ISLAMABAD STATION CHIEF Gary Schroen’s secret flight into Kabul in September 1996 and his midnight discussion with Ahmed Shah Massoud about Stingers and bin Laden marked the rebirth of unilateral CIA engagements in Afghanistan after a four-year hiatus.1
The agency managed three secret programs that provided resources for Schroen and his Islamabad case officers. The National Security Council’s decision early in 1996 to fund and approve the Counterterrorist Center’s new “virtual” station to track Osama bin Laden meant there were now funds, analysts, and case officers dedicated to collecting intelligence on the Saudi and his operations. A walk-in defector from al Qaeda, Jamal al-Fadl, revealed to the bin Laden unit late in 1996 that they had been underestimating their target—bin Laden, the CIA now learned, had planned multiple terrorist operations and aspired to more. The virtual station needed help from Islamabad. Schroen’s group maintained the agency’s liaison with ISI, which had multiple connections to bin Laden’s world. Schroen had also opened a dialogue with Massoud. Cables flowed steadily between the bin Laden station in Virginia and the Islamabad station even after Massoud retreated from Kabul. In addition, from inside Langley headquarters the Counterterrorist Center maintained a full branch dedicated to finding Mir Amal Kasi, the fugitive Baluchi who had attacked CIA headquarters in 1993. The Kasi branch authorized funds for the Islamabad station to recruit paid unilateral agents—some of them Afghans—to look for Kasi. Most richly funded of all was the program Langley operated that had been the main impetus for Schroen’s clandestine September visit to Massoud in Kabul: Stinger missile recovery.2
By the time the Taliban took Kabul, an estimated 600 of the approximately 2,300 Stinger missiles distributed by the CIA during the anti-Soviet war remained missing. There was an active market for the missiles across Central Asia and the Middle East. The Iranians were buying as many as they could. CIA officers estimated very roughly that Tehran had acquired about 100 Stingers. Most of the remaining inventory was believed to be in Afghanistan. Some Afghan warlords correctly saw possession of a batch of Stingers as a better financial investment than many of the local paper currencies. Through its intermediaries the CIA offered to buy not just the warheads for hard cash but also the tubes from which they were fired. A secondary market grew up in Afghanistan for empty tubes. Con artists tried to imitate the missile’s design and sell fakes to middlemen. Prices for complete missiles soared from $70,000 to $150,000 as sellers hoarded their wares. The agency turned to allies across the Middle East for help. Prince Turki’s chief of staff, Ahmed Badeeb, flew as far as Somalia to pick up Stingers that had been smuggled into Africa. But much of the program was run out of the Islamabad station where the Stingers had first been distributed. Until 1996 the CIA maintained a B-200 Cessna twin-engine turboprop airplane in Islamabad dedicated to Stinger recovery. CIA pilots flew it around the region to pick up missiles. They were then stored in Islamabad until a larger transport plane could ferry them to the United States, where they were turned over to the U.S. Army for destruction. Occasionally, if CIA officers bought missiles in some place where transport was impossible, they would dig a pit and blow them up with plastic explosives, taking photographs to document their destruction.3
After the Taliban took Kabul, the CIA decided to make a direct offer to the militia’s leaders to buy back Stingers from them. The agency had been informed that Mullah Omar possessed fifty-three Stinger missiles that had been collected from various Pashtun warlords loyal to the Taliban. Early in 1997, Gary Schroen sought permission from headquarters to fly into Kandahar and make a cash buyback offer to senior Taliban mullahs. Langley agreed. With help from diplomats in the Islamabad embassy, Schroen contacted the Taliban shura in Kandahar. They sent back word that they would welcome an American delegation.4
At going rates a CIA repurchase of all the Taliban’s Stingers would provide the militia force with an instant cash infusion of between $5 million and $8 million, about double the amount later reported to have been provided to the Taliban by bin Laden to aid the conquest of Kabul. (At the time of Schroen’s request to travel to Kandahar, the United States had little evidence that bin Laden had connected with the Taliban.) While not a large amount by U.S. aid program standards, such a payment would still be a sizable infusion of unrestricted cash for a militia whose leaders daily announced new codes of medieval conduct. Yet a presidentially authorized covert action policy at the time encouraged the CIA to buy Stingers wherever they could be found.
It was unclear during the fall of 1996 whether the United States regarded the Taliban as friend or foe. In the weeks after the fall of Kabul, midlevel American officials issued a cacophony of statements—some skeptical, some apparently supportive—from which it was impossible to deduce a clear position. American diplomats in Islamabad told reporters that the Taliban could play a useful role in restoring a strong, central government to Afghanistan. The Taliban themselves, worried about rumors that they received support from the CIA and were a pro-American force, refused to receive a low-level State Department visitor to Kabul. “The U.S. does not support the Taliban, has not supported the Taliban, and will not support the Taliban,” the spurned envoy, Lee Coldren, announced in reply. Within days then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright denounced the Taliban decrees in Kabul as “impossible to justify or defend.” But just three weeks after that Robin Raphel outlined the Taliban’s claims to legitimacy before the U.N. Security Council and pleaded that they not be isolated. It was difficult to tell which of these State Department officials spoke for themselves and which spoke for the United States.5
Raphel’s call for engagement with the Taliban attracted support outside the Clinton administration, especially from Unocal. Marty Miller and his colleagues hoped the Taliban takeover of Kabul would speed their pipeline negotiations. Within weeks of the capital’s capture, Unocal formed a new financial partnership to build the pipeline, announced the creation of an advisory board made up of prestigious American experts on South and Central Asia, and opened a new office in the Taliban heartland, Kandahar. Marty Miller insisted publicly that Unocal remained “fanatically neutral” about Afghan politics, but it was clear that the Taliban’s military victory would be helpful in reducing the number of parties to the Unocal pipeline talks.6
Republican and congressional experts also declared that America should give the Taliban a chance. “It is time for the United States to reengage,” wrote Zalmay Khalilzad, one of the American government’s leading Afghan specialists, soon after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. “The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran. It is closer to the Saudi model.”7 This remained a common prism of American thinking about Islamist political movements: Saudi Arabia was conservative, pious, and non-threatening, while Iran was active, violent, and revolutionary. As doctrinaire Sunni Muslims, the Taliban vehemently opposed Iran and its Shiite creed, and in that sense they were allied with American interests. Khalilzad was soon invited to join Unocal’s advisory board, along with Robert Oakley, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
In this atmosphere of drift and desultory debate about the Taliban’s meaning, Gary Schroen and a team of embassy diplomats flew into Kandahar in February 1997, on a scheduled United Nations charter. They circled down to a vast mud-baked plain laced by eroded riverbeds. The American team rolled from the airport through a dry, flat, treeless expanse where sagebrush hopped and tumbled in the desert wind. Shadowed rock hills rose to the west. On the buckled highway to town they passed state-owned farming cooperatives, green orchards, and walled farming villages. Amid smoky bustle, horse carts, and scooters they entered Kandahar city through a painted arch called “Chicken Post,” protected by armed Taliban guards. Pedestrians crowded into the roadway—almost all of them tall, bearded Pashtun men in colorful turbans and loose, cool cotton robes. The city itself was a flat expanse of market stalls and mud-walled compounds. Mullah Omar’s modest house lay behind a wall on the Herat Bazaar Road in the center of town, near Kandahar’s university, which the Taliban had converted into a religious madrassa. In the city’s central square the militia occasionally staged mock executions of radios and televisions, bashing them to pieces and hanging them by their cords. Schroen and his colleagues bunked overnight in a United Nations guest house, a small enclave of foreigners, fluorescent lights, and canned Coca-Cola. They contacted the Taliban foreign ministry to arrange their appointment. Omar declined to see them since they were not Muslims, but they were granted an audience with the local governor and Omar’s chief aide, Mullah Wakil Ahmed.8
They drove the next day to the Governor’s House, a striking, crumbling, arched sandstone building set in a garden of spruce trees and rosebushes. The Taliban did not give the impression that they cared much for its carved ceilings or Persian-influenced mosaics. They laced the building with mines and bombs, and kept their Stingers in a locked storage area off the inner courtyard.
Schroen joined a meeting that was to include diplomatic discussions about refugee and aid issues. Several local leaders sat on the Taliban side. None of the Taliban wore shoes or sandals. They picked continually at their feet, the Americans could not help but notice.
The Taliban governor of Kandahar was Mohammed Hassan, a former Quetta madrassa student who had fought against the Soviets in Uruzgan province. He had lost a fingertip and a leg in battle during the anti-Soviet jihad. He had been fitted with an artificial limb that had a spring and release mechanism. During the meeting he fooled with his leg, and it snapped out of position occasionally with a loud ca-crack! Then Hassan would grab it and slowly push it back into its locked set.
Afterward Schroen met privately with Hassan and Wakil. He outlined, through a translator, how the CIA’s Stinger recovery program worked. The United States would be grateful if the Taliban would sell back the Stingers they had, and the Taliban would be well paid if they agreed. Schroen mentioned that one goal was to keep the missiles out of Iran’s hands.
Hassan and Wakil said that they had no desire to sell their missiles. They were going to need them in the future. “We’re keeping these Stingers because we’re going to use them on the Iranians,” they explained. Their first task was to finish off Ahmed Shah Massoud and his coalition in northern Afghanistan. After that they fully expected to end up in a war with Iran, they said. They needed the missiles to shoot down helicopters and jets from the Iranian air force. Surely, they said, the Americans could appreciate the Iranian threat.9
Schroen flew back to Islamabad empty-handed.
OSAMA BIN LADEN began to move his operations south, toward Kandahar, the center of Taliban power. In November 1996 the Palestinian newspaper editor Abdel Bari Atwan met him in a cave outside of Kandahar. Bin Laden had a personal computer in his bunker and a library of bound volumes. He told Atwan that he felt “back home, because the whole Islamic world is a homeland for Muslims.” He made it clear that he regarded the United States as his enemy. Recent terrorist bombings against American targets in Saudi Arabia, at Riyadh and Dhahran, were “a laudable kind of terrorism, because it was against thieves.” He boasted of his endurance: “Having borne arms against the Russians for ten years, we think our battle with the Americans will be easy by comparison, and we are now more determined to carry on until we see the face of God.”10
That winter bin Laden worked to build his global reputation through the international media. He seemed determined to convince his audience in the Arab world that exile in Afghanistan had not marginalized him. To Palestinians he denounced American support for Israel, although he placed less emphasis on this issue than many other Arabs did. To his Saudi countrymen he repeated his attacks on the royal family for corruption, weak enforcement of Islamic laws, and most of all for allowing American troops on Saudi soil. For the first time he also began to reach out aggressively to American and English-language media to deliver warnings and sermons. Sometimes he shaped his message to his audience; other times he uncorked long theological speeches without apparent concern for his listeners. He spoke of Islam’s wrath and his determination to evict Christian “Crusader” military forces from Muslim lands, especially Saudi Arabia. “The concentration at this point of jihad is against the American occupiers,” he told a CNN interviewer.11
As he raised his media profile, bin Laden also insinuated himself into Mullah Omar’s realm. He arrived in the desert warmth of Kandahar that winter with praise for Omar’s wisdom and grand ideas about construction projects that could transform the Pashtun spiritual capital, filling it with enduring symbols of Taliban faith and power.
Pakistani intelligence may have facilitated bin Laden’s introductions to the Taliban. To train militants for Kashmir, ISI used and subsidized guerrilla training camps that were now falling under bin Laden’s sway. According to one former CIA case officer, ISI wired bin Laden’s new house in Kandahar for security. Pakistani intelligence also allowed cross-border travel by journalists summoned by the Saudi.
For both the Taliban and ISI, bin Laden was in one sense an uncomfortable new ally and benefactor. His repeated denunciations of Saudi Arabia’s royal family angered a wealthy and powerful patron of Pakistani intelligence and its Afghan clients. But Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal made it clear to the Taliban after they took Kabul that he would not confront them over their hospitality to bin Laden.
After the fall of the Afghan capital, Prince Turki recalled, the Taliban sent a message to the kingdom: “We have this fellow here. Do you want us to hand him to you, or shall we keep him here? We offered him refuge.” The Saudis had just turned away from a possible chance to take custody of bin Laden from Sudan the previous spring. The royal family still apparently believed it was better to have bin Laden at large in Afghanistan than at home in detention or in jail where he might become a magnet for antiroyal dissent. The Saudis had ample evidence to charge bin Laden with serious crimes—they had already executed four of his followers for carrying out the Riyadh bombing of an American facility in November 1995—but they were still not prepared to endure the political risks of bin Laden’s trial or martyrdom.
Prince Turki recalled that his government told the Taliban in reply, “Well, if you have already offered him refuge, make sure that he does not operate against the kingdom or say anything against the kingdom.” Turki felt that the Taliban had agreed to take charge of “keeping his mouth shut.”12
Bin Laden had his own plan: He would convert the Taliban to his cause.
UNOCAL RENTED A HOUSE in central Kandahar directly across the street from one of bin Laden’s new compounds. They did not choose this location deliberately. Most of the decent houses in town straddled the Herat Bazaar Road. Also nearby was the Pakistani consulate, which housed officers from ISI. Charlie Santos, a former United Nations diplomat in Afghanistan, had been hired by Unocal’s small Saudi partner, Delta, to provide analysis and consulting services on Afghan affairs as the American oil company tried to negotiate its contract.
Unocal visitors and consultants had an up-close view of bin Laden’s rising impact on the city during the early months of 1997. The Saudi sheikh swept through Kandahar in convoys of pickup trucks and luxury Toyota sport utility vehicles with tinted windows. Moving with a formidable bodyguard of Arabs and Afghans, he came and went from downtown unannounced, a spectral presence in flowing white robes. As his convoy passed, Pashtun men in the fume-choked bazaars would point and whisper discreetly, “Osama, Osama.” On some Fridays he delivered sermons at Kandahar’s largest mosque. Afghans reported to Santos that Mullah Omar called bin Laden out of the audience at one sermon and praised him before the crowd as one of Islam’s most important spiritual leaders. With the public rituals of mutual flattery came word of expensive construction projects designed to provide Kandahar with a new face. Ground was broken near the Governor’s House on an elaborate new mosque to be financed by bin Laden and his supporters. There was also planning for a grand new Eid Mosque to celebrate breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan, to be constructed on the southern outskirts of Kandahar. It would be a true people’s mosque, used only once each year. Wealthy Arabs from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf flew into Kandahar for bustard-hunting in the nearby deserts. The Arabs arrived on chartered jets and brought mind-boggling luxuries for their weeks-long hunts. Bin Laden sometimes participated. These were potential donors to his operations.13
In addition to his urban Kandahar compound bin Laden installed his family and dozens of his Arab followers on the flat desert plains a dozen miles outside of town, near the Kandahar airport. During the early Cold War period when American contractors built the airport, they also constructed apartment buildings so that their expatriate workforce would have decent quarters. The apartments were some four decades old now, but they still compared favorably to local accommodations. The Taliban allowed bin Laden’s Arab entourage to move in. They also gave him the keys to Tarnak Farm, a walled government-run agricultural cooperative complex on the outskirts of the airport. The farm had several dozen buildings and was isolated and secure in a stretch of empty desert. At least one of bin Laden’s wives and a number of his children moved in during the first months of 1997.14 Local Afghans also reported to Santos and the United Nations that bin Laden had announced plans to construct a training complex for Arab mujahedin in Uruzgan province where Mullah Omar had roots. Bin Laden planned to train foreign volunteers who would aid the Taliban in their continuing military campaign against Massoud.
The United States still had no legal indictment or covert action plan to target bin Laden. The virtual bin Laden station in Virginia tracked his financial dealings and analyzed his public statements but had yet to direct lethal operations against him. The CIA met with Unocal executives to debrief them on Central Asian pipeline politics, but they never asked for help in watching, capturing, or attacking bin Laden in Kandahar that winter. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad informed Senator Hank Brown late in 1996 that bin Laden had appeared at a meeting in Afghanistan and announced a $1 million reward for Brown’s assassination. Brown was told that he should not travel to the region anymore. Yet this threat still did not galvanize a plan to attack bin Laden, whose paramilitary and terrorist ambitions remained something of a mystery to both the CIA and the White House counterterrorism office. In fact, bin Laden had already dispatched operatives to Africa and elsewhere to prepare for terrorist strikes against American targets, but the United States was unaware of these plans. The White House did not begin to push for covert operations against bin Laden beyond intelligence collection until the end of 1997, a year after he established himself openly in Mullah Omar’s Kandahar.15
American and Saudi officials met regularly and cordially with Taliban representatives during these months. Unocal sponsored visits for Taliban leaders to the United States so they could see the company’s oil operations, and its lobbyists helped to arrange meetings at the State Department.
These contacts encouraged the belief in Washington that there were Taliban moderates, sincere young Pashtuns in the leadership shuras interested in international dialogue who would lead their movement toward political responsibility. Mullah Ghaus was often credited with such potential, as was Mullah Rabbani, Saudi Arabia’s protégé. Rabbani traveled that spring to Riyadh and declared after a meeting with the ailing King Fahd, “Since Saudi Arabia is the center of the Muslim world, we would like to have Saudi assistance. King Fahd expressed happiness at the good measures taken by the Taliban and over the imposition of Sharia in our country.”16 The Taliban also retained support during these months from important Durrani Pashtuns such as members of the Karzai family. The triumph of Taliban power in Kabul meant trade and economic opportunity for Durrani Pashtuns across the south. Relative to the recent past, Kandahar was now an Arab-funded boomtown.
Mullah Omar, who continued to demonstrate that he meant what he said, openly outlined his future plans. “War is a tricky game,” he told a Pakistani visitor in March 1997. “We feel a military solution has better prospects now after numerous failed attempts to reach a peaceful, negotiated settlement.”17
A few weeks later a Taliban spokesman formally acknowledged that Osama bin Laden had moved to Kandahar. Now bin Laden could “go and see the leader directly.” The world had nothing to fear, he said. “We will not allow Afghanistan to be used to launch terrorist attacks.”18
AHMED SHAH MASSOUD and his tattered army retreated from Kabul to a cold Panjshir winter. They had known this sort of hardship before, and worse, during the anti-Soviet campaigns of the 1980s. But to lose control of the capital was a deep blow. Massoud blamed his longtime political mentor, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, for failing to make coalition politics in Kabul work while Massoud concentrated on security and war. “Massoud felt cheated because he had never been able to focus full-time on politics,” recalled his aide Haroun Amin. After Kabul’s loss, “He thought that Rabbani and the other political leaders were incompetent—couldn’t be trusted.”19 Massoud’s men recovered steadily because they knew they faced a long war with an extremist Pashtun militia in which surrender would lead to annihilation. Massoud held open the possibility of a negotiated compromise with the Taliban, but his main emphasis that winter was on recovering the battlefield. “He never thought for a second that he would lose Afghanistan,” recalled his brother Ahmed Wali. Within weeks he had assembled a meeting of defeated northern ethnic militias and announced a new alliance, initially called the Supreme Council for the Defense of the Motherland and later recast as the United Front.20
Massoud had grown isolated during his last years in Kabul. More than ever, he and his closest aides knew, they needed international support. Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were all threatened by the Taliban’s announced plans to liberate Central Asian Muslims. Massoud dispatched some of his longest-serving intelligence and foreign policy aides abroad to open talks with potential backers. Massoud offered himself as a bulwark against Islamist radicalism. He opened negotiations with Russia about arms supplies and airfield access as Moscow dispatched twenty-eight thousand soldiers to Central Asia, partly to defend against Taliban-sponsored incursions. Iran weighed in with offers of money, weapons, and humanitarian aid. India, ever ready to support an enemy of Pakistan or its proxies, would become another source of funding.
Massoud had to scratch together money and arms. There was cash available in his Panjshir redoubts from gem mining and drug smuggling. Massoud’s militia ran heroin through Central Asia to Russia. They sold lapis and emeralds at gem shows as far away as Las Vegas. From his base in Taloqan, a ragged town to the west of the Panjshir Valley, Massoud appointed new commanders and intelligence chiefs to begin rebuilding his forces and his information networks across Afghanistan. He told his men that the Taliban would grow vulnerable with time. When Pashtuns discovered that the Taliban were bent on an Islamist totalitarian state, Massoud predicted, dissent would rise. “Day by day,” recalled Mohammed Neem, Massoud’s intelligence chief during this period, his loyal Panjshiri soldiers “gradually saw we could stand against the Taliban.”21
Massoud and his men were very suspicious of the United States. It was difficult to believe that the Pakistani support for the Taliban they had witnessed as Kabul fell could have occurred without at least tacit American backing. Massoud had captured Pakistani citizens in the fighting around Kabul. Then there was the confusing, conspiracy-shrouded question of the Unocal pipeline project.Where did the Americans stand? Massoud’s inner circle discussed the question at length, but they lacked confidence about the answer.
Had they known the truth they might not have believed it. Even at this late stage the American government and its intelligence services lacked a complete understanding of covert Pakistani support for the Taliban—an ignorance born mainly from lack of interest and effort. A December 1996 State Department cable reported that Pakistani intelligence was secretly supplying cash, equipment, and military advisers to the Taliban, and that high-level Pakistani officers from ISI were fighting inside Afghanistan along with uneducated recruits from Pakistan. “We recently have received more credible information about the extent and origin of Pakistani assistance and support to the Taliban,” the Islamabad embassy reported. But the question was uncertain enough within confidential American government channels that ambassador Tom Simons could report to Washington just a few weeks later that Pakistani aid to the Taliban was “probably less malign than most imagine” and probably amounted to much less than rumored. “Military advice to the Taliban may be there, but is probably not all that significant,” Simons concluded. Long practiced at covert programs in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis had deceived Washington about the Taliban for two solid years.
Massoud sought to attract American attention. In a general atmosphere of estrangement, especially from the State Department, there was one opening he could exploit: the offer made by Gary Schroen and the CIA to reopen a direct channel of cooperation. Massoud’s first reaction to the Stinger-recovery proposal, recalled his Washington representative Daoud Mir, was “No way—I want to discuss with them the policy of Afghanistan, the future of Afghanistan.” But with the loss of Kabul he had a new motivation: If he energetically brokered missile sales, “he could have an understanding and good relations between the United States and the United Front,” as his aide Mohiden Mehdi put it. Massoud told his men to start making inquiries about Stingers with commanders across the north. He wanted something to show the Americans.22
Many of the warlords they approached had previously pledged allegiance to Hekmatyar. When Kabul fell, the Taliban had expelled Hekmatyar from Afghanistan, to exile in Iran. Many in Hekmatyar’s old network switched allegiance to the Taliban, but some commanders in the north who were cut off needed money. Massoud’s network even managed to buy a few Stingers from behind Taliban lines. For Massoud the reward was “to draw attention” from the CIA, as one of his intelligence aides put it. “We wanted to use it as a means of getting our message—the message of resistance and the message of the cause—back to Washington.”23
Gary Schroen flew to Taloqan in the early spring of 1997 to renew talks with Massoud. He and Alan Eastham, then deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Islamabad, caught a scheduled United Nations charter. The Taliban were pushing north. As Schroen and Eastham prepared to meet with Massoud, a Taliban plane flew over and dropped a bomb. Gunfire echoed on Taloqan’s outskirts.24
Schroen and his colleagues in the CIA’s Near East Division were skeptical about whether Massoud could be a worthwhile ally against bin Laden. Massoud was candid about the problems: He had to worry about the Taliban, and the Arab training camps that concerned the CIA were a long distance off. He said he was happy to cooperate as best he could, but he didn’t want the CIA to have inflated expectations. For his part, Schroen argued that Massoud could assist not only the United States but his own military cause if he helped eliminate bin Laden from the Afghan battlefield. The agency’s Counterterrorist Center hoped to provide initial supplies of secure communications gear that would permit Massoud’s intelligence aides to send messages and talk to Langley. The Center’s bin Laden unit informed a congressional committee in closed session on April 10, 1997, that it was now running operations designed to collect target intelligence in Afghanistan for use in the future, should the United States decide to capture bin Laden or attack his organization. The communications gear would also permit Massoud’s agents behind Taliban lines to report back about bin Laden’s safe houses and movements. But there was no cash or firm planning yet available.
Schroen told Massoud that for follow-up contacts it would probably be best to use CIA stations in Central Asia. With Massoud now pushed so far north, it would be easier for officers to meet with him from Tashkent or Dushanbe than from Islamabad. Massoud’s side, too, preferred to interact with the CIA in Central Asia. It had long bothered them that their contacts with the agency were centered on the Islamabad station, which maintained such close ties with Massoud’s enemies at ISI. In Taloqan that March they talked about using CIA storage and transit facilities in Central Asia to move recovered Stingers out of the north.
Massoud and his advisers remained frustrated by the Americans. The United States was missing the real danger, they felt: the Taliban, Pakistani intelligence, and their Arab volunteers. Massoud and his men interpreted the CIA’s agenda as Stingers, first and foremost. They respected Schroen and saw him as a tough, devoted operative, but their talks with him were fitful and sporadic. The political and military discussions, including those about bin Laden and terrorism, were as yet no deeper than those Massoud and his aides had routinely at foreign embassies. They felt they needed much more.25
On his own, Massoud rebuilt his intelligence networks and sabotage operations. There were many sympathetic Tajiks behind Taliban lines, especially around Kabul. Traders moved freely between the two zones. Massoud’s special forces, some living as undercover cells in the capital, blew up Taliban equipment at the Kabul airport. His intelligence group established a special unit that year focused on Arab and Pakistani forces that fought alongside the Taliban.
Through their sources they picked up word about assassination plots against Massoud. They received one report that an assassin had been dispatched to kill Massoud by placing in his shoes a mysterious powder—possibly anthrax. Recalled Neem, the intelligence chief during 1997: “We appointed one person for one year to guard Ahmed Shah Massoud’s shoes.”26
THE TALIBAN SWEPT into Mazar-i-Sharif that May. The bearded, turbaned Pashtun and Pakistani madrassa graduates who poured into the city center in pickup trucks were as foreign an invasion force as the blue-eyed Russian conscripts who’d rumbled through on Soviet tanks eighteen years before. The largest and most important city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar was a secular, urbane, relatively prosperous city with sixteen channels of satellite television and billboards festooned with the clean-shaven, mustached face of its longtime overlord Aburrashid Dostum, a former communist general who wore his religion lightly. Mazar’s dominant turquoise-domed mosque legendarily entombs a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, a central figure in the Shia faith, anathema to the Taliban. The Taliban’s shock troops were a long way from Kandahar now. They did not speak the local language. But Mullah Omar continued to believe his movement was destined to conquer all of Afghanistan by military force. His new consultant, Osama bin Laden, increasingly urged the revival of ancient Central Asian Islamic empires that would reach all the way to contemporary Russia. And Pakistani intelligence concluded that the Taliban had to seize Mazar if they were to make a plausible claim for international recognition as Afghanistan’s government. ISI calculated in the spring of 1997 “that a recognized Taliban government which controlled the entire country would be easier to deal with than a Taliban movement,” as the Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid put it later. Neighboring countries would have to accept the Taliban as a reality, and they would turn to Pakistan for help, increasing Islamabad’s leverage.27
Pakistan’s army and president had ejected Benazir Bhutto from office shortly after the Taliban took Kabul. Her plans to buy time in the prime minister’s chair by capitulating to the army’s agenda had failed. She had managed to keep an uneasy peace with the military and ISI on Afghanistan and Kashmir, but she had been unable to control corruption in her family, her cabinet, and her party. She continued to suffer under the delusions of her family’s aristocratic, landed political inheritance, the sense that she had been called to preside over “the people,” or “the masses,” who would buoy her in a struggle against her enemies. Instead she was on her way to London exile once more, a wandering daughter in an updated Greek myth of greed and family tragedy. The army endorsed new elections and arranged for the nomination of its longtime Punjabi businessman client Nawaz Sharif at the head of a military-friendly coalition. Sharif was a dull, agreeable, pasty man from a family of Lahore industrialists. He had managed an improbable career in politics by practicing the chameleon arts of the figurehead. Like Bhutto, he pledged to his advisers as he accepted Pakistan’s prime ministership early in 1997 that he would leave the army and ISI alone.
As the Taliban neared Mazar, Pakistani intelligence signaled to Sharif that when the city fell, it would be time to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The announcement was made by Pakistan’s foreign ministry on May 26. Sharif first learned about it when the news flashed across his television. “He was furious,” recalled his aide Mushahid Hussain. “He said, ‘Who made that decision?’ ”28
Prince Turki’s chief of staff at Saudi intelligence, Ahmed Badeeb, met with ISI in Rawalpindi as Mazar fell, and “they asked that we recognize [the] Taliban.” Badeeb felt that the Taliban leaders “had no clue how to run a country,” but he could see that Pakistani intelligence was deeply invested in them. Badeeb flew back to Riyadh and told the Saudi royal family, “They are very religious people. . . . I think we have to give them a chance.” Prince Turki argued that if the Saudis granted the Taliban recognition, the kingdom would have a strong channel for engagement. “Due to Pakistani insistence and to the lack of any other options,” Badeeb recalled, the kingdom decided to grant recognition “so as to fill the obvious vacuum” in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates, whose senior princes regularly embarked on luxurious falcon-hunting trips in Taliban country, joined in.29
But they had moved too fast. Mazar became a Taliban death trap. Within days of the three recognition announcements, the city’s Uzbek and Shia populations revolted against their Pashtun occupiers. They massacred three hundred Taliban soldiers. They took another thousand prisoner and sent the militia reeling back down the Salang Highway toward Kabul. Suddenly the Taliban no longer possessed any meaningful piece of northern Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., the deed was done: All three anointed the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.
To win the full privileges of recognition, the Taliban needed the United States to go along. As Mazar smoldered, a small coup attempt erupted half a world away, inside the decaying embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., a stately brick mansion on Wyoming Avenue that had earlier been the home of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Like Afghanistan’s distant war the embassy coup unfolded for the Americans at first as a nuisance, until it reached a stage where the threat of violence could no longer be ignored.
The Clinton administration declined to recognize the Taliban government. The Afghan embassy in Washington spoke for President Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud even after their expulsion from Kabul by the Taliban. Since late 1994, Afghanistan had been represented in the United States by Yar Mohabbat, a Pashtun architect and longtime resident of Germany who was close to Rabbani. Mohabbat had lobbied in Congress, at the State Department, and at the CIA, even as the Taliban rose up from Kandahar. At the State Department, Mohabbat was shunted off to meetings with the lowest-ranking desk officers. “They were always looking at Afghanistan through Pakistan’s eyes,” he recalled. The CIA was more sympathetic. He opened up a channel at Langley when Massoud started buying back Stingers. The agency gave Mohabbat the telephone number of a third party in Washington he could call when he wanted to talk to a CIA officer. His main Langley contact knew Massoud well and obviously had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. When Mohabbat complained that the United States underestimated the dangers of the Taliban and failed to recognize Massoud’s potential as an ally, the CIA man “was shaking his head. ‘I tell the State Department the same things that you’re saying. They don’t listen to me, either. They all think that Massoud is the problem.’ ” A woman from the FBI once dropped by to interview Mohabbat about Arab extremists training in Afghanistan. Otherwise, hardly anyone from the American government ever visited his embassy.30
Mohabbat was away for Memorial Day weekend in 1997 as the Taliban stormed Mazar. His deputy, Seraj Jamal, gave an interview to Voice of America’s Pashto service and suddenly declared that he had switched sides to the Taliban. He proclaimed that under his leadership the Washington embassy now took orders from Mullah Omar.
Mohabbat feared a Taliban coup at the embassy would create momentum for official American recognition. He rushed to the building and saw the Taliban’s white flag fluttering on the pole outside. Stunned, he announced to Seraj—who had given no hint of his budding conversion in their months working together—that he was going to pull the Taliban banner down the next day and raise again the Rabbani government’s black, white, and green flag.
That night a Pashto-speaking Afghan called Mohabbat at home and threatened to kill him. “Death must come from God,” Mohabbat told the caller, as he remembered it. “This is not Afghanistan. This is not Pakistan. This is America. You can’t do that here.”
“It’s easier to do here,” the caller said, “because all I need to do is give money to someone, and they’ll kill you for me.”31
Officers from the FBI and State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security swarmed over the embassy’s grounds the next morning with bomb-sniffing dogs. They sent police to Mohabbat’s house and provided protection for his wife. Mohabbat moved back into an office on the embassy’s ground floor while Seraj claimed the second floor for the Taliban and turned it into living quarters. For weeks Seraj tried to harass Mohabbat into leaving the embassy. Each day was a new battle: Seraj would plaster photographs of Mullah Omar on the walls, and Mohabbat would promote Rabbani and Massoud. When Mohabbat toured the Taliban-occupied floor of the embassy, he saw computers, fax machines, and printers, each affixed with a label: PROPERTY OF THE EMBASSY OF SAUDI ARABIA, WASHINGTON, D.C.32
The State Department’s South Asia bureau wanted nothing to do with this battle. They declined to choose a winner. They sponsored a few mediation sessions, but these produced no progress. Finally, in August, State’s Afghan desk officer called Mohabbat and Seraj in for a meeting. He told them that the United States had decided to close the Afghan embassy altogether. As far as the United States was concerned, Afghanistan’s existence as a government in the international system had been suspended.33
Mohabbat moved to St. Louis, hoping to avoid Taliban reprisals. Seraj moved to the Taliban’s unofficial delegation at the United Nations.
It was another tawdry season of American diplomacy. The United Nations estimated that Taliban-ruled Kabul now held fifty thousand widows unable to work or walk in the streets without the risk of beatings from religious police. Those widows were the mothers of some 400,000 children. The U.N. appealed for $133 million in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan during 1997 but received only $56 million.34 The United States was in the midst of an economic boom, but Congress, the State Department, and the White House were all convinced that nothing more could be done, that more aid to Afghanistan would only be wasted on warlords. Even the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan did not attract much attention. The State Department, adhering to a new economic sanctions regime, announced its first list of officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations that autumn of 1997. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were not on the list.
There were small changes stirring in American policy as Clinton entered his second term. Hillary Clinton had visited India in 1995 and became determined to push her husband toward greater involvement in the region. Madeleine Albright, who arrived as secretary of state, was more sharply attuned to human rights violators such as the Taliban than Warren Christopher had been. An anti-Taliban petition drive organized by the Feminist Majority and Mavis Leno, the wife of late-night comedian Jay Leno, captured Albright’s attention. Her new deputy, Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to India, was also determined to reexamine American policy in South Asia. The former Special Envoy to the Afghan resistance, Peter Tomsen, now the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, wrote a pleading Secret cable to State principals: “We have long underestimated the geo-political threat of Afghan instability to U.S. interests. . . . We should conduct a major Afghan policy review and implement a more resolute Afghan policy. A passive U.S. approach will continue to leave the field to the Pakistani and Arab groups supporting the Islamic extremists.”35
The National Security Council led a South Asia policy review during the first months of 1997, culminating in a memorandum to the president in August, just as the White House authorized the shutdown of the Afghan embassy in Washington. The policy memo concentrated mainly on India and Pakistan, urging more sustained American contacts with both Islamabad and New Delhi.
On Afghanistan, however, the NSC memo merely reiterated American support for the U.N. peace process. It was essentially the same policy that the United States had pursued on Afghanistan since the CIA covert pipeline shut down on December 31, 1991.
As it would turn out, a more significant transformation was beginning across the Potomac River that summer at CIA headquarters. John Deutch had quit after only nineteen months as director. He was the fifth director in ten years; the turnover and instability in the agency’s leadership seemed to be getting worse. When Deutch left, the president tried to nominate Tony Lake to run the CIA, but the Republican-controlled Senate made it clear that the confirmation process would be a political bloodbath. That left George J. Tenet, Deutch’s deputy, a former congressional aide with limited experience. Tenet might not have the burnished credentials of past CIA directors, but he had two qualities that appealed strongly to a Clinton White House with weak ties to Langley: He was well liked, and he could be easily confirmed by Congress.
None of those who supported his candidacy in that summer of 1997 predicted that George Tenet would become one of the longest-serving directors in the CIA’s history, its most important leader since William Casey, or an architect of the agency’s covert return to Afghanistan.