PETER TOMSEN TOOK OVER Ed McWilliams’s role in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan late in 1989, but at a higher level of the Washington bureaucracy. He was America’s new special envoy to the Afghan resistance, with a mandate from Congress and the privileges of an ambassador. Tomsen was a bright-eyed, gentle-mannered, silver-haired career diplomat serving as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Beijing at the time of his appointment. A multilingual officer with experience in South Asia, although none directly in Afghanistan, Tomsen was well schooled in Washington’s interagency policy wars. He was collegial, articulate, and quick with a smile, but also sharp-minded, ambitious, and determined to defend the prerogatives of his new office. Tomsen lobbied for and won broad authority from Robert Kimmitt, the undersecretary of state, who had been assigned to watch Afghan policy for Secretary of State James Baker. Kimmitt signed off on a formal, classified “terms of reference” for Tomsen that spelled out the envoy’s powers and his access to policy meetings, a key measure of clout in Washington.1
Tomsen planned to live in Washington and travel frequently to Pakistan until the mujahedin finally took Kabul. Then, he was told, he would be appointed as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He made his first trip to Islamabad just as McWilliams was being shown the embassy’s door.
In Peshawar and Quetta he traveled the same reporting trail as McWilliams had a year earlier, meeting with dozens of independent Afghan commanders and political activists, many of them openly hostile toward Pakistani intelligence and the CIA. He met Yahya and Ahmed Zia Massoud, Ahmed Shah’s brothers, and heard angry accounts of Hekmatyar’s campaign to massacre Massoud’s commanders in the north. He met with Abdul Haq, now openly critical of his former CIA partners. Haq leveled pointed complaints about how Pakistani intelligence favored Hekmatyar and other radical Islamists. From exiled Afghan intellectuals and moderate tribal leaders, including Hamid Karzai, then a young rebel political organizer, he heard impassioned pleadings for an American engagement with King Zahir Shah in Rome, still seen by many Pashtun refugees as a symbol of traditional Afghan unity. Tomsen cabled his first impressions back to Washington: The Afghans he met were bound by their hatred of Najibullah and other former communists clinging to power in Kabul, but they were equally wary of Islamist extremists such as Hekmatyar and were angry about interference in the war by Pakistani intelligence.2
When he returned to Washington, Tomsen’s reports reinforced doubts within the U.S. government about the CIA’s covert war. The catastrophe at Jalalabad had discredited ISI and its supporters in Langley somewhat, strengthening those at the State Department and in Congress who backed McWilliams’s analysis. The CIA was also under pressure from the mujahedin’s champions in Congress because of logistical problems that had crimped the weapons pipeline to Pakistan. In addition, the civil war now raging openly between Hekmatyar and Massoud raised questions about whether the rebels could ever unite to overthrow Najibullah. The mujahedin had not captured a single provincial capital since the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The fall of the Berlin Wall in early November 1989 changed the Afghan war’s geopolitical context, making it plain that whatever danger Najibullah might represent in Kabul, he was not the vanguard of hegemonic global communism anymore. And McWilliams’s arguments about the dangers of Islamic radicalism had resonated in Washington. Within the State Department, tongues wagged about McWilliams’s involuntary transfer from the Islamabad embassy apparently because of his dissenting views. Was Afghan policy so sacrosanct that it had become a loyalty test? Or had the time come to reconsider the all-out drive for a military victory over Najibullah?
That autumn in Washington, meeting at the State Department, Tomsen led a new interagency Afghan working group through a secret review of U.S. policy. Thomas Twetten, then chief of the Near East Division in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, attended for Langley. Richard Haas, from the National Security Council, participated in the sessions, as did delegates from the Pentagon and several sections of the State Department.3
An all-source intelligence analysis, classified Secret, had been produced as a backdrop to the policy debate. The document assessed all the internal government reporting about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan from the summer of 1988 to the summer of 1989. It laid out the splits among American analysts about whether Pakistani intelligence—with its close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Islamists—supported or conflicted with U.S. interests.4
Influenced by the McWilliams critique, members of the Afghan working group looked for a new policy direction. They were not prepared to give up completely on the CIA-led military track. The great majority of Afghans still sought Najibullah’s overthrow, by force if necessary, and U.S. policy still supported Afghan “self-determination.” Military force would also keep pressure on Gorbachev’s reforming government in Moscow, challenging Soviet hardliners in the military and the KGB who remained a threat to both Gorbachev and the United States, in the working group’s view. But after days of debate the members agreed that the time had come to introduce diplomatic negotiations into the mix. Ultimately, Tomsen finalized a secret new two-track policy, the first major change in the American approach to the Afghan war since the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The new policy still sought Najibullah’s ouster, but it also promoted a moderate, broad-based successor government.
On the first track of the new approach, the State Department would open political negotiations aimed at “sidelining the extremists,” meaning not only Najibullah but anti-American Islamists such as Hekmatyar and Sayyaf as well. American diplomats would begin talks at the United Nations with the Soviet Union, with Benazir Bhutto’s government, and with exiled King Zahir Shah about the possibility of a political settlement for Afghanistan. The State Department could now honestly argue that U.S. policy was no longer the captive of Hekmatyar or Pakistani intelligence.
At the same time the CIA would continue to press the covert war to increase rebel military pressure against Najibullah. The use of force might coerce Najibullah to leave office as part of a political settlement, or it might topple him directly. The CIA would continue its collaboration with Pakistani intelligence and would also bypass ISI channels by providing cash and weapons directly to Afghan commanders fighting in the field. Tomsen hoped to overtake the moribund, discredited Afghan interim government with a new commanders’ shura to be organized with American help, made up of rebel military leaders such as Massoud, Abdul Haq, and Ismail Khan. By strengthening these field commanders, the Afghan working group believed, the United States could circumvent the Islamist theologians in Peshawar and their allies in ISI. The new policy pointed the United States away from the Islamist agendas of Pakistani and Saudi intelligence—at least on paper.5
TOMSEN FLEW TO Islamabad early in 1990 to announce the new approach to Pakistan’s government. Oakley arranged a meeting at the Pakistan foreign ministry. Milton Bearden had rotated back to Langley the previous summer; his successor as Islamabad station chief, known to his colleagues as Harry, attended for the CIA. Harry, a case officer from the old school, had a pleasant but unexpressive face, and he was very difficult to read. He was seen by his State Department colleagues as closed off, unusually secretive, and protective of CIA turf. Pakistani intelligence also sent a brigadier and a colonel to take notes. Tomsen had invited ISI in the hope that they would accept and implement his initiative. He described the secret new American policy in a formal presentation that lasted more than an hour. The Pakistanis expressed enthusiasm—especially the diplomats from Pakistan’s foreign ministry, led by Yaqub Khan, who had long advocated a round-table political settlement involving King Zahir Shah. Even the Pakistani intelligence officers said they were in favor.
Tomsen planned to fly on to Riyadh to make the same presentation in private to Prince Turki at the headquarters of Saudi intelligence, and from there he would go to Rome to open discussions with the aging exiled Afghan king. But it took only a few hours to learn that the chorus of support expressed at the foreign ministry had been misleading. After the presentation, Tomsen and Oakley were talking in the ambassador’s suite on the Islamabad embassy’s third floor when the CIA station chief walked in.
“Peter can’t go to Rome,” Harry announced. “It’s going to upset the offensive we have planned with ISI.” The chief explained that with another Afghan fighting season approaching, the CIA’s Islamabad station had been working that winter with Pakistani intelligence on a new military plan to bring down Najibullah. Rebel commanders around Afghanistan planned to launch simultaneous attacks on key Afghan cities and supply lines. The new offensive was poised and ready, and supplies were on the move. If word leaked out now that the United States was opening talks with King Zahir Shah, it would anger many of the Islamist mujahedin leaders in Peshawar who saw the king as a threat. The CIA chief also argued that Islamist mujahedin would not fight if they believed the king was “coming back.” Hekmatyar and other Islamist leaders would almost certainly block the carefully planned offensive. Tomsen was livid. This was exactly the point: The new political talks were supposed to isolate the Islamist leaders in Peshawar. But they discovered that Harry had already contacted the CIA’s Near East Division in Langley and that Thomas Twetten, the division chief, had already complained to Kimmitt at State, arguing that the opening to Zahir Shah should be delayed. Bureaucratically, Tomsen had been outflanked. “Why are you so pro-Zahir Shah?” Twetten asked Tomsen later.
Tomsen flew to Riyadh and met with Prince Turki to explain the new American policy—or, at least, the new State Department policy—but Rome was out for now. It was the beginning of another phase of intense struggle between State and the CIA, in many ways a continuation of the fight begun by McWilliams.6
What did it matter? At stake was the character of postwar, postcommunist Afghanistan. As Tomsen contemplated Afghanistan’s future, he sought a political model in the only peaceful, modernizing period in Afghan history: the decades between 1919 and 1973 when Zahir Shah’s weak but benign royal family governed from Kabul and a decentralized politics prevailed in the countryside, infused with Islamic faith and dominated by tribal or clan hierarchies. Tomsen believed the king’s rule had produced a slow movement toward modernization and democratic politics. It had delivered a national constitution in 1963 and parliamentary elections in 1965 and 1969. By appealing to Zahir Shah as a symbolic ruler, the State Department hoped to create space in Afghanistan for federal, traditional politics. After so many years of war, it obviously would not be possible to return to the old royalist order, but wartime commanders such as Massoud and Abdul Haq, whose families had roots in traditional political communities, might construct a relatively peaceful transition. The alternative—the international Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, enforced by Pakistani military power—promised only continuing war and instability, Tomsen and his allies at State believed. CIA analysts, on the other hand, tended to view Afghanistan pessimistically. They believed that peace was beyond reach anytime soon. Pakistani influence in Afghanistan looked inevitable to some CIA operatives—Islamabad was relatively strong, Kabul weak. There was no reason for the United States to oppose an expansion of Pakistani power into Afghanistan, they felt, notwithstanding the anti-American rhetoric of ISI’s jihadist clients.
Tomsen might possess an interagency policy document that committed the CIA to a new approach to the Afghan jihad, but he had yet to persuade CIA officers to embrace the policy. Some of them found Tomsen irritating; he had a habit, perhaps unconscious, of coughing up light laughter in the midst of serious conversation, including during solemn, tense interactions with key Afghan commanders or Pakistani generals. Some of the Afghans seemed to recoil at this, CIA officers observed. Tomsen sought to strengthen his position inside the embassy by building a partnership with Oakley, but the ambassador was an elusive ally, embracing the envoy and his views at some points but denouncing him disrespectfully in private at other times. More broadly, the CIA operated in Pakistan largely in secret and with great autonomy. The Islamabad station was connected to Langley with a separate communication system to which diplomats did not have access. In the station and at headquarters most CIA officers regarded Tomsen’s new policy as a naïve enterprise that was unlikely to succeed. They also saw it as an unwelcome distraction from the main business of finishing the covert war. As for postwar Afghan politics, the CIA’s Twetten felt that the Afghans “were going to have to sort it out themselves. . . . It might get really messy.” The United States should not get involved in picking political winners in Afghanistan or in negotiating a new government for the country. There was nobody capable of putting Afghanistan back together again, Twetten believed, including Massoud.7 Still, the CIA had a mission backed by a presidential finding: to support Afghan “self-determination,” however messy, through covert action and close collaboration with Pakistani and Saudi intelligence. The CIA’s Near East Division officers said they had no special sympathy for Hekmatyar or Sayyaf, but they remained deeply committed to a military solution in Afghanistan. They were going to finish the job.
A Pakistani military team traveled secretly to Washington to lay out an “action plan” for an early 1990 offensive. The plan would include support for a new conventional rebel army built around Hekmatyar’s Lashkar-I-Isar, or Army of Sacrifice. Pursuing its own agenda, Pakistani intelligence had built up this militia force, equipping it with artillery and transport, to compete with Massoud’s irregular army in the north.8 Hekmatyar’s army was becoming the most potent military wing of the ISI-backed Muslim Brotherhood networks based in Pakistan—a force that could operate in Afghanistan but also, increasingly, in Kashmir.
The CIA station in Islamabad helped that winter to coordinate broad attacks against Afghanistan’s major cities and roads. Some of the planning involved ISI, but the CIA also reached out through its secret unilateral network to build up key Afghan commanders, including Massoud. If dispersed rebel units—even some at war with one another, such as those loyal to Hekmatyar and Massoud—could be persuaded to hit Najibullah’s supply lines and cities at the same time, they might provide the last push needed to take Kabul. The CIA and Pakistani intelligence remained focused on the fall of Kabul, not on who would take power once Najibullah was gone.
Harry, Gary Schroen, and their case officers met repeatedly during that winter of 1989–1990 with officers in ISI’s Afghan bureau to plan the new offensive. Harry met face-to-face with Hekmatyar. The CIA organized supplies so that Hekmatyar’s forces could rocket the Bagram airport, north of Kabul, as the offensive began.9
Massoud figured centrally in the CIA’s plans that winter. Schroen traveled to Peshawar in January to talk to Massoud on a secure radio maintained by his brother, Yahya. Schroen asked Massoud to cut off the Salang Highway as it entered Kabul from the north. If Massoud’s forces closed the highway while other ISI-backed rebel groups smashed into Khost and Kabul from the east, Najibullah might not be able to resist for long, the CIA’s officers believed. Massoud negotiated for a $500,000 cash payment, and Schroen delivered the money to one of Massoud’s brothers on January 31, 1990.
But Massoud’s forces never moved, as far as the CIA could tell. Furious at “that little bastard,” as he called him in frustration, Harry cut Massoud’s monthly stipend from $200,000 to $50,000. The Islamabad station sent a message to the Panjshir emphasizing the CIA’s anger and dismay.
All across Afghanistan the CIA’s offensive stalled. The mujahedin seemed uncoordinated, unmotivated, and distracted by internal warfare. They did not capture any major cities; Najibullah remained in power in Kabul, unmolested.
AS SPRING APPROACHED, the CIA station began to pick up reports from its unilateral Afghan agents that Pakistani intelligence was now secretly moving forward with its own plan to install Hekmatyar in Kabul as Afghanistan’s new ruler. The CIA’s informants reported that a wealthy fundamentalist Saudi sheikh, Osama bin Laden, was providing millions of dollars to support ISI’s new plan for Hekmatyar. The Islamabad station transmitted these reports about bin Laden to Langley.10
On March 7, 1990, in downtown Kabul the conspiracy erupted into plain view. Afghan air force officers loyal to Najibullah’s hard-line communist defense minister, Shahnawaz Tanai, swooped over the presidential palace in government jets, releasing bombs onto the rooftop and into the courtyard, hoping (but failing) to kill President Najibullah at his desk. Defecting armored forces loyal to Tanai drove south from the city, trying to open a cordon for Hekmatyar’s Army of Sacrifice, which hurried toward Kabul from the Pakistani border.
With help from Pakistani intelligence Tanai and Hekmatyar had been holding secret talks about a coup attempt for months. The talks united a radical communist with a radical Islamist anticommunist. The pair shared Ghilzai Pashtun tribal heritage and a record of ruthless bloodletting. Tanai led a faction of Afghanistan’s Communist Party, known as the Khalqis, who were rivals of Najibullah’s faction.11
According to the CIA’s reporting at the time, the money needed to buy off Afghan army units and win the support of rebel commanders came at least in part from bin Laden. These reports, while fragmentary, were consistent with the agency’s portrait of bin Laden at the time as a copious funder of local Islamist causes, a donor rather than an operator, a sheikh with loose ties to Saudi officialdom who was flattered and cultivated in Peshawar by the recipients of his largesse, especially the radicals gathered around Hekmatyar and Sayyaf.12
During the same period that the Tanai coup was being planned—around December 1989—Pakistani intelligence reached out to bin Laden for money to bribe legislators to throw Benazir Bhutto out of office, according to reports that later reached Bhutto. According to Bhutto, ISI officers telephoned bin Laden in Saudi Arabia and asked him to fly to Pakistan to help organize a no-confidence vote in parliament against Bhutto’s government, the first step in a Pakistan army plan to remove her forcibly from office.13
That winter, then, bin Laden worked with Pakistani intelligence against both Najibullah and Bhutto, the perceived twin enemies of Islam they saw holding power in Kabul and Islamabad. If Bhutto fell in Islamabad and Hekmatyar seized power with Tanai’s help in Kabul, the Islamists would have pulled off a double coup.
Did bin Laden work on the Tanai coup attempt on his own or as a semiofficial liaison for Saudi intelligence? The evidence remains thin and inconclusive. Bin Laden was still in good graces with the Saudi government at the time of the Tanai coup attempt; his first explicit break with Prince Turki and the royal family lay months in the future. While the CIA’s Afghan informants named bin Laden as a funder of the Hekmatyar-Tanai coup, other accounts named Saudi intelligence as a source of funds. Were these separate funding tracks or the same? None of the reports then or later were firm or definitive.14
It was the beginning of a pattern for American intelligence analysts: Whenever bin Laden interacted with his own Saudi government, he seemed to do so inside a shroud.
Hekmatyar announced that he and Tanai had formed a new Revolutionary Council. But within hours of the first bombing attacks in downtown Kabul it became obvious to wavering Afghan commanders that the coup would fail. Government troops loyal to Najibullah routed Tanai’s defectors in Kabul. Tanai himself fled to Pakistan where he and his cabal were sheltered by Pakistani intelligence. Hekmatyar’s Army of Sacrifice never penetrated the capital’s outskirts.
It remains unclear exactly when the CIA’s Islamabad station learned of the Hekmatyar-Tanai coup attempt and whether its officers offered any comment—supportive or discouraging—to Pakistani intelligence. Many CIA operatives felt that Pakistani intelligence officers “never were honest with us on Hekmatyar,” as Thomas Twetten, then number two in the Directorate of Operations, recalled it.15 At a minimum, ISI’s officers knew when they planned their coup that the CIA was creating a helpful context by organizing attacks on Najibullah’s supply lines. But the CIA also kept secret from Pakistani intelligence the extent and details of its unilateral contacts with Afghan commanders such as Massoud. The agency did not inform ISI, for instance, about the $500,000 payment it made to Massoud on January 31, just five weeks before the coup attempt. The coup’s timing is also swathed in mystery. Tanai may have moved hurriedly, ahead of schedule, because of a military treason trial under way that winter in Kabul that threatened to expose his plotting.
In the aftermath Massoud stood his ground in the north. The CIA might be angry at him for failing to hit the Salang Highway that winter, but what was he supposed to make of Hekmatyar’s plot to take Kabul preemptively, a conspiracy so transparently sponsored by Pakistani intelligence, the CIA’s intimate partner in the war? Massoud had ample cause to wonder whether the CIA, in making its $500,000 payment that winter, had been trying to use his forces in the north to help install Hekmatyar in Kabul.
Massoud told Arab mediators that he still hoped to avoid an all-out war with Hekmatyar. He did not want a direct confrontation with ISI, either. Massoud made plain his ambition to assume a major role in any future government in Kabul. He expected autonomy for his councils in the north. He did not aspire to rule the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan directly, however; he knew that was impractical for any Tajik leader. How much Massoud would be willing to negotiate with Pashtun leaders remained open to question. Peter Tomsen hoped his National Commanders Shura would provide a vehicle for such compromise beyond the control of Pakistani intelligence. One thing was certain: Massoud would not stand idly by while Hekmatyar seized power in the capital.
Massoud husbanded his supplies that spring, built up his alliances across the north, and waited. The long anticommunist jihad’s last act still lay ahead.
HEKMATYAR’S EAGERNESS to conspire with a hard-line communist general and the willingness of Pakistani intelligence to support the plot appalled many Afghans and bolstered support for Peter Tomsen’s new policy approach in Washington. The coup attempt made plain that Afghanistan’s Cold War divides were dissolving rapidly. Extremists from seemingly opposite poles in the post–Soviet-Afghan war had linked up. It was all the more crucial, Tomsen and his allies argued, for the United States to build up moderate centrists in the Afghan rebel movement and to search for stable postwar politics.
It was by now conventional wisdom within the State Department that Saudi intelligence had become the Afghan war’s most important hidden hand and that no new approach could be constructed without Prince Turki al-Faisal’s personal support. Peter Tomsen and his team traveled frequently to Riyadh.16
Prince Turki remained an elusive, ambiguous figure. In the decade since his first meetings with Pakistan’s General Akhtar and his Afghan clients in 1980, the prince had evolved into one of Saudi Arabia’s most important leaders, a high-level interlocutor between American officials and the Saudi royal family, and a frequent and mysterious traveler to Middle Eastern capitals. He maintained palatial residences in Jedda and Riyadh. He summered at luxurious resorts in Europe. Now forty-five and no longer the boyish foreign policy expert he had been at the start of his career, Turki had become an elegant professional, an attentive consumer of satellite television news, and a reader of serious policy journals. He had built personal relationships with senior officers in every intelligence service in Europe and the Arab world. In addition to Pakistan he poured subsidies into the intelligence services of moderate Saudi allies such as Morocco and Jordan, buying access to information and people.17 He seemed most at home on the luxurious circuit of foreign policy and international security conferences held at Davos, Switzerland, or the Aspen Institute in Colorado, where diplomats and generals debated the challenges of the post–Cold War world while smoking Cuban cigars. Within the Saudi royal family, Turki’s influence was constrained by his relative youth. In a political system based on family and seniority, he languished in the second tier, tied by blood and political outlook to the family’s most liberal and modernizing branch but not old or well placed enough to be its leader. Still, as CIA and other American officials identified Turki as perhaps the most reliable individual in the Saudi cabinet and as his reputation for serious work grew, Turki established an authority within the Saudi government far greater than his years would otherwise permit. On Afghanistan he was without question the man to see.
Whisked to the General Intelligence Department’s boxy Riyadh headquarters in a long stretch limousine, Tomsen and his team, usually including the CIA’s Riyadh station chief, sat for long hours with Turki in the spring of 1990 to talk about the new American approach to the covert war. These were languid sessions on overstuffed Louis XIV furniture in air-conditioned offices laden with tea and sweets. Turki seemed to revel in such conversation. The meetings would begin at 10 or 11 P.M. and drift toward dawn. The prince was unfailingly polite and persistently curious about the details—even the minutia—of the Afghan war. He tracked individual commanders, intellectual figures, and the most complex nuances of tribal politics. He had questions, too, about American policy and domestic politics, and like many other Georgetown University alumni influenced by Jesuit rigor, he seemed to enjoy abstract, conceptual policy issues.
Tomsen and others at the State Department tried to persuade Prince Turki that Saudi interests as well as American interests now lay in moving away from the Islamists backed by his own operatives and by Pakistani intelligence. Tomsen wanted Saudi funding to help build up his alternative shura of independent Afghan rebel commanders, outside of ISI control but with a strong role in the new movement for Massoud. In Washington, Tomsen arranged for a meeting between one of Massoud’s representatives and the influential Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, in the hope that Bandar would cable back his support for the commanders’ shura to Prince Turki and others. Turki handled the appeal that spring the way Saudi intelligence usually dealt with sticky conflicts: He opened his checkbook, and he played both sides. Turki handed over millions of dollars to support Tomsen’s new commanders’ initiative.18 At the same time Turki increased his support to Pakistani intelligence, Tomsen’s nemesis, outstripping the CIA’s contributions for the first time.
For the period from October 1989 through October 1990, Congress cut its secret allocation for the CIA’s covert Afghan program by about 60 percent, to $280 million. Saudi intelligence, meanwhile, provided $435 million from the kingdom’s official treasury and another $100 million from the private resources of various Saudi and Kuwaiti princes. Saudi and Kuwaiti funding continued to increase during the first seven months of 1990, bettering the CIA’s contribution. Saudi intelligence organized what it called the King Fahd Plan for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, a $250 million civil project of repair and construction. This tsunami of Gulf money ensured that even if the CIA’s operatives cooperated fully with the new U.S. policy designed to isolate extremists such as Hekmatyar, the agency’s efforts would be dwarfed by the unregulated money flowing from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.19
What was Prince Turki’s motivation in this double game? The Americans who interacted with him, who mainly admired him, could only speculate. They accepted that Turki—like Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, or Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister—belonged to the pro-Western, modernizing wing of the Saudi royal family. Compared to some other senior princes, Turki embraced American and European culture and sought to emulate the West’s models of economic development. Clearly he imagined a Saudi Arabia in the future where the kingdom’s economy interacted closely with the United States and Europe, and where economic prosperity gradually produced a more open, tolerant, international culture in Saudi Arabia, albeit one still dominated by Islamic values. Yet Turki’s funding of radical Islamists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere empowered leaders and movements violently opposed to the very Western systems Turki professed to admire. Why? Like the CIA, the Saudi government was slow to recognize the scope and violent ambitions of the international Islamist threat. Also, Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual competition with its powerful Shiite Islamic neighbor, Iran. He needed credible Sunni, pro-Saudi Islamist clients to compete with Iran’s clients, especially in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which had sizable Shiite populations. The Saudis inevitably saw Massoud and his northern coalition through the prism of language: Massoud’s followers predominantly spoke Farsi, or Persian, the language of Iran, and while Massoud and his Panjshiri group were Sunnis, there were Shias in their northern territory. Within Saudi Arabia itself, Prince Turki’s modernizing wing of the royal family was attacked continually by the kingdom’s conservativeulama who privately and sometimes publicly accused the royals of selling out to the Christian West, betraying Saudi Arabia’s role as steward of the holiest places in the Islamic world. The internal struggle between the austere Ikhwan militia and the royal House of Saud, less than a century old, was far from over. Prince Turki and other liberal princes found it easier to appease their domestic Islamist rivals by allowing them to proselytize and make mischief abroad than to confront and resolve these tensions at home.
American motivations during this period were easier to describe. Indifference was the largest factor. President Bush paid hardly any attention to Afghanistan. CIA officers who met the president reported that he seemed barely aware that the war there was continuing. His National Security Council had few high-level meetings on the subject. The Soviet Union was dissolving and Germany was reuniting: These were the issues of the day. With Soviet troops gone, Afghanistan had suddenly become a third-tier foreign policy issue, pushed out to the edges of the Washington bureaucracy. The covert action policy, while formally endorsed by the president, by 1990 moved to a great extent on automatic pilot. Still, American negotiators made clear in public that they weretrying to chart a new policy direction, however far they might operate from the center of White House power. Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmitt announced that the United States would not object if Najibullah participated in elections organized to settle the Afghan war. After the initial delay caused by the CIA, Tomsen opened the first direct talks between the United States and exiled king Zahir Shah.
“The impression is being created that the Americans are actually concerned with the danger of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism,” Gorbachev confided to Najibullah in private that August. “They think, and they frankly say this, that the establishment today of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran would mean that tomorrow this phenomenon would encompass the entire Islamic world. And there are already symptoms of this, if you take Algeria, for example. But the Americans will remain Americans. And it would be naïve if one permitted the thought that we see only this side of their policy, and do not notice the other aspects.”20
In Islamabad the CIA-ISI partnership was under pressure. There was continual turnover at the top of both intelligence agencies. Benazir Bhutto fired Hamid Gul as ISI chief because she learned that Gul was conspiring to overthrow her government. She tried to bring in a Bhutto family loyalist, a retired general, to run ISI, but the new man could never control the Afghan bureau and resigned. The next ISI chief, Asad Durrani, quickly discovered the outlines of the CIA Islamabad station’s unilateral network of paid Afghan commanders, including the agency’s extensive independent contacts with Massoud.21 This discovery reinforced the rising suspicions of Pakistani intelligence officers that the Americans, in bed with Bhutto, were now playing their own double game.
Peter Tomsen deepened these Pakistani doubts by flying in and out of Islamabad, convening meeting after meeting to push both the CIA and Pakistani intelligence to support his new “grassroots” National Commanders Shura. The assembly convened for the first time in Paktia, attracting about three hundred mostly Pashtun commanders. To aid the effort, to bolster Massoud, and to improve Massoud’s supply lines, the U.S. Agency for International Development built all-weather roads from Pakistan to northern Afghanistan. At first the CIA objected to the emphasis on Massoud. The station had just cut Massoud’s stipend because of his failure to attack the Salang Highway. (Because of the agency’s secrecy rules, CIA officers could not tell most of their State counterparts about what had happened, which exacerbated tensions between the two groups.) Still, under continual pressure the agency agreed to give Massoud another chance.
Pakistani intelligence continued to build up Hekmatyar’s Army of Sacrifice, integrating Tanai and other former Afghan army officers into its command. In October 1990 the CIA station’s unilateral Afghan network reported a new alarm: A massive convoy of seven hundred Pakistani trucks carrying forty thousand long-range rockets had crossed the border from Peshawar, headed to Kabul’s outskirts. There Hekmatyar planned to batter the capital into final submission with a massive artillery attack, the largest of the war by far, a barrage that would surely claim many hundreds of civilian lives. On October 6, Tomsen met in Peshawar with ten leading independent commanders, including Abdul Haq and Massoud’s representatives. Hekmatyar’s planned rain of death on Kabul would be “worse than Jalalabad,” the commander Amin Wardak warned. As a Confidential cable to Washington describing Tomsen’s meeting put it, “The commanders were keenly aware that an unsuccessful military attack with heavy civilian casualties would rebound against the mujahedin.” They would be seen in the eyes of the world as complicit in mass killings. Also, if Kabul fell without a replacement government, there would be “political chaos,” Abdul Haq warned. Massoud and other commanders who could not accept Hekmatyar would wage war against him. Wardak estimated “further destruction, perhaps 200–300 thousand casualties,” the October 10 cable reported. As it happened, this was a grimly accurate forecast of Kabul’s future.22
Only after Oakley warned of the gravest consequences for American-Pakistani relations if Pakistani intelligence did not abandon the plan did Durrani, the ISI chief, agree to call off the attack and turn the trucks back. “Tanai Two,” as the planned mass rocket attack came to be known in the Islamabad embassy, had been aborted in the nick of time, but it signaled the Pakistani army’s deepening break with American priorities. Oakley, now more firmly opposed to Pakistani intelligence than he had been during McWilliams’s tour, denounced ISI as “a rogue elephant” in a meeting with Pakistan’s president. Had the CIA known about this Hekmatyar rocket assault plan all along? Had Harry endorsed or acquiesced in it despite the prospect of thousands of civilian deaths in Kabul? Tomsen and others at State believed he had. They saw this episode as an example of the independent CIA war being commanded in secret from the Islamabad station while State’s diplomats followed their own policies. Tomsen and Harry met at the station chief’s house in Islamabad, and over tuna sandwiches and soup the CIA chief recounted the history of the October rocket attack plan as he knew it. He described a meeting he had attended with ISI and Hekmatyar at which Hekmatyar, boasting of his ability to capture Kabul for the mujahedin, had exclaimed, “I can do it!” The station chief said he had insisted that Hekmatyar work with other Afghan commanders. Tomsen concluded that the Islamabad station had likely endorsed the operation and perhaps even authorized weapons and other supplies. Tomsen regarded the decision as “not only a horribly bad one” but symptomatic of a larger danger. “It reflected all of the ills of the CIA’s own self-compartmentalization and inability to understand the Afghan political context,” Tomsen wrote at the time.23
Days after the excitement over Hekmatyar’s aborted attack, Tomsen drove to the northern Pakistani town of Chitral to prepare a second National Commanders Shura. Massoud attended, as did prominent commanders from around Afghanistan. The organizers, who included Abdul Haq, banned Hekmatyar’s commanders. Sayyaf ordered his commanders to boycott. But hundreds of other Afghan rebel leaders gathered for days of political and military discussions. It was the largest gathering of wartime Afghan field commanders in years. ISI’s Durrani insisted on attending. He stayed in a tent nearby but was excluded from the meetings. Still, the ISI chief managed to get a message through to Massoud, and he invited him to Islamabad for a meeting.24
Massoud’s representatives met with Prince Turki in Riyadh for the first time. Turki agreed to facilitate a new rapprochement with ISI. Massoud, who had been stung by the cutback of his CIA subsidy, agreed to travel to Pakistan for the first time in a decade. He was prepared to compete with Hekmatyar for support from Pakistani intelligence as the war’s endgame approached. In Islamabad he met with Durrani and with Harry, the CIA station chief.25
Durrani, who sought to build trust with Massoud and enlist him in a unified rebel push against Najibullah, promised to resume military supplies to Massoud. Harry agreed to restore some of Massoud’s retainer, increasing his stipend from $50,000 to $100,000 per month. The CIA instructed Pakistani intelligence to send more weapons convoys across the now half-built American road to the north. Some of these ISI shipments to Massoud, convoys as large as 250 trucks, did get through. On direct orders from the American embassy in Islamabad, Massoud received his first, albeit small, batch of Stinger missiles. But in other cases, heavy convoys dispatched by Pakistani intelligence to Afghanistan’s north mysteriously disappeared, never reaching the Panjshir. The Americans suspected that Pakistani intelligence was doing all it could to resist their pressure to aid Massoud.26
A pattern in the CIA-ISI liaison was emerging: Faced with ardent demands from the Americans, ISI officers in the Afghan bureau now nodded their heads agreeably—and then followed their own policy to the extent they could, sometimes with CIA collaboration, sometimes unilaterally.
The dominant view among Pakistani generals, whether they were Islamists or secularists, was that Hekmatyar offered the best hope for a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. The strong feeling even among the most liberal Punjabi generals—whose sons cavorted in London and who spent their own afternoons on the army’s Rawalpindi golf course—was “We should settle this business. It’s a sore on our backside.”27
The Islamabad CIA station spent much of its time worrying about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. In 1990, just as the agency’s partnership with ISI on the Afghan frontier was fraying, the CIA’s sources began to report that Pakistan’s generals had pushed their nuclear program to a new and dangerous level. After a visit to Washington, Robert Oakley returned to Islamabad carrying a private message for Pakistan’s army. Pakistan was now just one or two metaphorical turns of a screw away from possessing nuclear bombs, and the CIA knew it. Under an American law known as the Pressler Amendment, the CIA’s conclusion automatically triggered the end of American military and economic assistance to the government of Pakistan—$564 million in aid that year.28 After a decade of intensive U.S.-Pakistan cooperation, the United States had decided, in effect, to file for divorce.
American fears of nuclear proliferation from Pakistan were well grounded. Mirza Aslam Beg, the army chief of staff, opened discussions in Tehran with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard about the possibility of Pakistani nuclear cooperation with Iran. Beg discussed a deal in which Pakistan would trade its bombmaking expertise for Iranian oil. Oakley met with the Pakistani general to explain “what a disaster this would be, certainly in terms of the relationship with the United States,” and Beg agreed to abandon the Iranian talks.29 But it seemed now that in their relations with the Pakistan army, American officials were racing from one fire to the next.
A popular rebellion had erupted late in 1989 across Pakistan’s border in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a vale of mountain lakes with a largely Muslim population that had been the site of three wars in four decades between India and Pakistan. Inspired by their success against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officers announced to Bhutto that they were prepared to use the same methods of covert jihad to drive India out of Kashmir. They had begun to build up Muslim Brotherhood militant networks in the Kashmir valley, using religious schools and professional organizations. ISI organized training camps for Kashmiri guerrillas in Afghanistan’s Paktia province where the Arab volunteers had earlier organized their own camps. According to the CIA’s reporting that year, the Kashmiri volunteers trained side by side with the Arab jihadists. The Kashmir guerrillas began to surface in Indian-held territory wielding Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons siphoned from the Afghan pipeline. The CIA became worried that Pakistani intelligence might also divert to Kashmir high-technology weapons such as the buffalo gun sniper rifles originally shipped to Pakistan to kill Soviet military officers. The United States passed private warnings to India to protect politicians and government officials traveling in Kashmir from long-range sniper attacks.30
The Afghan jihad had crossed one more border. It was about to expand again.
BY LATE 1990, bin Laden had returned to his family’s business in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. He remained in cordial contact with Ahmed Badeeb, the chief of staff to Saudi intelligence, who offered bin Laden “business advice when he asked for it.”31
Badeeb learned that bin Laden had begun to organize former Saudi and Yemeni volunteers from his days in Afghanistan to undertake a new jihad in South Yemen, then governed by Soviet-backed Marxists.Working from apartment buildings in Jedda, he had funded and equipped them to open a guerrilla war against the South Yemen government. Once bin Laden’s mujahedin crossed the border, the Yemeni government picked up some of them and complained to Riyadh, denouncing bin Laden by name.32
By the autumn of 1990, bin Laden was agitated, too, about the threat facing Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi army forces that had invaded and occupied Kuwait in August. Bin Laden wanted to lead a new jihad against the Iraqis. He spoke out at schools and small gatherings in Jedda about how it would be possible to defeat Saddam Hussein by organizing battalions of righteous Islamic volunteers. Bin Laden objected violently to the decision of the Saudi royal family to invite American troops to defend the kingdom. He demanded an audience with senior princes in the Saudi royal family—and King Fahd himself—to present his plans for a new jihad.
Uncertain what to make of bin Laden’s rantings and concerned about the violence he was stirring up in Yemen, a senior Saudi prince, along with a pro-government Islamic theologian named Khalil A. Khalil, traveled to Jedda to hear bin Laden out and assess his state of mind. Bin Laden brought bodyguards to the private meeting. He carried a proposal of about sixty pages, typed in Arabic, outlining his ideas.
Khalil found bin Laden “very formal, very tense.” Bin Laden demanded to meet with King Fahd. He declared, “I want to fight against Saddam, an infidel. I want to establish a guerrilla war against Iraq.” Khalil asked how many troops bin Laden had. “Sixty thousand,” bin Laden boasted, “and twenty thousand Saudis.” Khalil and the prince knew this was foolishness, but bin Laden boasted, “I don’t need any weapons. I have plenty.”
Finally, the senior prince at the meeting told bin Laden that the Saudi king would not meet with him. The king only met with ulama, religious scholars, he said. But since bin Laden was making a military proposal and since he was a respected scion of an important Saudi family, the prince agreed to arrange a meeting between bin Laden and Prince Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister.
“I am the commander of an Islamic army. I am not afraid of being put in jail or being in prison. I am only afraid of Allah,” bin Laden announced as the meeting ended, as Khalil recalled it.
The senior prince told bin Laden that what he had just said “is against the law and against principles. But it is not our custom to arrest someone whom you have agreed to meet in good faith. My advice is to examine yourself very carefully. We are not afraid of you. We are not afraid of your army. We know what to do.”
“You listen to America—your master,” bin Laden answered.33
In Riyadh, bin Laden arrived at the Defense Ministry with military maps and diagrams. Abdullah al-Turki, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, the largest worldwide Saudi proselytizing organization, joined the meeting. He was there to explain to bin Laden that the American troops invited to the kingdom had religious sanction. Mohammed had intended for no religion but Islam to dominate the Saudi peninsula, al-Turki said. But the Prophet had never objected to Jews and Christians traveling in the region or helping to defend it.
The Saudi kingdom could avoid using an army of American infidels to fight its war, bin Laden argued, if it would support his army of battle-tested Afghan war veterans.
Prince Sultan treated bin Laden with warmth and respect but said that he doubted that bin Laden’s plan would work. The Iraqi army had four thousand tanks. “There are no caves in Kuwait,” Prince Sultan said. “You cannot fight them from the mountains and caves. What will you do when he lobs the missiles at you with chemical and biological weapons?”
“We will fight him with faith,” bin Laden said.34
The meeting ended inconclusively, with respectful salutations. Even if his ideas seemed crazy, bin Laden belonged to one of the kingdom’s most important families. He had worked closely with the Saudi government. In situations like this, Saudi mores encouraged the avoidance of direct conflict.
Prince Turki saw bin Laden’s meeting at the Defense Ministry as a watershed. From that time on the Saudi intelligence chief saw “radical changes” in bin Laden’s personality: “He changed from a calm, peaceful, and gentle man interested in helping Muslims into a person who believed that he would be able to amass and command an army to liberate Kuwait. It revealed his arrogance and his haughtiness.”35
IT WAS NOT ONLY bin Laden who shocked Prince Turki that autumn by rejecting the kingdom’s alliance with the United States against Iraq. So did Hekmatyar and Sayyaf, despite all the millions of dollars in aid they had accepted from Saudi intelligence. As the prime minister of the Afghan interim government, Sayyaf delivered public speeches in Peshawar denouncing the Saudi royal family as anti-Islamic. The Bush administration dispatched diplomats to urge Pakistan and the Saudi royal family to rein in their Afghan clients. “Whereas before, their anti-Americanism did not have more than slight impact beyond the Afghan context, during the current crisis they fan anti-U.S. and anti-Saudi sentiment in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as beyond,” noted a State Department action memorandum. Furious, Turki sent Ahmed Badeeb to Pakistan.
By the time he arrived in Peshawar, Badeeb could barely contain his rage. “When I am upset, I lose my mind,” Badeeb explained later. He barged into a public meeting where Sayyaf was denouncing Saudi Arabia for its bargain with the American devils.
“Now you are coming to tell us what to do in our religion?” Badeeb demanded. “Even your own name—I changed it! To become a Muslim name!” If the Afghan interim government wanted to send a delegation of mujahedin to help defend Saudi Arabia against the Iraqis, that might be a way to help people “recognize that there is something in the world called an Afghan Islamic republic.” But if Sayyaf refused, “I am going to make you really regret what you have said.”
In case he had not made himself clear, the chief of staff of Saudi intelligence told Sayyaf directly: “Fuck you and your family and the Afghans.” And he stormed out.36
The threads of the Cold War’s jihad alliance were coming apart.