In an attempt to catch up on the vast and surely growing literature on Bin Laden, I recently read The Looming Tower and Ghost Wars, both Pulitzer winners by New Yorker staff writers. They cover much of the same ground: the history of our attempts to thwart Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, and, finally, on our home soil in the summer of 2001. The books diverge in their preoccupations: Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower is an international spy saga, whereas Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars is more attuned to the politics of our encounters with radical Islamist terrorist organizations and nations (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia). For Wright, the biographies and personalities of his story’s central figures are paramount. His hero is John O’Neill, an intrepid FBI agent who senses the danger posed by Al Qaeda earlier than just about anyone else. In 2001, O’Neill contended with the CIA for access to critical intelligence which, Wright claims, in no uncertain terms, could have prevented 9/11. That is the conclusion of Coll’s book as well: had our intelligence agencies been integrated and had there been a culture of collegiality among them, the Al Qaeda members who perpetrated the attacks would have been discovered and detained.
Ghost Wars is the better book. Written in a more authoritative, mature style, it’s an exhaustive account, and very different in this way from The Looming Tower, a slice of pop history that intermittently reads like a Ludlum novel. Coll’s scope is impressive, his sources more so–the book’s revelations come primarily from interviews, with Americans, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Saudis. There is no archive that holds this kind living history; Coll, who was a Washington Post correspondent in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the only person who could have written Ghost Wars. Because he so assiduously documents every decision and action taken by CIA agents over two decades (there is a whiff of civic duty pervading Ghost War‘s six hundred pages), though, Coll often relegates the bigger picture to the periphery.
He addresses, for instance, private American companies’ commercial interests in Afghanistan, specifically a Texas company’s plan to snake a natural gas pipeline through the southern, Taliban-dominated region of the country. The Taliban was secretly (though everyone knew) funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Agency, that nation’s CIA equivalent. This alliance was one reason the U.S. was reluctant to challenge the Taliban on its extreme human rights abuses (for fear of damaging its already distrustful relationship with the ISI), and the pipeline, Coll suggests, was another. Coll does not, however, follow through on the implications of private commercial interests driving government policy. His story is so close to the ground that larger inferences are left to the reader. Coll is, it doesn’t need to be said, an ideal foreign correspondent, maybe our best, but some sections of Ghost Wars would have benefited from a historian’s emphasis on the essential themes, as well as a historian’s inclination to tie together discrete events beyond the basic chronology.
The main achievement of Ghost Wars is Coll’s unearthing of the convoluted and suspicious relations among the U.S., the ISI, and the Saudis. The ISI, supported by a strategic-minded Saudi government hoping to build a mirror of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan, was infested with radical Islamists. Even its more pragmatic members saw a use for the Afghan mujaheddin (the holy warriors who fought the war against the Soviet Union) and later in the Taliban as bulwarks against Indian influence. So mujaheddin were transported from the civil war in Afghanistan to Kashmir, the contested region between Pakistan and India, to wage a proxy guerrilla war for Pakistan against its Hindu neighbors. In return, favored Afghan warlords received Pakistani material and intelligence support. In a more general sense, a radical Sunni Afghanistan was a natural ally for Pakistan, with an official war with India perpetually on the not so distant horizon.
Our interests in the region were determined, in the 1980s, by the consensus among diplomats, bureaucrats, elected officials, and CIA analysts and operators, that Pakistan was a necessary partner against Soviet territorial ambition. Exigencies, though not allegiances, shifted after the Cold War: In the 1990s U.S. policy was driven by the fear that an unstable, Islamist-dominated Pakistan would allow one of its newly developed nuclear weapons to slip through back channels into the hands of terrorists. U.S. foreign and covert policy was therefore inextricably bound to the Taliban from its advent in the early 1990s, through the Taliban’s enmeshment with the ISI, the most powerful institution in Pakistan.
Indeed, the U.S.’s intractable relationship with Pakistan and the ISI defined most of its actions in Afghanistan. So messy was this relationship that not only were different U.S. agencies and departments–CIA, State Department, and various offshoots of each–often at cross-purposes, but the infighting within each was vicious, exemplified by one of Ghost Wars‘ central figures, Richard Clarke, the “counterterrorism czar” during the Clinton administration. Clarke, though he was one of the few top officials to perceive in Bin Laden an existential threat to the United States, and though he devoted his waking hours to capturing or killing him, was a hardheaded, combative personality, and lacked the political acumen necessary to win converts to his cause. It is ironic that the fanaticism of Al Qaeda was matched only by the fanatical devotion of O’Neill and Clarke, among others, to kill or capture Bin Laden, and to thwart his next attack. Both men intuited that to beat Bin Laden, they would have to, to an extent, think, act, and live like him.
One area in which The Looming Tower is more effective than Ghost Wars is on the subject of Islamic fanaticism and terrorism. Wright thinks more broadly than Coll about the phenomenon, starting with its genesis–in its modern form–in the experiences and theorizing of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and his followers, including al-Zawahiri. Still, Wright can be too glib, as when he unhesitatingly compares Al Qaeda to the Nazis–a throwaway comment that follows from Christopher Hitchens’s hortatory but similarly dim notion of “Islamofacism.” Both Wright and Coll are strong on a crucial point: that it is wealthier Muslims, not the poorest, who are more often drawn to religious insanity, and that sojourns in the West–in the case of Qutb, Ramzi Yousef, and “Hamburg Cell” leader Mohammed Atta, among others–push them over the brink. Modernity itself, and not the widespread socioeconomic malaise that for many is its result, is the incubator of terrorism. There is some essential truth to the Bush platitudes about terrorists hating such a nebulous concept as “freedom.” The clash of civilizations thesis cuts too wide a swath, but in the mountains of Northeast Afghanistan, and in the higher levels of U.S. intelligence services, it was and probably remains axiomatic. Thinking on world-historical scale, in contrast, these two books may be useful correctives to the fear that democracy in the Middle East made possible by the Arab Spring–an uprising of the young and un- or underemployed–will naturally lead to the installation of antimodern, anti-Western Caliphates; the Arab Spring is if anything evidence against the clash of civilizations.
A final thought: the last seventy-five pages or so of Wright’s book, which detail the accelerating succession of intelligence failures across every agency leading up to 9/11, should be required reading for every American citizen. The story’s climax–O’Neill’s death in one of the towers (too much of an agitator for the FBI, his exit was smoothed by Bureau higher-ups; he was immediately hired as the World Trade Center’s head of security)–is a poignant and forceful example of our institutions’ ability to find, foster, and promote the most able people, but also of the tragedy that the iconoclasts, whether they are in the right or the wrong, are inevitably forced out.