the way of a good yarn. Crile's book could be made into an old-style Western movie: eccentric lone cowboy from Texas rides into Afghanistan on a mule wearing a white hat, and chases out the bad, ugly Soviets in black hats. The only problem with Crile's narrative is that by now it's difficult to tell, with historical hindsight, who was really good and who was bad.

Lohbeck, Kurt. Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the CIA's Secret War in Afghanistan. Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1993. 306 pages.

Kurt Lohbeck lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, on the Afghan border, for nine years. During much of that time he was the major source for CBS News coverage of the war in Afghanistan. Lohbeck did not pretend to be objective. He became close to rebel leader Abdul Haq, and was twice wounded in action. Lohbeck also had the ear of CIA director William Casey, and has been credited with giving Casey the idea of providing Stinger missiles to the mujahaddin. He was the live-in companion of Anne Hurd, the Mercy Fund's field director for Afghanistan. A sign outside their Peshawar residence said that it was the headquarters of the Mercy Fund, CBS News, and HNS (Humanitarian News Service).

It probably should have said "CIA" as well -- Lohbeck was in close contact with U.S. officials involved in the war effort, and his contacts even included Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was later convicted of spying for Israel. In Pakistan he functioned as a gatekeeper for journalists who sought entry into Afghanistan, and in Washington he helped raise funds for the mujahaddin. Eventually Lohbeck was disillusioned over the CIA's preference for mujahaddin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which was channeled through Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). After the Soviets finally withdrew in 1989, the various rebel leaders took to fighting each other.

Mader, Julius. CIA-Operation Hindu Kush: Geheimdienstaktivitaeten im unerklaerten Krieg der USA gegen Afghanistan. Berlin: Militaerverlag der DDR, 1988. 96 pages.

This booklet is one of the last of the genre of publications from the Eastern Bloc that names alleged CIA agents. Most of the others were available in English translation from Progress Publishers in Moscow, or written in English by CP-aligned journalists in India. Dr. Julius Mader, based in East Berlin, had Stasi if not KGB connections, so most Western authors who cite him are quick to add that they consider him unreliable. In the 1960s Mader compiled almost 2500 names of alleged CIA agents (see the annotation for "Who's Who in CIA"), and wrote two books on Reinhard Gehlen.

Since our German is rusty, we only put in the 93 names from his six- page appendix, which is a compilation of CIA agents in Afghanistan from 1947 to 1988. Nearly all of them have been published in previous sources, from Mader's own "Who's Who" and several Indian books, to U.S. sources such as the "Dirty Work" volumes and CounterSpy magazine. Mader suggests that his broad definition of "CIA" includes any agency that cooperates with them: Agency for International Development, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, International Cooperation Administration, the U.S. Information Agency, etc. His listings include the years the person spent in Afghanistan, the birth date (when available), and a few words on the person's position or title.

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