A few weeks back I finished Jon Krakauer’s latest, Where Men Win Glory, which focused on the life and death (and subsequent coverup) of Pat Tillman. Like other Krakauer books, the text is engaging and (at least to me) moving. Some of Krakauer’s back story regarding the Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union seemed familiar, mostly from my reading of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, (which, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit were the closest I’d come to histories of the region).
Fortunately, Krakauer described one of his resources on Afghanistan, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Beginning in 1979, Coll’s study spans two decades, detailing the worldwide rise of Islamic fanaticism and, more importantly, the complicity of the world’s intelligence apparatus in fostering that fanaticism (especially during the Soviet invasion and its aftermath). Coll is extremely detailed in his account: I’m more than 1/3 of the way through and the Soviet invasion is just barely ending. The details are grounded, however, in a fluid narrative that passes from Islamabad to Kabul to Moscow to Washington to Riyadh and back. I wish the most shocking element was how much money passes between those locations in the 80s. Unfortunately, what’s most surprising is how many opportunities there were for intelligence agents, lawmakers, diplomats and administration officials to recognize the threats posed by their handpicked allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and I’m only 1/3 of the way through!).
Coll’s book was published in 2004, a few years prior to the release of The Looming Tower, which is considered by many to be the preeminent history of the 9/11 attacks. I’m going to pick it up next, but thus far I’m incredibly impressed with Ghost Wars. It’s an elaborate, if chilling, history of the events leading up to some of the most important events in our lifetimes.
P.S. If you haven’t read Where Men Win Glory, I also recommend it. Krakauer is one of those writers that people seem to love or hate, but if nothing else the Tillman story serves as a stunning reminder of the depravity of the Bush Administration. But more than that, Krakauer shows the power of the Freedom of Information Act while casting a new light on recent events (I feel no sympathy whatsoever for Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s downfall following Rolling Stone‘s controversial interview). Above all, Tillman is revealed as loyal friend, brother, son and husband, and a ultimately a true patriot.