Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Three books on Afghanistan

In understanding the world today, it is important to understand the 9/11 attacks, and the geo-political risk that is derived from bin Laden and sympathisers. One of the most marvellous books that I found in this task, a few years ago, was Ghost Wars by Steve Coll [link on Amazon]. It is a gripping tale, spanning the US, the USSR, the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, running from 1979 till 11 September 2001 (but excluding the thought process and execution of the attacks).

The tale is of epic proportions, and Steve Coll does a marvellous job of cramming it in tight, unemotional pages. Again and again, you are transported by the breathtaking events, but the text just concentrates on telling the story in a terse, factual and authentic manner. The one character you notice out of the story is Ahmad Shah Masood.

I fervently hope that Steve Coll is hard at work writing a sequel to this book, which would pick up the tale from 9/11 onwards.

Steve Coll works at The New Yorker, a remarkable employer of people like David Remnick, Lawrence Wright, and Malcolm Gladwell. I think every journalist should aspire to write books like these four people have.

Ghost Wars is primarily played out at the level of high strategy. In a flurry of plane flights recently, I read a second book which takes you closer to the boots on the ground. This is First In by Gary Schroen [link on Amazon]. Schroen headed the first CIA team which setup a camp in Afghanistan in the days after 2001-09-11.

I always knew the big picture: Within weeks after 9/11, US Special Forces guided smart munitions in, and the Northern Alliance evicted the Taliban, marking the greatest achievement of special forces and the CIA ever. The book gave me a more fine grained understanding of how great powers work, of the actual detail about how these things got done. E.g. who'd have thought that Schroen and team would shop at REI to prepare for going into Afghanistan! :-) Some readers are turned off by the little details. I actually enjoyed every bit of it.

The story seems to be much more complex than meets the eye. Traditionally, US foreign policy was slanted in favour of the Pakistan / ISI view, which emphasised the importance of Pushtun tribes and the role of Pakistan as an indispensable interlocuter with them, and was skeptical about Ahmad Shah Masood and other northerners. Indeed, the term `Northern Alliance' was coined by the ISI in order to help denigrate the claim of Masood and others of being a broad-based political coalition which could lead Afghanistan.

As both books show, from 1979 onwards, Masood continuously talked with the US, but never got through. The US policy establishment seemed to have had profound blinkers on this problem. Masood eked out a meagre existence based on a little help from Iran and India, but with US and Arab resources backing the ISI, there was no question of his steadily losing ground in Afghanistan.

Then came 9/9/2001, when Masood was murdered by a pair of Arabs, and the attacks of 11/9/2001. I used to think that this swiftly demolished the Pakistan perspective in US policy making. (Steve Coll's book - which was my main source of knowledge - ends on 9/11/2001).

But the actual story was much more complex. Schroen was pulled back from retirement to lead a CIA team which went into Panjshir Valley to establish contact with Masood's team. This was the nucleus around which US Special Forces setup a boots-on-the-ground capability for guiding smart weapons at Taliban positions, which ultimately won the war in Afghanistan.

However, even after Schroen and a small team were in place, the US policy community was deeply divided on the extent to which they were going to go along with the ISI / Pakistan position. The ISI / Pakistan position was that it was dangerous for the US to have an engagement with the Northern Alliance. Schroen talks repeatedly about fruitless days spent in scanning target-rich territory, where Taliban assets were placed, but of being unable to obtain resources in terms of B-52 time to take out these assets.

Ghost Wars is at the level of high strategy, and First In is at the level of men of action. Both books are wonderful and complement each other. You can't help envy the amazing experiences that the people of First In went through, right from flying into Afghanistan in helicopters that are barely able to make it past 14,500 feet to the ultimate destination of building a rapport with the Northern Alliance and setting up for US air power to enable the victory in the ground war.

At one point, the story is told of a US Special Forces person who made a mistake, and supplied his own GPS coordinates to the B-52 instead of the geo-coordinates of the Taliban positions 1000 feet away. The 500 kg bomb swiftly came down on him, and almost killed Hamid Karzai. GPS-guided bombs endow a whole new meaning to the term `friendly fire'.

Another remarkable tale in this book is probably the last cavalry charge in human history, of 600 people riding horses across a few hundred metres of open ground at entrenched Taliban positions. This was at a point in time when US policy makers were not yet sure that they wanted to support the Northern Alliance. If air power were available, this would have been an easy attack, but at that time, US policy makers were as yet undecided about their activities in the north. So it was simply 600 people riding horses into guns without any support from the air. I suppose such a ride will ever happen again.

My next book in this sequence is by another person who works at New Yorker: Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. I read a few of his wonderful pieces in New Yorker when they came out, and look forward to the book. And of course, I hope Steve Coll will follow up with a Ghost Wars II.

I found it fascinating that two of these three books won the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction. I was also surprised how many of the wonderful books that I cherish are on that list.

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