EDMUND MCWILLIAMS was a wiry, dark-haired American foreign service officer, intense, earnest, precise, and serious. He had a reputation as a tough anticommunist, hardworking, and skilled at languages. He had come of age in Rhode Island during the 1960s. His father was a mill worker, and his mother earned modest wages as an aide in a cafeteria. At the height of America’s upheavals over Vietnam he was enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, concentrating in Southeast Asian studies and becoming increasingly involved in conservative causes. Even late in the war he was so certain that his country’s involvement in Vietnam was just that he volunteered for the army, studied Vietnamese for forty-seven weeks, and rotated to Saigon in 1972 as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. He specialized in interrogations of Vietcong and North Vietnamese prisoners, moving between detention centers and extracting and analyzing details about communist battlefield operations, supplies, and strategic plans.When his tour was finished, he joined the diplomatic service. He added Russian to his language portfolio and moved to the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1983; as a political officer he would concentrate on Soviet human rights violations. He traveled extensively in Central Asia, reporting on Soviet repression of nationalism and Islam. He became used to living under continuous KGB surveillance. He studied Dari, moved to Kabul in 1986 at the height of the Afghan war, and was number two in the small and pressured U.S. embassy. With a handful of case officers in the CIA station he drove the wide streets of the Afghan capital, a small camera often placed discreetly on the seat, photographing Soviet military equipment, deployments, troop movements—anything that might be helpful back in Washington. His cables from the embassy provided details about Soviet atrocities, battlefield failures, and political abuses. McWilliams and his embassy colleagues—who were surveilled by KGB and Afghan intelligence officers, prohibited from traveling outside the city, and limited largely to interactions with other diplomats and spies—had become “very much cold warriors,” and “many of us felt it in a very sadistic way. . . . What we were being paid to do was to write, really, propaganda pieces against the Soviets.”1
Early in 1988 there were two big questions at the U.S. embassy in Kabul: Were the Soviets really going to leave? And if they did, what would happen to the Afghan communist government they left behind, presided over by the former secret police chief Najibullah?
Circulating to policy makers in Washington and by diplomatic cable, the CIA’s classified analysis in those weeks made two main points. Gates and the Soviet Division of the Directorate of Intelligence remained doubtful that Gorbachev would actually follow through with a troop withdrawal. And if the Soviet Fortieth Army did leave Afghanistan, Najibullah’s communist government would collapse very quickly. In multiple reports the CIA’s analysts asserted confidently in January and February that the Afghan communists could not possibly hold on to power after the Soviet troops left. Najibullah’s generals, seeking survival, would defect with their equipment to the mujahedin one after another.
McWilliams debated these speculations with European diplomats at receptions and dinners that winter in the grim, snowy capital. McWilliams shared the CIA’s belief that Najibullah was a puppet of Soviet military power and that he could not stand in Afghanistan on his own. But the British and French diplomats he talked with questioned the CIA’s assumptions. There was a great deal of anxiety within the Afghan military and the city’s civilian population about the prospect of a Pakistani-backed Islamic radical government coming to power, especially one led by Hekmatyar. However deprived and battered they were, Afghan civilians in Kabul enjoyed certain privileges they did not wish to surrender. There were ample if unproductive government jobs. Tens of thousands of women worked in offices, arriving each day in rough-cut East European–style skirts and high heels.What would their lives be like under the Islamists? The Afghan people hated Najibullah, but they feared Hekmatyar. What if Najibullah began to negotiate cease-fires with ambitious rebel commanders—perhaps even Massoud? If he preached Afghan nationalism, might not he be able to hang on? What if the Soviets poured billions of dollars of economic aid into Kabul even after their troops evacuated, providing Najibullah with a way to buy off warlords from the mujahedin’s ranks?
That January, McWilliams sat down in his office and tapped out a confidential cable to Washington and Langley about this “nightmare scenario,” emphasizing that it was not the Kabul embassy’s viewpoint but rather a possibility “that some of the old hands in Kabul are beginning to fear could enable the current regime to survive largely intact.” After describing in detail how Najibullah might construct his survival, McWilliams concluded, on behalf of the embassy, “We find this scenario troublingly plausible. It would achieve peace and the withdrawal of Soviet forces at the cost of [Afghan] self-determination.”2
Gates joined Shultz and his top aides at Foggy Bottom on February 19. The CIA’s analysts were united in the belief that post-Soviet Afghanistan “would be messy, with a struggle for power among different mujahedin groups, and that the outcome would most likely be a weak central government and powerful tribal leaders in the countryside.” But as to Najibullah, most of the CIA’s analysts simply did not believe his government could survive without active military support by Soviet forces.
John Whitehead and Morton Abramowitz said they thought the CIA was wrong. Najibullah would start cutting deals with rebel commanders, they predicted, allowing him to stay in power much longer than Langley assumed.
Colin Powell, recently appointed as Reagan’s national security adviser, asked Gates directly: Could Najibullah last, and how long? How good is the Afghan army? Powell worried that the CIA had “very strong assumptions” about these “two givens,” and he wanted them to rethink.3
Under Gates’s supervision the entire American intelligence community reviewed the issues and produced a special National Intelligence Estimate, “USSR: Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” classified Secret. “We judge that the Najibullah regime will not long survive the completion of Soviet withdrawal even with continued Soviet assistance,” the estimate declared. “The regime may fall before withdrawal is complete.”
The replacement government the CIA expected “will be Islamic—possibly strongly fundamentalist, but not as extreme as Iran. . . . We cannot be confident of the new government’s orientation toward the West; at best it will be ambivalent, and at worst it may be actively hostile, especially toward the United States.”4
If Kabul’s next government might be “actively hostile” toward Washington, why didn’t the United States push quickly for political negotiations that could produce a more friendly and stable Afghan regime, as they were being urged to do by Afghan intellectuals and royalists? If Najibullah’s quick collapse was inevitable, as the CIA believed, wasn’t the need for such political mediation more urgent than ever, to help contain Hekmatyar and his international Islamist allies?
But the councils of the American government were by now deeply divided on the most basic questions. Gorbachev’s initiative on Afghanistan had neither been anticipated nor carefully reviewed. Individuals and departments pulled in different directions all at once. The CIA and the State Department were much more focused on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union than on Afghanistan. The entire nuclear and political balance of the Cold War seemed suddenly at stake as 1988 passed. Central Asia’s future did not rank high on the priority list by comparison.
Gates continued to doubt Gorbachev’s intentions. Shultz, isolated in his own cabinet and running out of time, wanted to find a formula for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that would ensure the fastest, least complicated Soviet pullout possible, without restricting the ability of the mujahedin to fight their way into Kabul when the Soviets were gone. Trying to negotiate some sort of transitional government in Afghanistan seemed out of the question: It would make the pace of Soviet withdrawal dependent on American success in Afghan politics—a very poor bet.
For its part, the CIA’s Near East Division, led by the Afghan task force director Frank Anderson, began to argue that the CIA’s work in Afghanistan was finished. The agency should just get out of the country when the Soviets did. The covert action had been all about challenging Soviet power and aggression; it would be an error to try to convert the program now into some sort of reconstruction project. There was no way to succeed with such a project, the CIA’s Near East officers argued.
As Bearden put it years later, “Did we really give a shit about the long-term future of Nangarhar? Maybe not. As it turned out, guess what? We didn’t.”5
The CIA’s Near East hands were increasingly annoyed at the State Department diplomats who were now wheedling onto the CIA’s turf at the moment of victory, continually questioning the agency’s assumptions, harping on the Pakistani support for Hekmatyar and the Islamists, and wringing their hands about peace settlements. Where had these pin-striped assholes been when it counted, the grumbling at Langley went, when the CIA had been slogging away amid skepticism that they could ever succeed? What naïve earnestness led State’s diplomats and their allies in Congress to believe that they could unscramble the Afghan war, hold a few conferences in Europe, and welcome the exiled Afghan king back to his Kabul palace, with a brass band playing on the lawn? The Afghans would have to figure things out themselves. The Americans couldn’t help, and it was not in the interests of the United States to try. How much of this thinking within CIA’s Near East Division was carefully considered and how much of it was an emotional rebellion against second-guessing from State and Congress was difficult to measure. They felt they had taken more than ample guff about the most successful covert action program in CIA history. The Soviets were leaving. Enough.
As to Afghan politics, the CIA was content to let Pakistani intelligence take the lead even if it did mean they installed their client Hekmatyar in Kabul. So what? Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan, whether or not it was achieved through the ideology of political Islam, did not seem to pose any significant threat to American interests, the Near East Division’s officers felt. Besides, if they had qualms about Hekmatyar—and most of them did—they did not see what they could do at this stage to block ISI’s plans. So they moved to help ISI succeed. After consulting with Prince Turki, the CIA and Saudi intelligence both accelerated shipments of weapons to Pakistan, hoping to beat any diplomatic deadlines that might constrict supplies.
The new Pakistani intelligence chief, Hamid Gul, had taken over with fresh plans to push the rebels toward more formal military operations that could put pressure on major Afghan cities. Gul felt his job was “to get the Russians out. I’m not concerned about anything else.” He was not as close personally to Hekmatyar as some of the colonels and brigadiers who had become fixtures in ISI’s Afghan bureau, a bureau where Gul had little experience. Based on military liaison contacts with Gul in Islamabad, the Defense Intelligence Agency produced a biography of the new ISI chief that emphasized his pro-Western attitudes. The sketch of Gul’s character turned out to be almost entirely wrong. A full-faced, fast-talking general who rolled easily through American idioms, Gul could change stripes quickly. From 1987 onward he worked very closely with Prince Turki, Turki’s chief of staff Ahmed Badeeb, and other officers in Saudi intelligence. The Saudis knew Gul as a pious, committed Muslim and provided him with multiple gifts from the Saudi kingdom, including souvenirs from the holy Kaaba in Mecca. Yet his American partners in 1988 believed that Gul was their man. Gul described himself to Bearden as a “moderate Islamist.”6
Gul was going to give money and guns to Hekmatyar and other Islamists mainly because they were willing to fight, he said. He was going to operate on a professional military basis. He certainly was not going to help out exiled Afghan intellectuals, technocrats, royalists, or other such politicians. Gul was determined to shut out those Afghans “who live a very good life [abroad] in the capitals of the world.” In this he had the full support of the CIA station chief. Bearden regarded the Westernized Afghan rebel leaders such as Sibghatullah Mojaddedi as corrupt and ineffective. The “only real strength” of Mojaddedi’s party “was its gift for public relations,” as Bearden saw it. Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani attended meetings with Bearden in “a silk-and-cashmere suit,” and he “rarely, if ever, strayed into Afghanistan,” earning Bearden’s disdain. Bearden encouraged ISI to provide the most potent high-technology weapons, such as Stingers and Milan antitank missiles, to Islamist Pashtun commanders who fought along the Pakistan-Afghan border, especially in Paktia and Nangarhar provinces. These were the regions where “the Soviets were still mounting major assaults,” as Bearden saw it.7
President Zia had wanted some sort of interim Afghan government to be agreed on before the Soviets left, to help ensure stability on Pakistan’s western border. When it became clear that the Americans weren’t interested, Zia said openly that Pakistan’s army and intelligence service would work to install a friendly government in Kabul, one that would protect Pakistan’s interests in its rivalry with India and prevent any stirrings of Pashtun nationalism on Pakistani territory. Zia felt this was only Pakistan’s due: “We have earned the right to have [in Kabul] a power which is very friendly toward us. We have taken risks as a frontline state, and we will not permit a return to the prewar situation, marked by a large Indian and Soviet influence and Afghan claims on our own territory. The new power will be really Islamic, a part of the Islamic renaissance which, you will see, will someday extend itself to the Soviet Muslims.”8
In Washington that winter, much more than the liberals it was the still-vigorous network of conservative anticommunist ideologues in the Reagan administration and on Capitol Hill who began to challenge the CIA-ISI combine. These young policy makers, many of whom had traveled at one point or another to the Khyber Pass and stared across the ridges for a few hours with mujahedin commanders, feared that a CIA pullback from Afghanistan would sell out the Afghan rebel cause. America could not give up now; its goal should be “Afghan self-determination,” a government chosen by the “freedom fighters,” and if Najibullah’s thuggish neocommunist regime hung on in Kabul, the mujahedins’ brave campaign would be betrayed. Opinion about Hekmatyar and the Islamists in these conservative American circles was divided; some admired him as a stalwart anticommunist, while others feared his anti-Americanism. But there was a growing belief that some counterforce to CIA analysis and decision-making was now required inside the American government. Senator Gordon Humphrey, among others, agitated in the spring of 1988 for the appointment of a special U.S. envoy on Afghanistan, someone who could work with the rebel leaders outside of ISI earshot, assess their needs, and make recommendations about U.S. policy. America needed an expert, someone who spoke the language and knew the region but who also had proven credentials as a hard-line anticommunist.
The State Department recommended Edmund McWilliams. He was nominated as U.S. special envoy to the Afghan rebels and dispatched to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the late spring of 1988. McWilliams was energized by his assignment. He would be able to report independently about the late stages of the Afghan jihad, circulate his cables to the CIA, State Department, and Congress, and provide a fresh, independent voice on the main controversies in U.S. policy at a critical moment.
It took only a few weeks after his arrival in the redbrick Islamabad embassy compound for CIA chief Milt Bearden to bestow upon McWilliams one of his pet nicknames. “That Evil Little Person,” Bearden began to call him.9
SIGNED BY RANKING DIPLOMATS on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords ratified by treaty the formal terms of the Soviet withdrawal. It was an agreement among governments—Afghanistan’s communist-led regime, Pakistan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Afghan rebels had no part in the negotiations, and some of them denounced the accord as a conspiracy against their cause. In fact, it assured that the rebels would remain militarily potent for years ahead. Gorbachev had hoped his willingness to get out of Afghanistan would persuade the Americans to end CIA aid to the mujahedin. But it was Ronald Reagan personally, apparently unscripted, who told a television interviewer early in 1988 that he just didn’t think it would be fair if the Soviets continued to provide military and economic aid to Najibullah while the United States was forced to stop helping the Afghan rebels. Reagan’s diplomatic negotiators had been preparing to accept an end to CIA assistance. Now they scrambled to change course. They negotiated a new formula called “positive symmetry,” which permitted the CIA to supply guns and money to the mujahedin for as long as Moscow provided assistance to its allies in Kabul’s government.
The first Soviet troops rolled out of Jalalabad a month later, some twelve thousand men and their equipment. Along with ISI’s brigadiers, Bearden and his case officers spent many hours that spring of 1988 trying to persuade rebel commanders not to slaughter the Soviets during their retreat, as Afghan militia had done to retreating British imperial soldiers a century earlier. For the most part, rebel commanders allowed the Soviets to pass.
As the troops withdrew, Andrei Sakharov, the physicist and human rights activist whose freedom to speak signaled a new era of openness in Moscow, addressed the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies. “The war in Afghanistan was in itself criminal, a criminal adventure,” he told them. “This crime cost the lives of about a million Afghans, a war of destruction was waged against an entire people. . . . This is what lies on us as a terrible sin, a terrible reproach. We must cleanse ourselves of this shame that lies on our leadership.”10
EARLY IN AUGUST, Bearden took a call at the Islamabad station from an excited ISI officer. A Soviet SU-25, an advanced military aircraft, had been hit by antiaircraft fire near Parrot’s Beak on the Pakistani border. The Soviet pilot had bailed out, but the plane came down softly, grinding to a stop with little damage.
How much would you be willing to pay? the ISI officer asked.
Bearden inquired if the plane’s nose cone, which carried its instrumentation, was in good condition and whether its weapons had survived. They had, he was assured. He began negotiating. In the end, ISI sold the plane to the CIA for about half a dozen Toyota double-cab pickup trucks and some BM-12 rockets. Bearden arranged to inspect it, and he summoned a joint CIA–Air Force team out from Washington to help load the prize onto a transport plane.
The next morning ISI called back. The pilot had survived and had been captured by Afghan rebels. “Jesus, tell them not to put him in the cook pot,” Bearden said. The last thing they needed was a Soviet officer tortured or murdered in the middle of the troop withdrawal. Bearden offered some pickup trucks for the pilot, and ISI accepted. Pakistani intelligence interrogated the captive for four or five days. Bearden passed through the usual CIA offer to captured pilots: “The big-chested homecoming queen blonde, the bass boat, and the pickup truck with Arizona plates.” But ISI reported the Soviet officer declined to defect. Bearden contacted the Soviets and arranged for a handover. The pilot’s name was Alexander Rutskoi. Several years later he would lead a violent uprising against Russian president Boris Yeltsin.11
BEARDEN’S PHONE RANG again at home just a few days after he purchased the SU-25. It was August 17, 1988. The embassy officer said they had a very garbled report that President Zia’s plane had gone down near Bhawalpur where Zia, General Akhtar, Arnold Raphel (the American ambassador to Pakistan), and other Pakistani and American military officers had been watching the demonstration of a new tank that the Americans wanted to sell.
Bearden sent a “critic” cable to Langley, the most urgent. If Zia was dead, the entire American government would have to mobilize quickly to assess the crisis. By the next morning it was confirmed. After the tank demonstration Zia had invited Akhtar, Raphel, an American brigadier general, and most of his own senior brass into the VIP compartment of his American-made C-130 for the short flight back to Islamabad. Minutes after takeoff the plane plummeted to the ground, its propellered engines churning at full force. All the bodies and much of the plane burned to char.
Langley sent a cable to Bearden suggesting that he dispatch the Air Force team in Pakistan for the SU-25 to investigate the Zia plane crash. The team was qualified to examine the wreckage. Bearden sent a reply cable that said, as he recalled it, “It would be a mistake to use the visiting technicians. Whatever good they might be able to do would be outweighed by the fact that the CIA had people poking around in the rubble of Zia’s plane a day after it went down. Questions would linger as to what we were doing at the crash site and what we’d added or removed to cover up our hand in the crash.” There was no sense aggravating the suspicions and questions about how Zia died by getting the CIA involved in the investigation. He could already imagine ISI’s conspiracy-obsessed minds thinking: Why wasn’t Bearden sahib on that plane? How did he know to stay away?12
In Washington, Powell convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room. Thomas Twetten, then running the Near East Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, attended for the agency. Robert Oakley, the National Security Council’s director for the region, backed up Powell. Richard Armitage was there from the Pentagon and Michael Armacost from State. The Pakistanis were fearful that this might be a deliberate attack, perhaps the first in a series of strikes aimed at the country’s very existence. The interagency group decided to send a senior team from Washington to Islamabad immediately, “to let the Paks know that we were solidly in support of them, whatever the threat might be, to mount the maximum intelligence search for what might have happened to this plane and what else might be coming,” as Oakley later described it.13
The Americans weren’t sure themselves what to think. Had the Russians done this, a final KGB act of revenge for Afghanistan? Was it the Iranians? The Indians? They began cabling warnings all over the world, saying, in Oakley’s paraphrase, “Don’t mess with the Paks, or the United States is going to be on your ass.” They ordered every available intelligence asset to focus on intercepts, satellite pictures, anything that might turn up evidence of a conspiracy to kill Zia. They found nothing, but they were still unsure.
That night most of those in the Situation Room found their way to the Palm restaurant on 19th Street for a booze-soaked wake in remembrance of Ambassador Raphel, a well-known and well-liked foreign service officer. Shultz, in New Orleans for the Republican convention, called Oakley at the restaurant. He told him to get out to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to accompany him to Pakistan for Zia’s funeral—and to pack heavy because Oakley was going to stay in Islamabad as the new U.S. ambassador, succeeding Raphel.
Charlie Wilson flew out on the plane with Shultz, as did Armitage and Armacost. They huddled together across the aisles, talking about contingencies, and they scratched out a new American policy toward Pakistan, literally on the fly. The United States would deepen ties to the Pakistani military, including Pakistani intelligence. They would need this intimate alliance more than ever now to get through the post-Zia transition. They would also support democratic elections for a new civilian government. Zia had been moving in this direction anyway; a date for national voting had been set. And they would help defend Pakistan from any external threats.14
It took weeks for the jitters to settle down. A joint U.S.-Pakistani air force investigation turned up circumstantial evidence of mechanical failure in the crash, although the exact cause remained a guess at best. The intelligence sweep turned up no chatter or other evidence about a murder conspiracy. Zia’s successor as army chief of staff—a mild and bookish general, Mirza Aslam Beg—announced that the army would go forward with the scheduled elections and withdraw from politics. And the Soviets showed no sign of wavering from their planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. By October it appeared that the transition from Zia’s long dictatorial reign would be smoother than anyone had had reason to expect at the time of his death.
The Afghan jihad had lost its founding father. General Akhtar, too, the architect of modern Pakistani intelligence, was dead. But Zia and Akhtar had left expansive, enduring legacies. In 1971 there had been only nine hundred madrassas in all of Pakistan. By the summer of 1988 there were about eight thousand official religious schools and an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones, many of them clustered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and funded by wealthy patrons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.15 When Akhtar had taken over ISI almost a decade earlier, it was a small and demoralized unit within the Pakistan military, focused mainly on regime security and never-ending espionage games with India. Now ISI was an army within the army, boasting multiple deep-pocketed patrons, including the supremely deep-pocketed Prince Turki and his Saudi General Intelligence Department. ISI enjoyed an ongoing operational partnership with the CIA as well, with periodic access to the world’s most sophisticated technology and intelligence collection systems. The service had welcomed to Pakistan legions of volunteers from across the Islamic world, fighters who were willing to pursue Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda not only in Afghanistan but, increasingly, across its eastern borders in Kashmir, where jihadists trained in Afghanistan were just starting to bleed Indian troops. And as the leading domestic political bureau of the Pakistan army, ISI could tap telephones, bribe legislators, and control voting boxes across the country when it decided a cause was ripe. Outside the Pakistan army itself, less than ten years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ISI had been transformed by CIA and Saudi subsidies into Pakistan’s most powerful institution.Whatever unfolded now would require ISI’s consent.
ED MCWILLIAMS STRUCK OUT by jeep for the Afghan frontier soon after he arrived in Islamabad that summer. After the deaths of Zia and Ambassador Raphel, the U.S. embassy was in chaos. The new regime led by Robert Oakley was only just settling in. It seemed an ideal time for McWilliams to disappear into the field, to use his prestigious-sounding title of special envoy and his language skills to talk with as many Afghan commanders, intellectuals, and refugees as he could. He traveled on weekends to avoid escorts and official meetings set up by the embassy. He wanted to know what problems Afghan mujahedin were facing as the Soviets left, what American interests were in post-Soviet Afghanistan, and what was really happening on the ground.
For two months he traveled through Pakistan’s tribal areas. In Peshawar he spent long hours with Abdul Haq and senior mujahedin leaders such as Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani and Younis Khalis. Ahmed Shah Massoud’s brother Yahya had moved to Peshawar and set up an office for the Panjshiri militia. McWilliams drove up into the hills and talked with merchants, travelers on the roads, and rebel recruits in training camps. He flew down to Quetta and met with the Afghan exiles from the country’s royalist clans, including the Karzai family. He talked to commanders who operated in the west of Afghanistan, in the central Hazara region, and also some who fought near Kandahar, the southern city that was Afghanistan’s historical royal capital. He drove up to Chaman on the Afghan border and talked with carpet merchants shuttling back and forth into Afghanistan. It had been a long time since an American in a position to shape government policy had sat cross-legged on quite so many Afghan rugs or sipped so many cups of sugared green tea, asking Afghans themselves open-ended questions about their jihad. The accounts McWilliams heard began to disturb and anger him.
Nearly every Afghan he met impressed upon him the same message: As the Soviets withdrew, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—backed by officers in ISI’s Afghan bureau, operatives from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jamaat-e-Islami, officers from Saudi intelligence, and Arab volunteers from a dozen countries—was moving systematically to wipe out his rivals in the Afghan resistance. The scenes described by McWilliams’s informants made Hekmatyar sound like a Mafia don taking over the territory of his rivals. Hekmatyar and his kingpin commanders were serially kidnapping and murdering mujahedin royalists, intellectuals, rival party commanders—anyone who threatened strong alternative leadership. Pakistani intelligence was at the same time using its recently constructed network of border infrastructure—checkpoints, training camps, and the newly built roads and caves and depots around Parrot’s Beak and Paktia province—to block the progress of mujahedin commanders who opposed Hekmatyar and to force independent commanders to join Hekmatyar’s party. Added up, the circumstantial evidence seemed chilling: As the Soviet Union soldiers pulled out, Hekmatyar and ISI had embarked on a concerted, clandestine plan to eliminate his rivals and establish his Muslim Brotherhood– dominated Islamic Party as the most powerful national force in Afghanistan.16
In University Town, Peshawar, gunmen on motorcycles killed the Afghan poet and philosopher Sayd Bahudin Majrooh, publisher of the most influential bulletin promoting traditional Afghan royalist and tribal leadership. Majrooh’s independent Afghan Information Center had reported in a survey that 70 percent of Afghan refugees supported exiled King Zahir Shah rather than any of the Peshawar-based mujahedin leaders such as Hekmatyar.17 There were no arrests in Majrooh’s killing. The hit was interpreted among Afghans and at the CIA’s Islamabad station as an early and intimidating strike by Hekmatyar against the Zahir Shah option for post-Soviet Afghanistan.18
The Ahmed Shah Massoud option came in for similar treatment: Around the same time that Majrooh was killed, Massoud’s older half-brother Dean Mohammed was kidnapped and killed by mysterious assailants hours after he visited the American consulate in Peshawar to apply for a visa. Massoud’s brothers believed for years afterward that ISI’s Afghan cell had carried out the operation, although they could not be sure.19
In Quetta, McWilliams heard detailed accounts of how Pakistani intelligence had allied with Hekmatyar to isolate and defeat rival commanders around Kandahar. ISI’s local office regulated food and cash handouts so that those who now agreed to join Hekmatyar would have ample supplies for fighters and civilians in areas they controlled. Those who didn’t agree to join, however, would be starved, unable to pay their men or supply grain to their villages. ISI used a road permit system to ensure that only authorized commanders had permission to take humanitarian supplies across the Afghan border, McWilliams was told. At the same time, Pakistani intelligence and the Arab volunteers operating around Paktia used their access to newly built roads, clinics, and training camps to persuade local commanders that only by joining forces with them could they ensure that their wounded were evacuated quickly and treated by qualified doctors. Afghan witnesses reported seeing ISI officers with Hekmatyar commanders as they moved in force against rival mujahedin around Kandahar. They complained to McWilliams that Hekmatyar’s people received preferential access to local training camps and weapons depots. Secular-minded royalist Afghans from the country’s thin, exiled tribal leadership and commercial classes said they had long warned both the Americans and the Saudis, as one put it, “For God’s sake, you’re financing your own assassins.” But the Americans had been convinced by Pakistani intelligence, they complained, that only the most radical Islamists could fight with determination.
A lifelong and passionate cold warrior, Ed McWilliams shared the conviction of conservative intellectuals in Washington that the CIA’s long struggle for Afghan “self-determination” was morally just, even righteous. It appalled him to discover, as he believed he had, that American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war’s end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their will on Afghanistan.
In the middle of October 1988, McWilliams sat down in the diplomatic section of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and tapped out on its crude, secure telex system a twenty-eight-paragraph cable, classified Secret and titled “ISI, Gulbuddin and Afghan Self-Determination.”20 It was at that stage almost certainly the most detailed internal dissent about U.S. support for Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabian intelligence, and the Islamist Afghan rebels ever expressed in official U.S. government channels. The cable was distributed to the State Department, the CIA, the National Security Council, and a few members of Congress.
THERE IS A GROWING FRUSTRATION, BORDERING ON
HOSTILITY, AMONG AFGHANS ACROSS THE IDEOLOGICAL
SPECTRUM AND FROM A BROAD RANGE OF BACKGROUNDS,
TOWARD THE GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN AND TOWARD
THE U.S. . . . THE EXTENT OF THIS SENTIMENT APPEARS
UNPRECEDENTED AND INTENSIFYING. . . . MOST OF THESE
OBSERVERS CLAIM THAT THIS EFFORT [BY HEKMATYAR
AND ISI] HAS THE SUPPORT OF THE RADICAL PAKISTANI
POLITICAL PARTY JAMAAT ISLAMI AND OF RADICAL
ARABS. . . . WHILE THESE CHARGES MAY BE EXAGGERATED,
THE PERCEPTION THEY GIVE RISE TO IS DEEP
AND BROAD—AND OMINOUS. . . .
In the course of his reporting, McWilliams had spoken with a number of American diplomats and analysts “who were not in a position to speak out, because indeed it was a rather intimidating atmosphere.” He felt that he was describing their views of the ISI-CIA-Hekmatyar-Arab problem as well as his own.21
Within the U.S. embassy in Islamabad his cable detonated like a stink bomb. Normally a diplomatic officer had to clear his cabled analyses through the ambassador, but McWilliams had semi-independent status. Bearden was furious at “that little shit.” McWilliams was misinformed, the CIA’s officers felt. He didn’t have access to all their classified information documenting how the CIA managed its unilateral Afghan reporting network, including its support for Massoud and Abdul Haq, or how the agency played its hand with ISI, seeking to ensure that Hekmatyar did not dominate the weapons pipeline. Besides, Bearden discounted some of the criticism of Hekmatyar as KGB pro-paganda. He saw Hekmatyar “as an enemy,” he said later, but he did not regard Massoud as an adequate instrument for the CIA’s prosecution of the war. Bearden accepted the view, shared by Pakistani intelligence, that Massoud “appeared to have established an undeclared cease-fire” with the Soviets in the north. Massoud was “shoring up his position politically,” not fighting as hard as ISI’s main Islamist clients, Bearden believed.
On a more personal, visceral level, the CIA officers found McWilliams uncompromising, humorless, not a team player. At the Kabul embassy McWilliams had been involved in an administrative controversy involving accusations of improper contacts with Afghans by a CIA case officer, and the reports reaching the Islamabad station suggested that McWilliams had squealed on the CIA officer involved. Bearden thought McWilliams had endangered the CIA officer by his conduct. His cable challenging CIA assumptions about the jihad sent Bearden and Oakley into a cold fury.22
McWilliams found Oakley, his deputy Beth Jones, and Bearden unquestioning in their endorsement of current U.S. policy toward Pakistani intelligence. Oakley was a hardworking, intelligent diplomat, but he was also intimidating and rude, McWilliams thought. Oakley and Bearden were both Texans: double trouble when they were together, boisterous, and confident to the point of arrogance. “Everybody is saying that you’re a dumb asshole,” Bearden teased Oakley once before a group of embassy colleagues. “But I correct them. ‘Oakley is not dumb,’ I say.”
For his part, McWilliams felt that he was only initiating a healthy debate about the assumptions underlying the U.S. alliance with ISI. Why should that anger his colleagues so intensely? But it did. McWilliams’s underground allies in the U.S. embassy and consulates in Pakistan opened a back channel to keep him informed about just how thoroughly he had alienated Oakley and Bearden, McWilliams recalled. In the aftermath of his cable about Hekmatyar and ISI, the U.S. embassy in Islamabad had quietly opened an internal investigation into McWilliams’s integrity, the envoy’s informants confided. The CIA had raised serious questions about his handling of classified materials. The embassy was watching his behavior and posing questions to those who knew him.Was McWilliams a homosexual? He seemed to be a drinker. Did he have some sort of problem with alcohol?
THE RUSSIAN WRITER Artyom Borovik traveled with the Soviet Fortieth Army’s last brigades as they prepared to rumble out of Kabul and up the snowy Salang Highway in January and February 1989. It was an extraordinary time in Soviet journalism and military culture, a newly permissive moment of dissent and uncensored speech. “It’s been a strange war,” a lieutenant colonel named Ushakov told Borovik. “We went in when stagnation was at its peak and now leave when truth is raging.”
At the iron-gated, heavy-concrete Soviet embassy compound in Kabul, just down the road from the city zoo, fallen eucalyptus leaves swirled in the bottom of the empty swimming pool. The embassy’s KGB chief insisted on his regular Friday tennis game. His forty-minute sets “seemed quite fantastic to me,” Borovik wrote, “especially when the camouflaged helicopters that provided covering fire for the airborne troopers would fly above his gray-haired head.” The Cold War’s ending now seemed to echo far beyond Afghanistan. “Who knows where a person can feel safer these days—here or in Poland?” the Polish ambassador asked grimly. The old Soviet guard watched bitterly as the last tank convoys pulled out. A general read to Borovik from a dog-eared copy of a book about why Russia had been defeated in its war with Japan in 1904: “In the last few years, our government itself has headed the antiwar movement.”
Boris Gromov was the Fortieth Army’s last commander. He was short and stout, and his face was draped by bangs. He feared the Panjshir Valley. “There’s Massoud with his four thousand troops, so there’s still plenty to worry about,” he told Borovik. The last Russian fatality, a soldier named Lashenenkov, was shot through the neck on the Salang Highway by a rebel sniper. He rode out of Afghanistan on a stretcher lashed to the top of an armored vehicle, his corpse draped in snow.23
On February 15, the day appointed by the Geneva Accords for the departure of the last Soviet troops, Gromov staged a ceremony for the international media on the Termez Bridge, still standing despite the multiple attempts by ISI to persuade Afghan commanders to knock it down. Gromov stopped his tank halfway across the bridge, climbed out of the hatch, and walked toward Uzbekistan as one of his sons approached him with a bouquet of carnations.24
At CIA headquarters in Langley the newly appointed director, William Webster, hosted a champagne party.
At the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, too, they threw a celebration. Bearden sent a cable to Langley: “WE WON.” He decided on his own last act of private theater. His third-floor office in the CIA station lay in the direct line of sight of the KGB office in the Soviet embassy across barren scrub land. Bearden had made a point of always leaving the light on in his office, and at diplomatic receptions he would joke with his KGB counterparts about how hard he was working to bring them down. That night he switched off the light.25
Shevardnadze flew into snow-cradled Kabul that same night with Kryuchkov, the Soviet KGB chief. Najibullah and his wife hosted them for dinner. All autumn and winter the Afghan president had been working to win defections to his cause, hoping to forestall a mujahedin onslaught and the collapse of his government, still being forecast confidently by the CIA. Najibullah had offered Massoud his defense ministry, and when Massoud sent a message refusing the job, the president had decided to leave the seat open, signaling that it could be Massoud’s whenever he felt ready. Najibullah pushed through pay raises to special guard forces trained to defend Kabul. He organized militias to defend the northern gas fields that provided his government’s only reliable income. He was doing what he could, he told his Soviet sponsors.
But by now the KGB shared the CIA’s assumption that Najibullah was doomed without Soviet troops to protect him. That night over dinner Shevardnadze offered Najibullah and his wife a new home in Moscow if they wanted to leave Kabul. Shevardnadze worried about their safety. Najibullah’s wife answered: “We would prefer to be killed on the doorsteps of this house rather than die in the eyes of our people by choosing the path of flight from their bitter misfortune. We will all stay with them here to the end, whether it be happy or bitter.”26
It would be bitter.