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Book Review

Ghost Wars Through A Journalistic Perspective – A Detailed Review

Arbaaz Khan reviews Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars in detail in this article. He highlights the strongest points of the book, admires the tendency of the author to unearth the minutest of details and also points out some of the loopholes that leave the reader guessing at the end of the book.

Mediatization of Journalism

The defining moments in the history of journalism have shifted its focus from information disseminating medium to a policy shaping stakeholder of the state. Over the years, the reliance of the masses over media outlets for opinion formation has grown exponentially. This has also forced the state to co-opt the media and use it to its own advantage.

War Reporting

For instance, the reporting of subjective facts during war greatly affected the course of journalistic ethics in United States. Yellow journalism and the end of Vietnam War were the bittersweet fruits of media logic respectively. War journalism is the most important and critical form of journalism where the world is reliant on the information provided by the journalists reporting from war zones. Policies and approaches to cope with consequences of events formed by the reporting of war-torn areas affects the national and global economies as well as future of the stakeholders involved. It gives war journalists a great amount of authority and power in shaping public and political opinion. National interest and public interest are somehow the consequences of the opinions formed in light of such reporting.

Ghost Wars in Afghanistan

The hectic and longest war in the US history, the Afghan War, is supposed to end soon because of the recent developments in the US political landscape as well as the changing environment in South Asia. Evidently, the national interest of the US and consistent failure of handling the situation in Afghanistan has forced global powers to redevise their policy once again. But, the importance of war reporting in Afghanistan greatly helps in investigating these failures. ‘Ghost Wars’ written by Steve Coll is one of the books that underlines the most important factors and developments which affected the future of Afghan war. This book highlights the failures of American intelligence agencies in countering extremist ideologies in the region. Moreover, this book emphasises the importance of wrongdoings of stakeholders involved in Afghan War in deciding future course of the war. But here the focus would be on the journalistic practices adopted by Steve Coll in investigating the causation and effects of Afghan War.

History and Background Explained in the Beginning

In the beginning, Steve Coll has tried to provide a brief account of what went wrong after Soviet Union had withdrawn from Afghanistan till the occurrence of September 11 attacks on World Trade Centre in United States. Steve Coll in the beginning of book identifies the relevant information and events which went unnoticed throughout the war. For instance, the detailed account of Garry Schroen and the attack on US embassy in Islamabad were some of the topics discussed in the beginning. When Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to the attacks of September 9, 2011, Steve Coll has strived towards underscoring the role of CIA and intelligence agencies worldwide, including ISI and Saudi intelligence agencies in affecting the result of this war. There is an evident emphasis on the role of these intelligence agencies in the book because of their importance in defining national interests of their respective countries during Afghan war.

Research Techniques

To provide a detailed and factual account of the role of these intelligence agencies, Steve Coll conducted more than 200 interviews with the officials in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, America and Afghanistan. Coll also conducted primary and secondary research by travelling to these countries and investigated the official and classified documents relevant to his area of interest. Steve Coll retrieved these documents through personal and professional means. He has mentioned these sources in the notes section of the book.

Primary Research

The account of Schroen’s visit to Kabul, the details of his meeting with Ahmad Shah Massoud, and history between them is drawn from multiple interviews of Afghan government officials and US government officials including Garry Schroen himself. The information about the attack on the Afghan Shiite group (Hazaras) by Massoud’s troops in March 1995 has been drawn from the Human Rights Watch report named ‘Afghanistan, Crisis of Impunity’. In both examples mentioned above, Steve Coll has adopted different approaches of retrieving information. In Schroen’s case, he has relied on the primary source of information i.e., both government’s officials and Schroen himself whereas in second scenario, he conducted secondary research in gathering information to support his argument.

Secondary Research

Moreover, information based on official documents and US state department briefings is also cited in the book to make it more compelling and trustworthy. For example, Glyn Davies, in a state department regular briefing admitted that Taliban are willing to accept the right of Afghan immigrants to return to their homes and that they intend to respect the rights of all Afghans. He further added, “We have seen some of the reports that they have moved to impose Islamic Law in the areas that they control. But at this stage, we are not reading anything into that. I mean there’s – on the face of it…. nothing objectionable at this stage”. The fact that these quotes from officials and on record sources are mentioned accurately in the book make Coll’s arguments believable and authentic or at least the reader is tempted by the nature of claims.

Successful Investigation

Overall, Steve Coll has successfully investigated the topic. The process of collecting information relevant to topic is unique in its own way. The shallowness of operations conducted by CIA in Afghanistan and its neighboring countries is very well explained throughout the book. Another aspect of successful investigation is the authenticity of information provided by the author. Multiple accounts of the same repeating information confirmed by different but important sources increases the reliability of information. Another factor prevalent throughout the book is presentation of differing opinions by citing other books on the same topic. The sense of dialogue is also developed in some chapters of the book where logical reasoning of the argument tries to convince the readers of understanding of certain concepts at hand.

In Chapter 5, multiple accounts of William Casey’s dealings with Catholic Church were confirmed and reconfirmed by the testimony of Clair George’s criminal trial in Iran-Contra scandal and also by the book “His Holiness” written by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. But the views presented in ‘His Holiness’ are not in confinement with subjective facts confirmed by Steve Coll. In Steve’s view, the events pertaining to Casey’s dealings with Church are somehow undermined and undiscovered in ‘His Holiness”. His meetings with Soviet officials and the responses of US officials confirm the fact that Coll’s account of William Casey in Ghost wars is more compelling and captivating.

In chapter 3, the indirect confrontation of views between former president of Pakistan Zia-ul-Haq and CIA analysts permits a sense of incidental dialogue in the minds of readers. Moreover, in Chapter 4, the interview with Ahmad Badeeb and Saeed Badeeb lasting two hours helps in understanding the nature of relationship between Steve Coll and interviewees. Constant engagement with interviewee in convincing him to handover the critical evidence (videotapes of his Arabic interviews and his visit to Pakistan with bags full of cash) indicates the importance of source and information therefor handed by the source in conducting a thorough and authentic research on the topic.

Cooperation with other Journalists

The cooperation with investigative journalists from Pakistan and Afghanistan also helped Steve Coll in conducting ingenious and successful investigation. In Chapter 18, the raid conducted by ISI in Quetta to arrest Qasi on the basis of faulty information is discussed. ISI came under tremendous fire because of the raid. The source of this information was an army general (anonymous). This was later confirmed by Kamran Khan, a renowned Pakistani journalist, in an interview with Steve Coll. The writer also cited different newspapers and broadcast media reports of Pakistani Media to increase the diversity of sources in the book. In Chapter 6, excerpts from ‘Jang’ and ‘Dawn’ newspapers are cited to explain the nature of relationship between Pakistani intelligence agencies and Taliban top leadership.

Credible Information

The interviews with top government officials in US and top leadership of Pakistan and Afghanistan also increased the credibility of information. For instance, in Chapter 17, Coll’s interview with then exiled former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto in Dubai, where he inquired about her meeting with Bulgheroni’s Bridas, shows the significance of relationships with top leadership of a country in investigating a subject of interest.

Through interviews with close aides of important personalities concerning Afghan war, Steve Coll successfully investigated the backgrounds and nature of key decision makers and their influence on the fate of Afghan war. In chapter 6, Coll’s interview with Zia Mojadedi, an agriculture Professor at Kabul University and the teacher of Gulbadin Hikmatyar said that Gulbadin was ‘highly volatile’. Another interview with Ali Asghar Payman, deputy planning minister and contemporary of Hikmatyar, highlights the fact that Coll probed his sources and their close aides effectively to reach the decision of quoting them in his book.


But there are some loopholes in one of the chapters of the book where queries are not addressed in their true essence and consequently create confusion in the minds of the readers. For example, at the end of the first part, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s disappearance amidst major changes in the organisational structure of Taliban’s top leadership creates confusion. A sense of incomplete exploration of the topic generates even in savants’ minds. Another person that has not been accounted for considerably in the book is General Hamid Gul, a three-star rank army general in Pakistan Army as well as former DG ISI between 1987 and 1989. He was also known as the ‘Father of Taliban’. Although, he was mentioned many times in Chapter 10 and 27, the real encounters between Taliban and General Hamid Gul are not investigated completely. The basis of Taliban ideology could not be explored totally without taking into consideration the role of General Hamid Gul.

Important Factors in Successful Investigation

Generally, the writer has achieved his objective of successful investigation into the matter. The underlining factors in the success of his investigation involve interviews with concerned individuals and their aides, relevant government officials and leadership, cooperation with journalists of other countries, quoting literature and newspapers of concerned countries, and complete control and jurisdiction over the history, background, and stature of sources. ‘Ghost wars’ is an example of good investigative piece of journalism because it not only states the reality of the Afghan war but also explores the reasons that have shaped the events throughout.

These events later shaped the policy-making process of the US and other Global powers in the game.

The book also gives a detailed account of policy changes and their impact on the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan e.g. Pakistan, Iran and India. Last but not the least, the working of Intelligence agencies and their covert operations in Afghanistan and other neighbouring countries form a lot of important part of the information provided in the book. Steve Coll has effectively inquired the ways of gathering sensitive and classified information from intelligence agencies of different countries in the book. The failures and operations conducted by CIA, ISI, Afghan Intelligence Agencies and Arab Intelligence Services are well accounted for in the book.





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