Are you a prominent Obama administration figure looking for an early election year exit? Blast off your résumé to David Bradley.
Steve Coll, who oversaw the transformation of the New America Foundation over the past five years into a leading progressive Washington public policy center while publishing his own award-winning journalism, will be stepping down as its head to work on his latest writing endeavor.
Coming just weeks after the publication of Coll’s latest definitive history, Private Empire, a 685-page book on Exxon Mobil, his announcement signals a new chapter for the think tank best known for its scholars and writers in the areas of national security, media, and technology.
The low-key and low-profile Coll, who won a Pulitzer for his post-9/11 blockbuster Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, agreed last year to update and extend his history of how the US came to find itself embroiled in a war against al-Qaeda with his long-time editor Ann Godoff at Penguin Press.
The second volume of Ghost Wars will carry the story forward from 9/11 to the planned American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2013.
“I’ve had the opportunity to carry on that body of work over the past decade, but I wasn’t really sure until recently what should be included in a new volume,” Coll said by phone this afternoon. “I now feel very excited about weaving together our response [to 9/11] and where it led into something that’s true to the shape of the first one.”
Coll has a sterling journalistic résumé, including a six-year stint as managing editor of the Washington Post and a current post as a staff writer at the New Yorker.
While in 2001 he had most of the Afghanistan-Pakistan field of scholarship to himself, the past decade has seen boom times for histories, memoirs, and narratives about terrorism and Central Asia—the latest just this month from his former Post colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. As Coll says, “It’s a challenge to come up with deeply original material this time. Now there’s a lot of good journalism that’s been done.”
His 2008 biography of the bin Laden family, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, was well regarded by scholars, and Ghost Wars continues to sell briskly even a decade after publication as ever more Americans are dispatched to Central Asia.
Coll says he’s been particularly gratified to see unauthorized Pashto, Farsi, and Urdu translations of Ghost Wars out in the field, as people across that region struggled to understand their own history. “It’s read out there a lot,” he says.
When a new head of the New America Foundation is named, Coll, who earned just shy of $300,000 as the foundation’s president in the 2010 fiscal year, will become a senior fellow.
Coll has studied al-Qaeda and the Islamic radical movement since the mid-1990s, and says he couldn’t pass up the opportunity “to be in the field as that ending looms.”
“New America is a creative, growing and inspiring place, and the institution is in great shape, with talented staff and leaders, a fantastic board, and very strong operating foundations,” Coll said in a statement released today. “The degree of international travel required for my next book project will make it impossible for me to continue to serve as president, but I am thrilled by the opportunity to remain as a researcher and writer.”
Atlantic Media owner Bradley will chair the search committee to replace Coll, with input from the board chair, Google’s Eric Schmidt.
“We want someone who can run what is essentially a talent-based organization,” Coll said this afternoon. “It’s important that the next leader needs to have a body of work himself or herself that feels like a New America body of work.”