“We Are in Danger”

BY EARLY 1991 the Afghan policies pursued by the State Department and the CIA were in open competition with one another. Both departments sought a change of government in Kabul, but they had different Afghan clients. Peter Tomsen and his supporters in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research pursued what they saw as a bottom-up or grassroots strategy. They channeled guns and money to the new rebel commanders’ shura, which attracted members from across Afghanistan, and they emphasized the importance of Massoud. They also continued to negotiate for a broad political settlement that would include popular national figures such as the exiled king. The CIA sometimes cooperated with these efforts, however grudgingly, but it also continued to collaborate with Pakistani intelligence on a separate military track that mainly promoted Hekmatyar and other Islamist commanders operating near the Pakistani border. That winter the ISI and the CIA returned to the strategy that had been tried unsuccessfully in the two previous years: a massed attack on an eastern Afghan city, with direct participation by covert Pakistani forces.

In the previous campaign the CIA had tried to support such an attack by paying Massoud to close the Salang Highway, and the agency had been greatly disappointed. This time officers in the Directorate of Operations’ Near East Division came up with a new idea. Early in March 1991, overwhelmed and in retreat, Saddam Hussein’s army abandoned scores of Soviet-made tanks and artillery pieces in Kuwait and southern Iraq. The discarded weaponry offered the potential for a classical covert action play: The CIA would secretly use spoils captured from one of America’s enemies to attack another enemy.

The CIA station in Riyadh, working with Saudi intelligence, assigned a team of covert logistics officers to round up abandoned T-55 and T-72 Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces. The CIA team worked with the U.S. military in southern Iraq to loot abandoned Iraqi armories and ammunition stores. They refurbished the captured equipment and rolled it to Kuwaiti ports for shipment to Karachi. From there Pakistani intelligence brought the armor and artillery to the Afghan border. Officers from ISI’s Afghan bureau used the equipment to support massive new conventional attacks on the eastern city of Gardez, in Paktia province, the ISI-supplied stronghold of Jallaladin Haqqanni, Hekmatyar, and the Arab volunteers.1

Officers in the CIA’s Near East Division had come to believe that the Afghan rebels needed more conventional assault equipment to match the firepower of Najibullah’s Afghan army. There had been earlier talk of shipping in U.S.-made 155-millimeter howitzers, but now the Iraqi gambit seemed a better idea; it was cheaper, and the equipment could not be traced directly to Washington. Soviet-made Iraqi armor was of the same type that the mujahedin sometimes captured from Afghan government troops, so if a rebel force suddenly emerged on the outskirts of Khost or Gardez with a new tank brigade, it would not be obvious where their armor came from.

Peter Tomsen and others at the State Department agreed to support the secret transfers of Iraqi weapons. They worried about declining morale among the rebels after months of military stalemate and thought the new equipment might provide a much needed jolt. At the same time they did not want the Iraqi tanks and artillery to strengthen the discredited anti-American Islamists around Hekmatyar.

After Hekmatyar and Sayyaf failed to support Saudi Arabia publicly in its confrontation with Iraq, both the United States and Saudi intelligence initially vowed to cut them off. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan, meeting at ISI headquarters with American diplomats and the chief of Pakistani intelligence, announced that all Saudi funding to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf should stop. But within months it became clear to the Americans that the Saudis were still secretly allowing cash and weapons to reach Hekmatyar and Sayyaf.2

The CIA’s Afghan budget continued to shrink. Total funding allocated by Congress for the mujahedin fell again during calendar year 1991. What little aid there was should be used to build up the rebel leaders who opposed Hekmatyar, the State Department’s diplomats argued. But the CIA maintained that it had never been able to control how Pakistani intelligence distributed the weapons it received. The agreement had always been that title passed to ISI once the equipment reached Pakistani soil. Tomsen and others at State complained that the CIA surely was capable of controlling the destination of its weapons, but Langley’s officers said they could not. Besides, CIA officers argued, Hekmatyar’s coup attempt with Tanai demonstrated his tactical daring; most of the rebel commanders were just sitting on their haunches waiting for the war to end.3 Saudi intelligence endorsed the Iraqi tank gambit and fully supported the covert plan, the CIA reported. They would try to keep the tanks away from Hekmatyar and encourage Pakistani intelligence to send them to the rebel commander Jallaladin Haqqanni. After false starts in the two previous fighting seasons, here was a chance at last to help tip the military balance in Afghanistan against Najibullah, the agency’s operatives argued.

With ISI officers helping to direct the attack from nearby hilltops, a coalition of mujahedin forces lay siege to Khost as spring arrived. Its main garrison fell in late March 1991, the most significant rebel victory since the withdrawal of Soviet troops. But Peter Tomsen’s hope that the victory would boost the power of his commanders’ shura was thwarted. Pakistani intelligence ensured that Hekmatyar reached the city with the first conquerors. He promptly claimed the victory as his own in public speeches. ISI chief Durrani drove across the Afghan border and made a triumphal tour of Khost, as did the Pakistani leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Their appearances made plain the direct role of the Pakistani military and Muslim Brotherhood networks in the assault.4

The rising presence of radical Arab, Indonesian, Malaysian, Uzbek, and other volunteer fighters in Paktia was documented in the agency’s own reporting from the field. CIA cables from Pakistan during this period, drawing on reports from Afghan agents, provided Langley with detailed accounts of the jihadist training camps in Paktia. The CIA reported, for instance, that Saudi radical volunteers were training side by side with Kashmiri radicals and that the Kashmiris were being prepared by Pakistani intelligence for infiltration into Indian-held territory. The CIA also reported that substantial numbers of Algerian and other North African Islamist radicals were training in Paktia, some fighting with Hekmatyar’s Afghan forces and others with Sayyaf.5

All this detailed intelligence reporting about international Islamic radicalism and its sanctuary in Afghanistan gathered dust in the middle levels of the bureaucracy. The Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, the final death throes of the Soviet Union—these enormous, all-consuming crises continued to command the attention of the Bush administration’s cabinet. By 1991, Afghanistan was rarely if ever on the agenda.

Milt Bearden, the former Islamabad station chief, found himself talking in passing about the Afghan war with President Bush. The president seemed puzzled that the CIA’s covert pipeline through Pakistan was still active, as Bearden recalled it. Bush seemed surprised, too, that the Afghans were still fighting. “Is that thing still going on?” the president asked.6

SAUDI ARABIA’S ROYAL FAMILY spent generously to appease the kingdom’s Islamist radicals in the years following the uprising at the Grand Mosque in 1979. Billions of dollars poured into the coffers of the kingdom’s official ulama, who issued theirfatwasincreasingly from air-conditioned, oak-furnished offices. Billions more supported mosque-building campaigns in provincial towns and oasis villages. Thousands of idle young Saudi men were recruited into the domestic religious police and dispatched to the kingdom’s gleaming new sandstone-and-glass shopping malls. There they harassed women who allowed high-heeled shoes to show beneath their black robes, and used wooden batons to round up Saudi men for daily prayers. New Islamic universities rose in Riyadh and Jedda, and thousands of students were enrolled to study the Koran. At the same time the royal family stoked its massive modernization drive, constructing intercity highways, vast new housing, industrial plants, and hospitals. Saudi women entered the workforce in record numbers, although they often worked in strict segregation from men. Secular princes and princesses summered in London, Cannes, Costa del Sol, and Switzerland. There were at least six thousand self-described princes in the Saudi royal family by 1990, and their numbers grew by the year. Many of these royals paid little heed to the Islamic clergy who governed official Saudi culture.

Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan just as new fissures opened between its austere, proselytizing religious establishment and its diverse, undisciplined royal family. For many Saudis the Iraqi invasion and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of American troops to defend the kingdom shattered the myth of Saudi independence and ignited open debate about Saudi identity. To both Islamists and modernizers the war seemed a turning point. Saudi women staged protests against the kingdom’s ban on female drivers, defiantly taking the wheel on the streets of Riyadh and Dhahran. Liberal political activists petitioned for a representative assembly that might advise the royal family. Islamists denounced the arrival of Christian troops as a violation of Islamic law. Two fiery young preachers known as the “Awakening Sheikhs” recorded anti-American sermons on cassette tapes and circulated millions of copies around the kingdom in late 1990 and early 1991. “It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam,” declared Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, a bin Laden ally. “If Iraq has occupied Kuwait, then America has occupied Saudi Arabia. The real enemy is not Iraq. It is the West.” Al-Hawali’s best-known book, Kissinger’s Promise, argued that American-led “crusaders” intended to conquer the Arabian Peninsula to seize its oil reserves. He warned Saudi citizens: “It will not be long until your blood is shed with impunity or you declare your abandonment of your belief in God.” These were themes bin Laden himself propounded in informal lectures at Jedda mosques. He adopted al-Hawali’s politics and some of the preacher’s terminology. He found himself part of a widening movement in the kingdom. Other antiroyal agitators saw his participation as an indication of how serious the rebellion had become, recalled Saudi journalist and author Saudi Aburish, because bin Laden was a “member of the establishment” who had suddenly announced himself as “a radical Islamist against the regime.”7

In May 1991 an underground Saudi network of Islamist preachers and activists obtained scores of signatures on a petition called the “Letter of Demands” that was submitted to King Fahd. The petition blended calls for quasi-democratic political reform with radical Islamist ideology. It sought the unquestioned primacy of Islamic law, equal distribution of public wealth, more funding for Islamic institutions, religious control of the media, and a consultative assembly independent of the royal family. The letter’s publication shocked the Saudi royal family, in part because it revealed an extensive organization in the kingdom rallying in secret around a subversive agenda. Cassette tapes circulated that summer by the underground Islamist preachers grew in number and vitriol. A popular tape titled “America as I Saw It” informed its listeners that the United States was a “nation of beasts who fornicate and eat rotten food,” a land where men marry men and parents are abandoned as they age.8

Pushed to its limit, the Saudi royal family retaliated, making scores of arrests. But the government managed its repression gently. Senior princes did not want their crackdown to be seen as violent or arbitrary or to create new waves of dissidents, stoking unrest. The Awakening Sheikhs were placed under house arrest, but the government quickly opened negotiations to address some of their demands. Senior princes quietly sent messages to the official ulama acknowledging that, yes, the presence of American troops in the kingdom was undesirable, and their numbers and visibility would be reduced as soon as possible. Saudi princes stepped out in public to emphasize their devotion to Islamic causes—especially in places outside of Saudi Arabia, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia. The kingdom’s Ministry of Pilgrimage and Religious Trusts announced that the government had spent about $850 million on mosque construction in recent years, employed fifty-three thousand religious leaders in mosques, and planned to hire another 7,300 prayer leaders. King Fahd announced his intention to ship millions of free Korans to the newly independent, predominantly Muslim countries of Central Asia. The proper and legal outlet for Islamic activism, the royal family made clear, lay not inside the kingdom but abroad, in aid of the global umma, or community of Muslim believers.9

The rise of the Awakening Sheikhs and the emergence of the Letter of Demands prompted CIA officers and State Department diplomats to open talks with the Saudi royal family about the dangers of Islamic radicalism. American analysts were determined to intervene early with the Saudi royals, to encourage the Saudis to be alert and responsive to signs of serious internal dissent.

For the first time the CIA began to see evidence that Arab jihadists trained in Afghanistan posed a threat in Saudi Arabia itself. Gary Schroen, now in the CIA’s Riyadh station, discussed with Prince Turki the problem of Saudi radicals moving in and out of Afghanistan. “There are a lot of Saudi citizens there who are fighting,” Schroen said, as he recalled it. “They’re being trained. They’re young men who are really dedicated, really religious, and a lot of them are coming back. They’re here.”

“We understand that,” Turki assured him. “We’re watching that. There is no problem.We’ll take care of it.” The Saudi royal family had begun to worry. In Islamabad the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan sat down with American officials to warn them about Islamist charity organizations on the Afghan frontier that were raising funds in the United States, then spending the money on radical and violent causes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. “You should know about this,” the Saudi envoy warned. The U.S. consulate in Peshawar composed a classified cable for Washington based on the Saudi envoy’s information. The cable listed charity organizations in California and Texas that were sending cash and fighters to the Islamist networks swirling around Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. The cable was routed to the FBI and CIA, but the State Department officers who helped compile it never heard of any follow-up investigation.10

Peter Tomsen and other emissaries from Washington discussed the rising Islamist threat with Prince Turki in the summer of 1991. Turki listened to their concerns, made few commitments, but repeated that he was on top of the problem. As so often, Turki, the most accessible contact for American spies and diplomats on the subject of political Islam, seemed reassuring. Turki was one of the liberals under assault from the underground Islamists. His sister had taken part in some of the attempts by women in Riyadh to win greater rights and visibility. She had been singled out and denounced as a prostitute by a preacher during Friday services at a Riyadh mosque. The next Friday, Turki attended the mosque, rose from the audience, and asked to speak. He denounced the slander against the women of his family, making clear that the attacks against liberals had gone too far.11 Impressed by his willingness to take a public stand, the Americans who met him were quick to believe that Turki was on their side and that he had the Islamist threat under control.

At some of the meetings between Turki and the CIA, Osama bin Laden’s name came up explicitly. The CIA continued to pick up reporting that he was funding radicals such as Hekmatyar in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, and Haqqanni all had officers around Saudi Arabia who collected money from mosques and wealthy sheikhs; bin Laden was one part of this wider fund-raising system. “His family has disowned him,” Turki assured the Americans about bin Laden. Every effort had been made to persuade bin Laden to stop protesting against the Saudi royal family. These efforts had failed, Turki conceded, and the kingdom was now prepared to take sterner measures.12

Bin Laden learned of this when Saudi police arrived at his cushion-strewn, modestly furnished compound in Jedda to announce that he would have to leave the kingdom. According to an account later provided to the CIA by a source in Saudi intelligence, the Saudi officer assigned to carry out the expulsion assured bin Laden that this was being done for his own good. The officer blamed the Americans. The U.S. government was planning to kill him, he told bin Laden, by this account, so the royal family would do him a favor and get him out of the kingdom for his own protection. Two associates of bin Laden later offered a different version while under interrogation: They said a dissident member of the royal family helped him leave the country by arranging for bin Laden to attend an Islamic conference in Pakistan during the spring of 1991. So far as is known, bin Laden never returned to the kingdom.13

VODKA-SOAKED SOVIET HARD-LINERS, including leaders at the KGB, tried and failed to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. Within weeks the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, nemesis of the United States for almost half a century, collapsed as an effective political organization. Russian liberals, Russian nationalists, Baltic nationalists, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks now ruled what remained of the Soviet Union. A nation constructed from Stalin’s terror hurtled toward its final dissolution.

Gorbachev’s weakening cabinet, in search of rapid compromises with Washington, decided to abandon its aid to Najibullah in Afghanistan. In turn, the Bush Cabinet felt free at last to drop all support to the mujahedin. On September 13, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin pledged a mutual cutoff of arms to Najibullah and the Afghan rebels as of January 1, 1992.14

Twelve years after the Politburo decided to commit military force to defend communism in Afghanistan—twelve years and two months after Zbigniew Brzezinski had presented Jimmy Carter with a draft presidential finding for CIA covert action to support anticommunist rebels—both superpowers agreed to stop fueling the Afghan war. Yet the war continued.

The brigadiers and colonels in Pakistani intelligence had never trusted that the CIA would see the Afghan jihad through to the end. Some of them had never really trusted the Americans, period. Bitterly, Pakistan’s military officers congratulated themselves on how right they had been.

In Kabul, Najibullah remained in power. The former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, remained at his villa in Rome. United Nations diplomats shuttled in their blue-stenciled airplanes between Kabul and Islamabad by the week, but the prospects for a peaceful political settlement appeared dim. Hekmatyar and other Islamists backed by Pakistani intelligence were creeping toward Kabul in their captured Iraqi tanks. Ahmed Shah Massoud had assembled a rival invasion force, including captured Soviet tanks, to Kabul’s north, poised for a decisive drive on the capital.

“An extremist seizure of Kabul would plunge Afghanistan into a fresh round of warfare, which could affect areas adjoining Afghanistan,” Peter Tomsen warned in a Secret cable to Washington that September 1991. “Should Hekmatyar or Sayyaf get to Kabul, extremists in the Arab world would support them in stoking Islamic radicalism in the region, including the Soviet Central Asian republics, but also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.” In December, Tomsen repeated his warnings in another cable, classified Secret and distributed throughout the national security bureaucracy in Washington. He feared “a scramble for power” that would “further attenuate central authority in favor of local warlords. . . . A political settlement must be put into place as rapidly as possible to forestall scenarios of continued instability and civil war in Afghanistan.”

But few at Foggy Bottom or Langley were focused on the future of Islamic politics or stability in Central Asia. In Afghanistan the stage was set not for a triumphal reconciliation on one of the Cold War’s most destructive battlefields but for an ugly new phase of regional and civil war. The CIA’s analysts and operatives had long argued that after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Afghans would have to sort things out for themselves. They would have little choice now but to try.15

THE CIA’S LEGAL AUTHORITY to conduct covert action in Afghanistan effectively ended on January 1, 1992. By then the Soviet Union had formally dissolved. Peter Tomsen suggested a new finding that would allow unilateral CIA clients to be used to bolster the U.N. negotations seeking a moderate coalition government in Afghanistan, but the CIA and other diplomats in the State Department opposed the idea. The Islamabad station retained some of its Afghan agents for months into the new year, but these were now classified only as reporting relationships—traditional spying. Some of the CIA’s Afghan commanders were converted to work on the secret Stinger buyback program, begun after the Soviet troop withdrawal and now the only covert action program authorized in Afghanistan. Others were directed to report on new post–Cold War priorities such as drug trafficking.

From fertile Helmand in the south to the gorge valleys of the northeast, Afghanistan flowered each spring with one of the world’s largest crops of opium poppies. Untroubled by government, and funded by smugglers and organized crime networks rooted in Pakistan, Afghan poppy farmers supplied heroin labs nestled in cities and along the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border. By 1992 hundreds of tons of refined heroin flowed from these labs east through Karachi’s port or north through the new overland routes of the Russian mafia, destined for European cities. By the early 1990s, Afghanistan rivaled Colombia and Burma as a fountainhead of global heroin supply. The CIA opened a new Counter-Narcotics Center, modeled on the Counterterrorist Center, and President Bush allocated secret funds for espionage in Afghanistan aimed at combatting the heroin rackets. Even so, within six months of the January 1 formal cutoff, the CIA’s Afghan operation had atrophied to a shadow of its former strength.

The Islamabad station’s liaison with ISI deteriorated by the week. The CIA had little to offer anymore. At one point the agency found itself in the awkward, even perverse position of attempting to apply the legal rules of the Pressler Amendment to the secret shipments of captured Iraqi tanks and artillery that had reached Pakistan, bound for the Afghan rebels. Pressler required an end to all military equipment aid and sales by the United States to Pakistan. The CIA’s lawyers concluded that the law might apply even to covert supplies such as the Iraqi tanks, especially if the armor had not yet crossed the Afghan border, as was the case with dozens of the tanks. The CIA station in Islamabad informed ISI that it would have to destroy any stored armor and artillery. The agency wanted the weapons taken to an army test range and blown up—with CIA officers present to confirm the destruction. Surely you are joking, Pakistani intelligence officers told their CIA counterparts. Locked in an existential struggle with India, Pakistan was not about to blow up perfectly good tanks or artillery just because some lawyer in Langley was worried about a congressional subpoena. In the end the CIA gave up. Pakistan held on to as many as three or four dozen Iraqi tanks, by one CIA estimate, despite the Pressler restrictions.16

EDMUND MCWILLIAMS had been assigned to the inaugural U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a newly independent, predominantly Muslim former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan. In February 1992 travelers reaching the Tajik capital told McWilliams that one of Najibullah’s most important allies in northern Afghanistan, a communist Uzbek militia commander named Aburrashid Dostum, had defected to Massoud’s Supreme Council of the North. The word was out all across northern Afghanistan, the travelers said. Najibullah’s days were at last numbered. The sudden alliance of Massoud’s Tajik army with Dostum’s Uzbek militia—forty thousand strong, in control of tanks, artillery, and even aircraft—tilted the military balance against Najibullah just as his supplies from Moscow had been cut off. McWilliams cabled Washington: The fall of Kabul, so long predicted and so long delayed, appeared now to be finally at hand.17

“We have a common task—Afghanistan, the U.S.A., and the civilized world—to launch a joint struggle against fundamentalism,” Najibullah told reporters in his palace office as the mujahedin closed to within rocketing distance. “If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.”18

Najibullah could see the future, but there was no one to listen. He had lost his Soviet patrons, and he was discredited, desperate. A United Nations mediator, Benon Sevan, spent long hours with Najibullah that month, urging him to resign and throw his support to a peaceful transitional government that might isolate violent Islamist radicals like Hekmatyar. Najibullah agreed and read a speech on national television written for him by Sevan, saying that he would quit the presidency as soon as a successor government was formed under U.N. auspices.

The United States stood to the side. Oakley had left Islamabad. The embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Beth Jones, preferred to defer to Pakistan. Tomsen could not do much to influence America’s outlook because Washington had just announced a new policy: hands off.

JUST SOUTH OF KABUL, in a wide valley tucked beneath soaring peaks, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar slipped his forces into a village called Charasyab and set up military operations. There were barracks, a radio room, training areas, and a mosque set in a pine grove. Pakistani helicopters flew in and out carrying ISI officers for consultations. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, multiple rocket launchers, and artillery rolled into the base, lined up for the final thrust toward Kabul. From his command center Hekmatyar worked the radio, reopening talks with Afghan communists from the faction that had earlier allied with him in a coup attempt. Dozens of Arab jihadist volunteers, allies of Hekmatyar from the days of revolution in Peshawar, poured into Charasyab, and with them came Arab journalists prepared to document the final chapter of the Islamic revolution in Afghanistan.19

Hekmatyar was determined to seize the capital. In Kabul the Afghan communist government was splitting rapidly. One faction of the old Communist Party prepared to surrender to Hekmatyar. Another faction planned to surrender to Massoud.

In Peshawar, talks about a transitional government continued behind closed doors, led by ISI’s Durrani and Prince Turki. Saudi scholars flew in hurriedly to join the talks and provide them with religious sanction. Peter Tomsen and Benon Sevan tried to persuade Turki to support a broad political settlement, but they found Turki cool and remote. Prince Turki, they believed, was using his influence to stitch together an alternative compromise, one that would unite all of the Islamist leaders into a single government. To achieve this, Turki had to help prevent violence between Massoud and Hekmatyar.

Even Osama bin Laden flew to Peshawar and joined the effort to forge cooperation between Hekmatyar and Massoud. He contacted Hekmatyar by radio from Peshawar and urged him to consider a compromise with Massoud.20

Bin Laden and other Islamist mediators arranged a half-hour radio conversation directly between Massoud and Hekmatyar. The essential question was whether the two commanders would control Kabul peacefully as allies or fight it out. Hekmatyar kept making speeches to Massoud. “I must enter Kabul and let the green flags fly over the capital,” Hekmatyar said. He kept announcing to Massoud that he would not allow communists to “pollute our victory,” a pointed reference to Massoud’s new partner, Dostum, a recent communist. Of course Hekmatyar had his own ex-communist allies.

An Arab journalist with Hekmatyar at Charasyab during the radio talk remembered Massoud as soothing, respectful. “Massoud would answer him and say, ‘Engineer sahib, with all respect, Kabul has fallen. Kabul cannot be conquered twice. Kabul is in your reach, it is in your hand, Engineer sahib. Please. Come to Peshawar and come back to Kabul with the rest of our leaders. I will not enter Kabul until the rest of our leaders have arrived.’ ” But Hekmatyar had secretly prepared yet another coup attempt. Even as he talked by radio with Massoud, his forces moved toward the gates of Kabul. Green flags were attached to his tanks and his jeeps. The cars were washed so they would gleam triumphantly when Hekmatyar rolled into Kabul the next day. In Peshawar, Hekmatyar’s spokesman admitted, “Hekmatyar can’t agree to anything that includes Ahmed Shah Massoud.”21

Bin Laden called Hekmatyar once more on the radio. “Go back with your brothers,” bin Laden said. He asked Hekmatyar once again to consider a grand compromise, including Massoud. Hekmatyar ignored him, recalled the Arab journalist who was present. Hekmatyar had already negotiated the surrender of the Kabul headquarters of the Interior Ministry, a few blocks from the Afghan presidential palace. He dispatched his agents to Kabul that night. Hekmatyar went to bed believing that he would roll into the capital in triumph in the morning. He led prayers with the Arabs who had come to Charasyab. He recited verses from the Koran that had been recited by the Prophet after the conquering of Mecca.

“So we went to sleep that night, victorious,” recalled the Arab journalist. “It was great. Hekmatyar was happy. Everybody at the camp was happy. And I was dreaming that next morning, after prayer, my camera is ready, I will march with the victorious team into Kabul.

“Afghans are weird. They turn off the wireless when they go to sleep—as if war will stop. So they switched the wireless off, we all went to sleep, and we woke up early in the morning. Prayed the dawn prayer. Spirits were high. Hekmatyar also made a very long prayer. The sun comes up again, they turn on the wireless—and the bad news starts pouring in.”

Convinced that Hekmatyar had no intention of compromising, Massoud had preempted him. The faction of the Afghan Communist Party that had agreed to surrender to him had seized the Kabul airport, a short march from the capital’s main government buildings. Transport planes poured into Kabul carrying hundreds of Dostum’s fierce Uzbek militiamen. They seized strategic buildings all across the Kabul valley. Hekmatyar’s forces quickly grabbed a few buildings, but by the end of the first day’s infiltration Massoud’s positions in the city were far superior. He had formed a ring facing south toward Hekmatyar’s main position. It was just like the games Massoud had played as a child on Ali Abad Mountain, above Kabul University: He divided his forces, encircled Hekmatyar’s militia in the city, and squeezed.22

On the morning of Hekmatyar’s imagined triumph, tank battles and street-to-street fighting erupted on Kabul’s wide avenues. Fires burned on the grounds of the presidential palace. Najibullah sought shelter in a small, walled United Nations compound. He was now formally out of office and under house arrest. Hekmatyar never made it out of Charasyab.

Massoud entered Kabul triumphantly from the north on a tank strewn with flowers. That night hundreds of his mujahedin fired their assault rifles into the air in celebration, their tracer bullets lighting the sky like electric rain. By dawn the trajectory of the tracers had shifted from vertical to horizontal, however. The first Afghan war was over. The second had begun.

Massoud’s Panjshiri forces and Dostum’s hardened, youthful Uzbek militia pounded Hekmatyar’s remnants from block to block until they fled south from Kabul after about a week. Angry and desperate, Hekmatyar began to lob rockets blindly at Kabul. It was the latest in a series of failures by Hekmatyar and Pakistani intelligence to win their coveted Afghan prize. Jalalabad, the Tanai coup attempt, the second Tanai coup attempt, and now this—Hekmatyar and ISI might have a reputation for ruthless ambition, but they had yet to prove themselves competent.

In Peshawar, Yahya Massoud met with his handler in British intelligence. “We were right,” the British officer told him smugly. “Hekmatyar failed and Massoud succeeded.”23

FOR ALL THE MONEY and time it had spent anticipating the day, the CIA played a small role in the fall of Kabul. In the two previous years the agency had facilitated massive arms transfers to Hekmatyar and some to Massoud. The CIA’s deference to Pakistani intelligence ensured that Hekmatyar received far more cash and weaponry in the last phase than he would have otherwise. But the lobbying by Peter Tomsen and many others in Washington and Islamabad—including a few within the CIA—had resulted in substantial supplies being routed to Massoud as well. Just as he was preparing for Kabul’s fall, Massoud had received heavy weapons in Panjshir over the road built by the U.S. Agency for International Development. His large stipends from the agency, even with their ups and downs during 1990, had provided Massoud with substantial cash at a time when Hekmatyar was reaping large donations from rich Saudi sheikhs and the Muslim Brotherhood. To that extent the CIA, pressed by Tomsen and members of Congress, had ultimately helped underwrite Massoud’s final victory in Kabul.

It rapidly proved Pyrrhic. By 1992 there were more personal weapons in Afghanistan than in India and Pakistan combined. By some estimates more such weapons had been shipped into Afghanistan during the previous decade than to any other country in the world. The Soviet Union had sent between $36 billion and $48 billion worth of military equipment from the time of the Afghan communist revolution; the equivalent U.S., Saudi, and Chinese aid combined totaled between $6 billion and $12 billion. About five hundred thousand people in Kabul depended on coupons for food in 1992. In the countryside millions more lived with malnourishment, far from any reliable food source. Hekmatyar’s frustration and his deep supply lines ensured that violence would continue.24

With the fall of Najibullah and the arrival of a rebel government in Kabul—albeit one immediately at war with itself—there was no need any longer for a U.S. ambassador to the resistance. Kabul was still much too dangerous to host an American ambassador to Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy building in the Afghan capital remained closed. Peter Tomsen was appointed to a new post managing U.S. policy in East Asia.

As he prepared to move on, Tomsen wrote two memos, classified Confidential. He was influenced by his old contacts in the Afghan resistance who now feared the future. Abdul Haq wrote to Tomsen during this period: “Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming 50 or more separate kingdoms. Foreign extremists may want to move in, buying houses and weapons. Afghanistan may become unique in becoming both a training ground and munitions dump for foreign terrorists and at the same time, the world’s largest poppy field.” Tomsen, too, worried that extremist governments would control Kabul in the future and that by withdrawing from the field, the United States was throwing away a chance to exercise a moderating influence. It was in Washington’s interests to block “Islamic extremists’ efforts to use Afghanistan as a training/staging base for terrorism in the region and beyond,” he wrote on December 18, 1992. Why was America walking away from Afghanistan so quickly, with so little consideration given to the consequences? Tomsen wrote a few weeks later: “U.S. perseverance in maintaining our already established position in Afghanistan—at little cost—could significantly contribute to the favorable moderate outcome, which would: sideline the extremists, maintain a friendship with a strategically located friendly country, help us accomplish our other objectives in Afghanistan and the broader Central Asian region, e.g., narcotics, Stinger recovery, anti-terrorism. . . .We are in danger of throwing away the assets we have built up in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, at great expense. . . . Our stakes there are important, if limited, in today’s geostrategic context. The danger is that we will lose interest and abandon our investment assets in Afghanistan, which straddles a region where we have precious few levers.”25

Tomsen’s memos marked a last gasp from the tiny handful of American diplomats and spies who argued for continued, serious engagement by the United States in Afghanistan.

There would not be an American ambassador or CIA station chief assigned directly to Afghanistan for nearly a decade, until late in the autumn of 2001.

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