Archive for November, 2007

CIA Seeds Next Conflict

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Ghost Wars, the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Steve Coll, 2007

Lengthy but meticulous study focusing on the CIA role in Afghanistan, this book is a long delineation of little known detail with a minimum of interpretive conclusion: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Treatment is quite sterile and it is easy to imagine the equally sterile environment and personalities of American policy makers in air conditioned offices in Washington trying to formulate a policy toward a place about which they don’t care, don’t know, and have given almost no thought.

Ronald Reagan and William Casey
Ronald Reagan and William Casey

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to shore up their communist client government from mujahedin insurgents, Reagan officials saw a golden opportunity to kill Russians by funneling money and arms to the insurgents. After winning Reagan the Republican nomination assuring himself of any cabinet post he wanted, William Casey, who ran spies inside Germany in the closing days of WWII for the OSS, chose to become Director of the CIA. The militant Jesuit trained Casey liked the idea of militant Isamic jihadist fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Turki al Faisal

He found a close ally in Prince Turki al-Faisal, son of king Faisal, the Georgetown Jesuit educated Saudi head of intelligence the GID. Together they funneled as much as $500,000 a year to the mujahedin. To maintain plausible deniability, (although everyone knew) the money and arms were fed largely through the Pakistan intelligence network, the ISI, giving them enormous power and influence inside Pakistan and out. Compared to the billions Afghanistan was costing the Soviets, the CIA and GID programs seemed an efficient bargain at the time. Afghanistan became the most costly covert effect ever for the CIA.

Ahmed Shah Massoud
Ahmed Shah Massoud

The ISI, operating largely independently of Pakistan political and military control was dominated by Pashtun Pashto speaking personnel. They made sure the lions share of money and arms went to loyal Pashtun mujahedin, largely to Hekmatyar. Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and other Shia minority mujahedin received relatively little support until the CIA started dealing directly with these minority leaders like Ahmed Shah Massoud, who dominated the Panjshir Valley and was in the position to cut off the all important Salang highway, the central supply route from the Soviet Union.

A side effect of all this largess was the establishment of training camps for jihadists from Algeria and Morrocco all the way to Indonesia and the Phillipines including a heavy weighting of Arabs. An entire generation of holy warriors was prepared to return to their home countries to fight for the establishment of Ismamic states. The CIA was indifferent to this and only one American, the multilingual Edmund McWilliams voiced any concern over the long term implications of this radical training and indoctrination. At least one school near Peshawar, the epicenter of this training activity was funded and headed by Osama bin Laden. bin Laden was an unfavored son of a powerful family involved in construction for the Saudi royal family. While his half brothers attended school abroad, Osama attended a radical Islamic school at home. After school, in 1981 Osama went to Pakistan to join the jihad. The authors found evidence of only one skirmish between bin Laden’s funded group and the Communists in which a few followers were killed and bin Laden may have been shot in the foot. This small skirmish seemed to have ignited bin Laden into the megalomaniac he became.

At the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan there were 33,000 madrassas teaching fundamental Islamic faith and jihad in Pakistan. For an account of a lone American building secular schools in Pakistan see

Firing Stinger Missile
Firing Stinger Missile

The Soviet Union had spent $48 billion and the US, China, and Saudis spent $12 billion. Afghanistan was in ruins. Afghanistan had more personal weapons than India and Pakistan combined. Anti tank rocket launchers were everywhere, and of 2500 Stinger anti aircraft heat seeking missiles shipped into Afghanistan, over 600 were unaccounted for. The CIA abandoned all efforts in Afghanistan except to attempt to buy back Stinger missiles at $150,000 each to keep them out of Iranian hands. despite CIA efforts, at the time of the Taliban takeover an estimated 100 Stingers were in Iran and the Taliban had 50 or 60 which they refused to give up.

Much of the $12 billion from the US and Saudis had been funneled through the Pakistani ISI. The US cut off most of its other aid and imposed sanctions on Pakistan to try to stop the development of atomic weapons. Pakistan went ahead and tested their first nuclear bomb in 1998. The influence of the US was at a very low point during this period.

After the Soviet departure, Afghanistan descended into a guagmire. The stalemate with the Najibullah communist government was broken when Uzbek communist commander Aburrashid Dostum defected to Massoud’s Supreme Council. Kabul fell to Dostum and Massoud but Pashtun rival Hekmatyar took a portion of Kabul and the two groups proceeded to destroy much of the city and kill thousands of civilians.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991 and the US joined Saudi Arabia to expel them, extremist jihadists throughout the world including bin Laden and Hekmatyar denounced the Saudi royal family for inviting an infidel army into the holy land of Saudi Arabia. Surprised, the GID and Turki started funneling even more money to the extremist groups in a effort to neutralize their anti Saudi sentiments. As one GID official put it, “we don’t do operations, we write checks.” One result of the controversy over Kuwait was the Saudi falling out with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden proposed to the royal family a plan to send 60,000 of his own private fighters to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. When he continued to criticize Saudi policy, he was expelled from Saudi Arabia and later lost his citizenship. He fled to Sudan which was the new safe haven for jidahists after Pakistan.

Mullah Omar
Mullah Omar

This new stalemate in Afghanistan continued until Durrani Pashtun English speaking Hamid Karzai, living in exile in Pakistan, threw his support behind the Taliban, a disciplined, principled, effective fighting group of radical, rural, Islamic fundamentalists. The ISI and GID started funneling support and weapons to the Taliban who quickly gained control of Kandahar and Herat in the west.

Proposed Afghanistan Pipeline

The reentry of the US and CIA was engineered by (what else) oil and gas, this time from Turkmenistan with Houston based Unocal proposing a pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. This crazy idea which even Kissinger called “the triumph of hope over experience” attracted Clinton White House interest. Unocal got an agreement with Turkmenistan but the Benazir Bhutto government preferred an alternative proposal from Bridas of Argentina. The CIA was convinced Bridas had bribed Benazir Bhutto’s notoriously corrupt husband Zardari. Bridas may also have funneled as much as $1 million to Massoud to gain his approval for their pipeline proposal in north Afghanistan. Unocal approached the Taliban.

The US and Saudi Arabia warned Sudan that harboring terrorists would be bad for them. The Sudanese asked Turki of GID if the Saudis would take back bin Laden but they were unwilling. It is still unclear if Sudan offered to give bin Laden to US authorities. In any event, Sudan expelled bin Laden who moved to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took Jalalabad bin Laden offered $3 million to the Taliban to bribe mujahedin commanders. Defections mounted and the Taliban took Kabul forcing Massoud to retreat to his Panjshir Valley in the north. Bin Laden moved to Kandahar. When the Taliban took Kabul, former communist president Najibullah was completing his translation of the British era history The Great Game into Pashto saying “Afghans keep making the same mistake.” The Taliban executed him. For an account that blames the partition of India to create Pakistan and drew the Afghan border on the British Great Game see

GID’s Turki flew to Kandahar to meet personally with Mullah Omar to try to convince the Taliban to deliver an increasingly Saudi embarrassing bin Laden to the Saudis. Omar seemed to agree but then nothing happened.

Unocal opened a permanent office in Kandahar right across the street from bin Laden’s compound. Unocal built a facility to train Afghani workers to build the pipeline right next to a bin Laden training facility. The CIA which by now had a dedicated bin Laden group never talked to Unocal officials or asked them for help watching bin Laden. Instead, CIA covert operations trained a group of Afghani fighters to try to intercept and capture bin Laden. This group may have ambushed a bin Laden convoy but failed to capture him. The CIA next planned an elaborate scheme to storm bin Laden’s Tarnak farm but the plan was never approved by George Tenet and the Clinton administration.

Where earlier American policy toward Afghanistan was motivated solely by the attempt to kill Soviets, now the policy was motivated solely by attempt to get or kill bin Laden. Nothing else mattered to policy makers. The special group at the CIA assigned to deal exclusively with bin Laden were nicknamed the Manson Family for their rabid maniacal obsession.

Then bin Laden blew up two US embassies in Africa. The administration which was unwilling to endanger civilians in the Tarnak farm plan were suddenly willing to send missiles into Afghanistan to kill who knew who. Relying on typical bad CIA intelligence, Clinton authorized two missile strikes, one on a near empty training camp in Zawhar Kili and one on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The CIA had wanted to hit more targets. Critics called the strikes Clinton’s Wag the Dog strategy to divert attention away from his sex scandal and impeachment. A covert ground operation suddenly looked more attractive. Despite several opportunities including bin Laden’s presence in an isolated hunting camp for a week, the administration never authorized another strike. When CIA bad intelligence caused the US to blow up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by mistake in 1999, Tenet and Clinton never authorized another serious attempt on bin Laden.

Throughout the Taliban and bin Laden Afghanistan era, the US continued to rely on Pakistan and Saudi intelligence even though both countries were actively supporting the Taliban and bin Laden was actively training Arab fighters that Pakistan could deploy in Kashmir in their conflict with India. Moussoud, who fought al Qaeda troops regularly and once trapped bin Laden behind his lines, never received serious US arms and support. Moussoud had to rely on Iranian and Russian support to stay in action. Moussoud was assassinated by jihadists on the eve of the September 11 attacks.

A new deal on the oil and gas pipeline was signed on 27 December 2002 by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and in 2005 Asian Development Bank submitted the final version of feasibility study. The pipeline is currently stalled because the Taliban is still operating in areas crossed by the proposed pipeline.

For a complete look at the CIA’s failures see Legacy of Ashes.

For a closer look at the CIA’s efforts in Tibet see the CIA’s Secret War in Tibet.

American in Paris

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

The Last Summer of the World, Emily Mitchell, 2007

Steichen in Milwaukee Steichen

This first novel of London born Mitchell deals with the life of real world photographer Edward Steichen during two period of his long life 1906-1914 when he lived and worked in France and 1917 to 1923 with the American entry into WWI and events immediately after the war.

Steichen in France WWI Steichen
Over Iwo Jima Iwo Jima

Steichen helped develop aerial reconnaissance photography for the Americans in France late in WWI. He again volunteered in WWII and in his fifties recorded life aboard an air craft carrier in the Pacific war. Late in life he became photo director of the New York MOMA. He died in 1973 at the age of 94.

Rodin Rodin Thinker Rodin

In his earlier French period, Steichen met Leo and Gertrude Stein and became close friends with Auguste Rodin.

Alfred Stieglitz Stieglitz

Famed New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz helped advance Steichen’s early career. Married with two daughters Steichen was rumored to have had affairs with British sculptor Kathleen Bruce and American dancer Isadora Duncan. Steichen’s wife Clara sued her best friend, painter Marion Beckett, who she suspected of having an affair with her husband. Around these people and events Mitchell constructs a very entertaining and readable novel. In the modern fashion, chapters alternate between the two periods but it is less annoying than usual. Chapters are often named for surviving Steichen photos and Mitchell imagines the events surrounding the occasion of the photo.

Daughter Mary Steichen Mary Steichen

Isadora Duncan Duncan

Duncan Dancing Isadora Duncan

Hiroshima III

Monday, November 12th, 2007

The Theory of Clouds, Stephane Audeguy, 2007

Hiroshima Mushroom Cloud
Hiroshima Mushroom Cloud

A first novel from a French writer. Central character 13 year old Akira Kumo survives the bombing of Hiroshima in Zone 2 where any survivor is expected to die within a year. Seemingly without any illness, the Americans want to send Kumo, now an orphan, to California for research. Kumo runs away to Tokyo where he lives on the streets and by his wits. In 1959, the Japanese government sets out to reconstruct identity records for the millions of Japanese whose birth and other records were destroyed in American bombings. Kumo poses as a kid born in Hiroshima in 1946 and gets identification records showing this. When he turns 18 according to his new records he enters a school of graphic design and choose to becomes a fashion designer. He spends all his spare time and money on Caucasian prostitutes.

After a few years he moves to Paris and becomes very successful. Now nearing retirement, in 1996 he remembers suddenly that he was really born in 1934. He does some research and receives documents recovered from Hamburg belonging to his father who was killed in bombing there reestablishing his true history. At this time he starts to collect the history of nineteenth century meteorology. Since there is little interest in the subject, the collection is inexpensive and becomes very extensive. He hires a part time librarian Virginie Latour to help him catalog the huge collection.

Quaker Luke Howard Quaker Luke Howard

Virginie quickly learns that Kumo is more interested in telling her stories about historical figures in meteorology than in working on the catalog. She is a good listener and enjoys the stories and soon has no desire to return to her old job. Most of the novel relates Kumo’s stories; about the Quaker Luke Howard who invented the classification of clouds into cirrus, cumulus, nimbus, and stratus in 1802. Stories include the painter Carmichael who set out to capture clouds in a series of paintings and went mad. It is unclear to Virginie if Kumo actually has any of the paintings but he seems to know a lot about their technique. The longest story is about the collaboration of Swede William Williamsson and Scottman Richard Abercrombie who parted paths when Williamsson announced the sectret publication of the International Cloud Atlas in 1889. In retaliation Abercrombie announces he is about to undertake a several year trip around the world to photograph clouds for a publication to be called the Abercrombie Protocol. Only one copy of the Protocol exists and is held by Abercrombie’s adopted daughter. Virginie is sent to try to acquire it for Kumo’s collection.

Howard Cloud Forms Howard Forms

Each story is accompanied by a sexual history of the figures. This is particularly true of Abercrombie who is celibate and still a virgin age 50 when he sets out on his world tour of clouds. The reason the Protocol hasn’t been published becomes clear when Virginie finally sees it for the first time. About half way through, the pictures of clouds turns into pictures of women in pornographic poses. As Kumo will only sleep with white prostitutes so Abercrombie will only sleep with non white prostitutes. Oddly, the books blurb calls this novel an erotic work, but the sex is always clinical and dispassionate and mostly involves prostitutes. There is seemingly no emotional connection involved in any of it.

The best part of this novel is the unpredictability. You never know what will happen or be related next and you keep reading.

Rebel Raider

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Rebel Raider: Raphael Semmes’s Cruise in the CSS Sumter, Harpur All Gosnell, 2005

Patrick O’Brien Painting of CSS Sumter
CSS Sumpter

This book recounts the exciting adventures of the first Confederate raider the CSS Sumter, a slow merchant steam-sail tub, converted to a cruiser by its commander, Raphael Semmes, and of its escape from the Union blockade in New Orleans, subsequent capture of 18 prizes, daring escapes from Union warships, and sailing, barely, across the Atlantic with final abandonment in Gibralter, all in about six months.

CSS Sumpter

Wolf of the Deep, Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, Stephen Fox, 2007

CSS Alabama
CSS Alabama

Raphael Semmes’ next command was the newly constructed Liverpool Laird 290 one of a kind special purpose cruiser. At 13 knots and two swiveling guns, able to disguise itself as a China clipper, the Union had no warships to match its speed and abilities. At one time the Union had 18 warships looking for the Alabama. Only one, the converted yacht the sidewhelled Vandenburg, was a match for her speed but the Vanderbilt, at three times the size, used enormous quantities of coal and never encountered the Alabama.

USS Vanderbilt
USS Vanderbilt

The CSS Alabama was a copper clad wooden ship to reduce hull fouling and enable repairs in any port. Her steam engines had a condenser able to produce fresh water from sea water and her coal carrying capacity allowed her extended cruising without recoaling stops. Her funnel could be lowered to aid her clipper disquise and her screw was retractable to reduce drag. Over its two year career, the Alabama took 65 prizes and never entered a Confederate port. When she entered Galvaston, she encountered 50 Union gunboats and sank the USS Hatteras, the first of only two fights she was in. She sailed from the Grand Banks to the Yucatan and Brazil, then crossed the Atlantic to Cape Town and on East to Singapore then returned to Cherbourg France where she was sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

The book focuses on the larger impact of the Confederate raiders, of which the Alabama was the most successful and most notorious. Over 900 American owned ships were sold to foreigners to avoid capture and the impact on American commerce and shipping were long lasting. Some have wondered if more Confederate raiders could have changed the outcome of the war, but the Alabama, Florida, and Georgia were finding few prizes at the end. The British paid $15.5 million to the U.S. government after the war as reparations for its role in building ships and otherwise assisting the raiders.