What Afghanistan Cost the CIA

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BOOK REVIEW: First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11

By Toby Harnden Little Brown & Co.

Reviewed by Philip Mudd

(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

The Reviewer: Philip Mudd was Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and the FBI national security branch.  He now comments regularly on CNN and teaches and speaks about analysis and global issues. He is the author of several books including, Black Site: The CIA in the Post 9/11 World.   

REVIEW — Just months ago, Toby Harnden’s First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA’s Mission to Avenge 9/11, might have read as the tale of the tense first engagements with the Taliban and the lives of the men and women involved, particularly the life and death of Mike Spann, the first US casualty.  No more.  Frequently throughout the book, the echoes of lessons of the past jump out.  There are stories of inter-tribal tensions; the critical role of air power against the Taliban; the American partnership with Afghan warlords; and the personal commitment of individuals from the CIA in the Fall of 2001, a reminder of the intrepid contributions of individual US military personnel who served during this forever war.

Harnden opens the book with an approach he returns to throughout the narrative, starting with gritty history — the days and weeks after the insertion of the first CIA team into northern Afghanistan — then adding in-depth stories of the personal lives of the officers who served and died there and the families they left behind.  The book moves quickly through a survey of the decades in Afghanistan before 9/11 and the histories of some of the individuals who served then, from how they grew up to how they built careers, relationships, and families.

In the midst of the tragedy of the attacks, the randomness of history appears in the book, the kind of unique detail that Harden has gleaned through interviews that help make the twenty-year-old history in this book seem fresh.  Years before 9/11, one of the first CIA operators into the country made the fateful decision to leave academia for the Agency.  The factor that tipped the scales in favor of government service?  Health insurance.  Years later, he was fated to be the sole American who witnessed the killing in a firefight, of the first American casualty after 9/11, CIA officer Mike Spann.

Spann’s life and his family, the firefight that led to his death, and the battle that ensued, make up the lion’s share of the book.  This is a history of the eye-opening risks the CIA accepted when those first men built partnerships with the warlords who made up the anti-Taliban alliance, and describes the tenuous nature of the first weeks when success was never a given.  It’s not only a history of the fight, though:  it’s also an examination of the psychology of the men who fought, and the mental challenges they faced afterwards.

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The book’s core revolves around the gripping, bloody, days-long fight against the group of Taliban prisoners that erupted in the prison uprising that led to Spann’s death.  Spann lost his life early in that chaotic, back-and-forth battle, and Harnden details not only how that tragedy unfolded but, hour-by-hour and sometimes minute-by-minute, the unbelievable epic of how CIA officers, British counterparts, and a small contingent of US military, along with Afghan partners and US air power, eventually turned back the stunning insurrection in Qala-i Jangi prison.  Key in the retaking – for days – was the commitment by Spann’s CIA team to recover his body.  The hard-to-imagine drama, in the hands of another narrator, could easily turn overwrought; in this book, it is not.

First Casualty is rife with heroic moments.  But it is the variety of the human reactions in those moments, and afterward, that separates this book from others.  Readers unfamiliar with the world of CIA clandestine operators may skip the author’s notes on sources, but the many names revealed on that list explain why the pages of the narrative have such remarkable color:  Harnden has managed to speak with a wide variety who have never spoken in such detail, some of whom still cannot reveal their full names.  This access to the deeply clandestine element in the Agency is rare, and Harnden uses the words, the stories, and often the uncomfortable sentiments they felt with great effect.  Fear, combat fatigue, and sadness appear often in the narrative, not because Harnden explains how they happened, but because the participants do.  This book is compelling, sometimes disturbing, but in a necessary way.  This is war sometimes stripped of heroism to reveal naked human emotion.

This deep dive into a CIA story that is critical to understanding America’s response to 9/11, comes with a few forgivable downsides.  The details in the book — the geography, the who’s who among the US players, the ethnic divides among many Afghan factions — might be occasionally daunting for readers.  And the clear CIA biases about the Pentagon during those days, including critiques of Pentagon leadership (Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, in particular) certainly reflect what CIA officers thought, but nonetheless, come across as petty interagency jealousies in Washington.  More distracting, are the author’s diversions into judging how the war should have been conducted, who is at fault, and why America could have been in a better place.  This is oral history; the author’s personal perspectives sometimes intrude.

Still, the valor of individuals through the haze of a war that was never conventional, with success never guaranteed, is the message of this book.  Enduring lessons for counterinsurgency are there as well, told through individual engagements with Taliban fighters that still read as harrowing, regardless of whether the reader knows the outcome.  The players come across as real, partly because the author’s interviews have allowed him to characterize them so compellingly, and their realness drives home the tragedy that is war.  This is a book detailing a stunning American success of ingenuity, coupled with power, partnered with Afghan brutality but woven through the narrative is the story of the cost to those who fought.

Shannon Spann, Mike Spann’s widow and the mother of his third child, details her struggles during the years after he passed.  Her story is not easy to read, but it is critical to understanding the lessons of First Casualty.  And the lessons from the CIA officers who were first in add depth to her reflections on loss, and to the book’s underlying theme of personal sacrifice.  “I lived and Mike died,” says the man who watched his death, at the end of the book, “and therefore it’s my job to make my life worth it.”

First Casualty earns an impressive 3.5 out of 4 trench coats


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