BY EARLY 1999, George Tenet believed that bin Laden could strike the United States again at any time. There was “not the slightest doubt” that bin Laden was planning new attacks, Tenet said. The CIA director issued this warning in public and in private. He saw evidence that bin Laden had contacts inside the United States. Tenet anticipated “bombing attempts with conventional explosives,” he told Congress and the White House. Bin Laden’s operatives were also “capable of kidnappings and assassinations.” He worried that al Qaeda might acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. Tenet believed a chemical or biological attack by bin Laden or his allies was now a “serious prospect.”1
Tenet grew frustrated by the on-and-off attention paid to the al Qaeda threat within Clinton’s Cabinet. He spent weekends watching his son play soccer in the suburbs, and he complained to his CIA colleagues that the administration’s bin Laden policy sometimes seemed “like two-year-olds playing soccer—they all go to the ball,” then their interest would wane, and they would run to the other side of the field to chase something else.2
Yet for all his stark warnings, the CIA director did not describe bin Laden in 1999 as the gravest, most important threat faced by the United States. Like the president he served, Tenet worried most about the global spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and of the missiles that could deliver them to the American homeland. When he inventoried the threats faced by the United States, Tenet listed bin Laden second, after the proliferation of unconventional weapons. In a ninety-seven-paragraph unclassified statement he issued that winter about rising dangers in an unstable world, Tenet devoted four paragraphs to bin Laden. Also, the CIA director placed virtually no emphasis on Afghanistan as a cause or context of bin Laden’s menace. Tenet never said publicly that bin Laden and al Qaeda were a powerful faction in Afghanistan’s civil war, that they thrived on their links to Pakistani intelligence, or that they took succor from Saudi and Persian Gulf sheikhs and proselytizers. In the statement he issued that winter, for instance, Tenet only mentioned the Taliban in passing as a potential source of inspiration for Islamist extremists in Pakistan. He did not describe the Taliban as a threat to the United States or to stability in Central and South Asia, or as bin Laden’s most important military allies.3
Years later Tenet rued that among the “daunting impediments” facing the CIA’s campaign against al Qaeda during 1999 was that “U.S. policy stopped short of replacing the Taliban regime, limiting the ability of the U.S. government to exert pressure on bin Laden.” But if Tenet felt frustrated by that policy at the time or conceived alternatives to it, he did not say so in public and did not press his views within the Cabinet.4
Tenet had matured at Langley and had succeeded in a job that had thwarted more experienced predecessors. By early 1999 he had proved himself an exceptional manager and leader of people, and he had won Clinton’s personal confidence. Yet he remained to some extent the staff director he had been on Capitol Hill, a synthesizer and manager of other people’s views. A profoundly visceral person, Tenet felt the bin Laden threat in his gut and responded actively with warnings and exhortations to his covert action team at the Counterterrorist Center. But Tenet seemed to accept the bin Laden problem on its received terms, as a traditional antiterrorism or policing issue best addressed by a lightning covert capture operation or a decapitating missile strike. As Tenet noted later, to confront bin Laden and the Taliban more broadly would have required a new foreign policy.
More than a decade earlier the passionate anticommunist William Casey had helped create and drive his president’s global policies from Langley. That was not George Tenet’s vision of himself or of the CIA.
In shuffling his lineup at the Counterterrorist Center that spring of 1999, Tenet demanded “a new, comprehensive operational plan of attack” against bin Laden and his allies. The plan’s purpose would be “to capture and bring to justice bin Laden and his principal lieutenants.” For this the CIA needed better intelligence about bin Laden’s movements. Tenet wanted more human sources in Afghanistan, deeper liaison with regional intelligence services, and more effective technical collection, including communications intercepts and satellite photography.5
The sense in Tenet’s seventh-floor suite—as well as in the counterterrorism office at the White House—was that the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center had grown too dependent on the gang of tribal agents in southern Afghanistan. One of Tenet’s aides referred to them derisively as “weekend warriors,” middle-aged and now prosperous Afghan fighters with a few Kalishnikovs in their closets. The tribal agents were being asked to take on vicious, religiously motivated bin Laden bodyguards who would fight to the death; it was small wonder that the team was reluctant to attack. Their reporting about bin Laden’s movements was very good although often a day or two behind. The agents communicated reliably. As in the episode at the desert hunting camp, they were willing to take risks as a tracking team, spying on bin Laden from a distance. But it was too much to expect them to act as a decisive paramilitary force against al Qaeda’s hardened Arab killers, especially since the White House’s rules of engagement cautioned them against indiscriminate attacks.6
Tenet’s push for a new bin Laden plan emphasized operations: agent recruitment, risky insertion of technical collection equipment, paramilitary covert action. But the bin Laden tracking unit at the Counterterrorist Center was heavily staffed by analysts from the Directorate of Intelligence, not spies from the Directorate of Operations. That spring, 70 percent of the unit’s professionals were women, and two-thirds had backgrounds as analysts. They could call on spies in the CIA’s far-flung stations, but their own operating experience was limited. They were highly educated, worked unusually long hours, and had become fanatically motivated about the bin Laden threat. They studied bin Laden’s fatwas, drew up elaborate charts of his international networks, scrutinized interrogation reports, and monitored the most obscure nuances in theological debates among Sunni Islamist extremists. They were a relatively junior group, with an average of three years’ experience, as compared to the average of eight years in the mainline Directorate of Intelligence. They struggled at times to persuade case officers in the Directorate of Operations to work on their requests. CIA field officers abroad did not like to “take direction from the ladies” working back at Langley, one Counterterrorist Center manager recalled.7
The bin Laden unit’s analysts were so intense about their work that they made some of their CIA colleagues uncomfortable. The unit had about twenty-five professionals in the summer of 1999. They called themselves “the Manson Family” because they had acquired a reputation for crazed alarmism about the rising al Qaeda threat. “Jonestown,” said one person involved, asked to sum up the unit’s atmosphere. “I outlawed Kool-Aid.” Some of their colleagues thought they had lost their perspective. “It was a cult,” recalled a second American official. “There was frustration: Why didn’t everybody else share their view on things?”8
Tenet valued the bin Laden unit’s intensity, but he needed a breakthrough. “We have seen numerous reports that bin Laden and his associates are planning terrorist attacks against U.S. officials and facilities in a variety of locations, including in the U.S.,” he told a closed Senate hearing on June 24. That spring the director appointed one of his deputy’s key executive assistants, known to his colleagues as Rich, to take charge of the bin Laden unit. The new chief had worked as a case officer in Algeria during the early 1990s, in the midst of a gruesome uprising waged by violent Islamist radicals, some of them veterans of Afghanistan. He knew the bin Laden issue, he knew the Third World, and he did not mind high-risk travel. Like his new colleagues Rich was intense and sometimes emotional and combative. Since he came directly from Tenet’s leadership group, his arrival was seen as a signal of renewed high-level interest in the bin Laden case. The new chief’s connections presumably would help attract resources to the cause and smooth decision-making.
Tenet quickly followed this appointment with another: He named Cofer Black as director of the entire Counterterrorist Center. It had been just four years earlier that Black had left Khartoum, Sudan. As station chief there he had supervised intensive undercover intelligence collection operations against bin Laden, chasing the Saudi and his men around in jeeps and cars. Black had disrupted rehearsals by bin Laden’s lieutenants to ambush and kill him on a road near the U.S. embassy. He took the bin Laden case personally.
“This is bad business,” Tenet told Black, as an official involved in the transition recalled. “These guys are getting stronger and stronger. We’re going to get struck. We’ve got to engage this target. We’ve got to get more penetrations. We’ve got to go out after these guys.”9
Black’s bluff speech, vaguely British inflections, and love of warrior metaphors created a new table-thumping martial air at the Counterterrorist Center. He and the new bin Laden unit chief knew each other well from their years in the Directorate of Operations. They wanted to shake up the unit’s strategy.
Cofer Black was not a natural partner for Paul Pillar, the intellectual terrorism analyst who was the Counterterrorist Center’s long-serving deputy director. Pillar’s emphasis on managing permanent terrorist threats, and his skepticism about how the Clinton administration had personalized its campaign against bin Laden, stood in some contrast to Black’s gung-ho ambitions. After years of exhausting, nerve-racking service, Pillar soon left the center for a fellowship at a Washington think tank.
Black and his new bin Laden unit wanted to “project” into Afghanistan, to “penetrate” bin Laden’s Afghan sanctuaries. They described their plan as military officers might. They sought to surround Afghanistan with secure covert bases for CIA operations—as many bases as they could arrange. Then they would mount operations from each of these platforms, trying to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin Laden as they could get to recruit agents and to attempt capture operations.
Sometimes they would work with regional intelligence services, Black announced. Other times they would work on their own. They would not try to pick and choose their partners fastidiously. Black declared that he wanted to develop liaison operations especially aimed at agent recruitment with every intelligence service in the Middle East and South Asia that might possibly offer a way to get at bin Laden and his lieutenants.
“Eight to eighty, blind, crippled or crazy, we don’t care what you are, we want to be in contact,” Black told his colleagues. “We are at war,” declared a document presented to a closed Counterterrorist Center meeting on September 10. They had to continue to sow doubt in bin Laden’s mind about the “security of his operations.” And Black did not want to sit around in restaurants and exchange written reports, the traditional emphasis of intelligence liaison. He wanted recruitments, and he wanted to develop commando or paramilitary strike teams made up of officers and men who could “blend” into the region’s Muslim populations.10
Even with Tenet’s support they struggled for resources. In the same weeks that he began to talk at the White House, FBI, and Pentagon about what he called “The Plan” for revived global operations against bin Laden, Black was forced to implement a 30 percent cut in cash operating budgets at the Counterterrorist Center—including in the bin Laden unit. The CIA had started to reverse its decline in personnel, but by the end of 1999 it still had 25 percent fewer operations officers than it had fielded when the decade began. The annual cash crunch at the Counterterrorist Center could often be partly offset by budgetary scavenging at the end of a fiscal year, but these were distracting and uncertain efforts. As he developed briefing slides for Tenet and the White House that summer, Black boasted that “The Plan” was comprehensive, global, and newly ambitious. But his colorful slides masked a threadbare checking account. A study commissioned by Black and presented to a CIA conference on September 16, 1999, concluded that the Counterterrorist Center could not carry out its more ambitious plans against al Qaeda without more money and people.11
Worse, the geopolitical map that Black and the new bin Laden unit chief pored over did not look promising. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was a “denied area” in CIA parlance, with no secure bases for permanent operations. Pakistan seemed a highly unreliable partner, Black and the new bin Laden unit chief agreed. Pakistani intelligence was so penetrated by Taliban and bin Laden sympathizers, they believed, that there was little basis to rely on joint operations such as the commando training the CIA was providing. Iran shared a long border with Afghanistan but was out of the question as a partner. Turkmenistan, another neighbor, wanted nothing to do with the CIA. A civil war engulfed Tajikistan to the northeast.
That left only Uzbekistan, which bordered Afghanistan to the north, far from the southern and eastern Taliban strongholds where bin Laden mainly operated. But at least Uzbekistan’s government was not penetrated by Taliban sympathizers, Black and his colleagues calculated. A jowly, secular ex-communist autocrat named Islam Karimov ruled the country as if it were his estate. Karimov jailed and sometimes tortured democratic and Islamist opponents. He had no sympathy for bin Laden. Karimov’s hold on power was threatened by a violent radical group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; its leaders had been inspired by Saudi proselytizing and later found exile with bin Laden in Afghanistan. By 1999, bin Laden and the Taliban leadership saw these Uzbek Islamists as important allies. The IMU fought as committed shock troops in the Taliban’s war against Massoud’s forces in northern Afghanistan. They were also a vanguard of bin Laden’s grandiose plans to sponsor a thrust by Islamist forces into Central Asia to overthrow the region’s secular leaders and establish new caliphates.
Bin Laden provided the Uzbek radicals with funding, weapons, and access to training camps. The Taliban provided them with bases and housing in Kabul and farther north. Uzbek terrorist units began to sneak across the border to mount operations against Karimov’s government. On February 16, 1999, they announced themselves in the capital of Tashkent: As Karimov drove in a limousine to a cabinet meeting, the radicals detonated six car bombs in a downtown plaza. Karimov escaped, but sixteen people died. Within days Karimov arrested at least two thousand Islamic activists. Many of these arrests were indiscriminate, sweeping up peaceful democratic parties challenging Karimov’s iron-fisted rule. But Karimov described the crackdown as war against bin Laden’s allies.12
Cofer Black and his colleagues saw this turmoil as an opportunity. Through the CIA station in Tashkent they reached out to Karimov’s government and proposed a new intelligence alliance focused on their mutual enemies in Afghanistan. Karimov wanted CIA assistance but was nervous about the political price he might pay if his contacts with Langley became known. He agreed to explore the CIA’s proposals but insisted that all of his dealings be kept secret.
Black and the new bin Laden unit chief, Rich, flew discreetly into Tashkent, a Soviet-style city of broad avenues and monumental government buildings in the Central Asian steppe, to outline a new CIA liaison program. Black proposed CIA funding and training for a counterterrorism strike force to be commanded by the Uzbek military. The CIA hoped the force, once fully trained and equipped, might carry out covert snatch operations against bin Laden or his lieutenants.13
Karimov accepted the plan. He made Uzbek air bases available to the CIA for small-scale transit and helicopter operations. He allowed the CIA and the National Security Agency to install monitoring equipment designed to intercept Taliban and al Qaeda communications. He agreed to share what intelligence his government had about bin Laden’s bases in Afghanistan. Karimov and his aides hinted that they might be willing to join the CIA in military operations once the new commando force was ready.
The CIA’s officers were excited and optimistic. They admired Karimov’s willingness to take political risks to go after bin Laden. Finally they had found a new partner less penetrated than Pakistan and less complicated than Saudi Arabia. Karimov and his intelligence aides agreed to just about every request the CIA put forward.14
At the White House, National Security Council aides drafted the highly classified legal approvals and budgetary papers for the new Uzbek liaison in a mood of jaundiced, sometimes acid skepticism. “Uzbek motivations were highly suspect to say the least,” recalled one official. To these skeptics the CIA liaison did not seem like “a plan that fit into anything larger than ‘Get something going with the Uzbeks.’ ” Tashkent was a long way from Kandahar, but it was “certainly closer than Langley,” so at least it was something. There were fears at the White House about Uzbek corruption, human rights abuses, and scandal. Some of the White House aides saw the CIA itself as “passive-aggressive” about the Uzbek outreach in the sense that Langley pushed to get the liaison going and then worried aloud about rules and financial audits. One White House official remembered a CIA counterpart announcing wearily, “We’re going to have to deploy hundreds of accountants to Uzbekistan to make sure every piece of equipment that we send to these people is accounted for.”15
Formal CIA and Pentagon liaisons like the one in Uzbekistan had a natural bureaucratic shape and momentum that emphasized office meetings, long training sessions, equipment purchases, audits, and slide presentations. They often chewed up more time on process and planning than on covert operations.
On the ground in Afghanistan during that summer of 1999 there was only one leader waging war and collecting intelligence day in and day out against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and their international Islamist allies. His disputed government possessed no real capital, no international airport, and little credibility. His budget was cobbled together week to week, partly from heroin smuggling deals. He did not have much of an office and, for lack of electricity, could not rely much on slide projectors. He had acquired a few tanks, a good supply of mortars, many small arms, and a few tattered helicopters pasted together from incompatible spare parts and with rotors that continually threatened to detach and fly away.
Ahmed Shah Massoud remained a charismatic force among his own Tajik people, especially in the northeastern Panjshir Valley. He was by far the most formidable military commander in Afghanistan yet to be defeated by the Taliban. The CIA had continued to maintain regular contact with Massoud in the two years since Gary Schroen’s visit to the commander in Taloqan in the spring of 1997. A series of clandestine CIA teams carrying electronic intercept equipment and relatively small amounts of cash—up to $250,000 per trip—had visited Massoud in the Panjshir Valley several times since then. Sometimes the teams were led by officers from the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations, where Schroen was now deputy chief. Other times they were led by officers from the Counterterrorist Center. When Near East was in the lead, the missions were code-named NALT, for Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team. When the Counterterrorist Center was in charge, they were dubbed JAWBREAKER. The first group, NALT-1, flew on one of Massoud’s helicopters from Dushanbe to the Panjshir late in 1997. Three other CIA teams had gone in by the summer of 1999. They typically stayed in Barak village, near Massoud’s headquarters, for a week or two and met with the commander several times. The intercept equipment they delivered allowed Massoud to monitor Taliban battlefield radio transmissions. In exchange the CIA officers asked Massoud to let them know immediately if his men ever heard accounts on the Taliban radios indicating that bin Laden or his lieutenants were on the move in a particular sector. The agency teams established secure communications links to Langley so that Massoud could pass along such bin Laden alerts.
Both the Near East Division and the Counterterrorist Center supported the liaison with Massoud, but they disagreed about its purpose and potential. Within Near East there were many, including Schroen, who remembered the commander’s stubborn independence in years past even when he was handsomely paid to follow the CIA’s lead. They wondered if Massoud could really be a reliable partner against bin Laden. In any event they wanted to support Massoud against the Taliban to keep his northern forces viable and to provide a foothold in Afghanistan for CIA intelligence collection and operations. The Near East officers did not doubt Massoud’s contempt for bin Laden and his Arab volunteers, but Schroen argued that geography and logistics made operations against bin Laden nearly impossible for Massoud. Even the Near East Division’s TRODPINT tracking team, operating on al Qaeda’s home turf around Kandahar, had been unable to produce reliable forecasts of bin Laden’s movements. Massoud was even more remote from the target.
But Black and especially Rich argued that they had to renew their effort to bring Massoud into the campaign against bin Laden. They saw Massoud as many of his admirers in Europe did, as an epochal figure, extraordinarily skillful and determined. They had no personal history with him, no legacy of disappointments or conflicts involving Pakistani intelligence. If the CIA really intended to reinvent its plan to disrupt and capture bin Laden, they asked that summer, how could the agency possibly succeed if it did not begin to do serious business with Massoud?
THE AFGHAN WAR was changing. The murder by Taliban agents of Abdul Haq’s family in Peshawar early in 1999 presaged new opposition to Mullah Omar among Pashtuns. That spring the Karzai family, who had backed the Taliban’s initial rise, began to explore armed opposition.
The Karzais’ frustration with the Taliban had been rising for months. At Hamid Karzai’s April wedding in Quetta, his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, the family patriarch and a former Afghan senator, called his sons and several other Pashtun leaders to a late-night meeting and declared, as Hamid’s brother Qayam remembered it, that “our country is gone and it’s somebody else’s country now, and it would remain that way unless we resisted.” The Karzai patriarch declared that “the only option left is that we have to start from within. We would have to be more diligent, we would have to be more stubborn. We would have to start talking to Massoud.” They decided to seek American assistance but agreed this would be a long shot.16
Hamid Karzai worked with his father from the family compound in Quetta that spring and early summer to organize political resistance to the Taliban among prominent royalist Pashtuns. He coordinated meetings of tribal chiefs in Pakistan and in Rome. He promoted a formal loya jirga to reconsider Afghan politics, and his father agitated for the return of the Afghan king. Hamid Karzai wrote a letter to Mullah Omar, inviting him to attend some of these political meetings but also warning him that the Taliban had to change, “that they must remove the foreigners that were with them here killing and destroying our country, ruining our lives,” as Karzai recalled it.17
The Taliban sent their reply on July 15. As the elderly Karzai patriarch walked home from a mosque through Quetta’s mud-rock alleyways, Afghan assassins on motorcycles roared up and opened fire, killing him instantly.
Heir to his father’s political position, Hamid Karzai sought to avenge his death. Within weeks of Abdul Ahad’s grand Kandahar funeral—a mix of mourning and anti-Taliban politics—Hamid Karzai redoubled his efforts. He already had numerous American contacts and helped funnel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan from Quetta. Now he asked Bill Milam, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, for weapons. Milam told Karzai he was being reckless and unrealistic. The Taliban or their Arab allies would slaughter him if he attempted an uprising; the political ground had not been laid.18
Karzai was inclined to concede the point, but he pressed anyway. He felt rash, he said later. Officers in the CIA’s Islamabad station believed that an armed uprising was unrealistic but urged continuing talks and cooperation. Karzai was a “small player,” one U.S. official recalled, but his political and tribal allies were well wired in Kandahar and could provide helpful information about the Taliban and bin Laden. Arms supplies seemed implausible, however. “I would go every week to Islamabad,” Karzai recalled of this period. “I would go to the Americans, I would go to the French, I would go to the English, I would go to the Germans, I would go to the Italians . . . [and] tell them about the readiness of the Afghan people to move against the Taliban. They wouldn’t trust me. They wouldn’t believe me. . . . They didn’t see it. They didn’t even see it in Washington.”19
Some State Department officials and some analysts at the CIA still believed—despite little supporting evidence—that the Taliban might voluntarily turn bin Laden over for trial in exchange for diplomatic recognition and relief from economic sanctions. Pressure from Karzai and other dissident Pashtuns might encourage the Taliban to compromise, but otherwise it was not something the State Department sought to encourage. Albright, Tom Pickering, and Rick Inderfurth declared publicly again and again that the United States would not take sides in the Afghan war.
State Department intelligence analysts did report during the first half of 1999 that resistance to the Taliban was growing. Still, “We believe there is no military solution to this conflict,” Inderfurth said. “The United States supports no individual Afghan faction but maintains contacts with all to further progress toward a peaceful settlement.”20
At interagency meetings CIA officials had raised the possibility of a new American alliance with Massoud, possibly involving covert arms supplies. But outside of the CIA, the Clinton administration remained deeply skeptical about the commander and his northern warlord allies. At an ambassadors’ meeting in Washington in May, Albright canvassed her envoys to Pakistan and Central Asia: What did they think about a new tilt toward Massoud? Milam was adamantly opposed. Arms supplies to Massoud would only deepen the war and kill more innocent Afghans, he and his colleagues at the Islamabad embassy firmly believed. Massoud could not defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. He was bottled up in the north and losing ground.21
The influential Pickering argued that no Afghan policy could succeed if it did not involve the Pashtuns in the south. If the U.S. tilted toward Massoud in the north, it would only exacerbate Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions—and in a quixotic military cause.22 Other State and White House officials recalled the horrible violence against civilians in Kabul during the mid-1990s while Massoud was defense minister and pointed to persistent reports that he relied on drug trafficking. He was not a worthy ally of the United States, they argued.
MASSOUD TOLD HIS AIDES he was confident that the Taliban would wither. They would overextend themselves, and opposition among Pashtuns would gradually rise.23
Twice Massoud spoke by satellite telephone to Mullah Omar. As his aides listened, Massoud told the Taliban leader that history clearly showed Afghanistan could never be ruled by one faction, that the country could only be governed by a coalition. But the only history Omar had ever read was in the Koran, and he refused to compromise.
Massoud persisted. He dispatched his intelligence aide, Amrullah Saleh, to Switzerland to meet secretly with Taliban representatives. They also held back-channel talks in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the Taliban were buoyed by their support from ISI, Saudi, and other Persian Gulf donors. “They were very arrogant,” recalled one of Massoud’s aides.
Still, Massoud counseled patience. His strategy in 1999, recalled his brother Ahmed Wali, was similar to what it had been a decade earlier, when Soviet troops withdrew: He planned to outlast and eventually outmaneuver Pakistani intelligence. Eventually, Massoud said, the United States would recognize that the Taliban was its enemy.When that happened, he would be ready to receive American help. Meanwhile, through the Stinger missile recovery program and occasional meetings with CIA officers at safehouses in Tajikistan and in the Panjshir, Massoud kept his lines to Langley open.
At the State Department, Pickering and Inderfurth evolved a more nuanced policy toward Massoud by the summer of 1999. They still strongly opposed American arms supplies, but they privately made clear to Russia and Iran that the United States had no objections to the covert arms those countries supplied Massoud. They defended this policy by saying they did not want to see the Northern Alliance completely overrun. If Massoud’s forces were expelled from Afghanistan, that would leave the Taliban triumphantly unchallenged—and less willing than ever to negotiate.24
Inderfurth traveled to Tashkent that July for multiparty peace talks with Afghan leaders sponsored by the United Nations. Massoud also decided to attend. Inderfurth’s opening statement offered olive branches to every group, including the Taliban. The conference’s “Tashkent Declaration on Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan” was a testament to muddled policy and dead-end negotiations. Its preamble expressed “profound concern” about the status of Afghan minorities and women and then declared that the signatories were “deeply distressed” about drug trafficking and, thirdly, were “also concerned” about terrorism. Pakistan and Iran pledged to end arms shipments to their favored Afghan militias, pledges they did not intend to keep, as the United States well understood.25
On the night the talks broke up, Inderfurth met with Massoud and his aides in a side room of the behemoth Soviet-era hall where the conference had been held. Massoud swept in wearing pressed khaki robes and a wool cap, radiating “charisma and presence,” as Inderfurth recalled it. As the American envoy reviewed diplomatic issues, Massoud seemed bored, but when Inderfurth asked about the war, Massoud lit up and leaned forward to describe his defenses and plans.26
Inderfurth asked if Massoud needed military equipment to undertake his summer operations. Massoud demurred. His aides said later they did not request weapons because they knew the Clinton administration had ruled out such supplies. Also, Russia, Iran, and India “were finding themselves comfortable providing us means to counter the Taliban because there was no objection from the U.S. on shipment of arms,” one of Massoud’s aides recalled.
Massoud expressed disappointment about U.S. indifference to Afghanistan, as Inderfurth recalled it. Massoud’s aides remember him as more than disappointed. He liked Inderfurth better than some other U.S. diplomats, they said, but Massoud saw American policy as profoundly misguided, and he could not understand why it was so slow to change. At the Tashkent sessions the Americans kept talking about the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as two equally culpable “warring factions.” This seemed outrageous to Massoud. It showed expediency and a loss of perspective in American foreign policy, he thought. As the Taliban became more powerful, even the United States moved to appease them, Massoud believed.27
Massoud tried to inventory for Inderfurth the massacres of civilians carried out by Taliban and al Qaeda forces. Summoning an argument designed to resonate in Washington, he described the Taliban as among the world’s most egregious human rights violators, a regime that systematically repressed women and Shiite minorities. “We said, ‘The United States is the only major power in this world pursuing a policy basically oriented on human rights. Let us see the reality,’ ” recalled a senior Massoud aide who was present. Massoud sought to convince Inderfurth that the Taliban were beginning to weaken, his aide recalled. Now was the time for the United States to pressure Pakistan to cut off aid to the Taliban, Massoud argued.
Inderfurth and Pickering believed they were pushing Pakistan as hard as they could, yet they had limited leverage in Islamabad. Counterterrorism officials such as the State Department’s Michael Sheehan argued in internal memos during this period that State could push harder by placing terrorism at the very top of the American agenda. But State’s brain trust—Albright, Pickering, and Strobe Talbott—felt that the United States could not afford to take such a narrow approach. America had other compelling interests: nuclear weapons, Kashmir, and the stability of Pakistani society. The support flowing to the Taliban from the Pakistani army and ISI had to be challenged in this broader context of American concerns, State’s leadership insisted. Clinton agreed. The United States had a full agenda with Pakistan—the threat of war with India, nuclear weapons, terrorism, democracy, Kashmir—and all of it was important, Clinton believed.28
A decade before, it had been the State Department’s Peter Tomsen, among others, who pushed a reluctant CIA to move closer to Ahmed Shah Massoud and away from Pakistani intelligence. Now the bureaucratic chairs had been reversed. It was State Department diplomats, along with some officers at the CIA, who resisted calls for a closer alliance with Massoud during 1999. Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser and political gatekeeper on foreign policy, endorsed their view. There were isolated, individual advocates for a new alliance with Massoud at State, the White House, and in Congress, but it was mainly at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center—especially in the bin Laden unit—that Massoud had the most ardent believers.
Whatever the doubts about his independent outlook, whatever the fears about his drug trafficking, the CIA’s Manson Family knew one thing for certain: Ahmed Shah Massoud was the enemy of their enemy.
COFER BLACK INITIATED paperwork and approvals with Richard Clarke’s White House counterterrorism office late that summer. Black said he wanted to send a CIA team, led by his new bin Laden unit chief, inside Afghanistan to meet with Massoud and his lieutenants, in order to reenergize Massoud’s efforts against bin Laden. This would be the fifth CIA mission to the Panjshir since the autumn of 1997, code-named JAWBREAKER-5. The mission’s goal was to establish a renewed counterterrorism liaison. The CIA would offer to train, equip, and expand Massoud’s existing intelligence service based in the Panjshir Valley and help it operate as widely and securely as possible in Afghan cities and provinces. The agency would offer Massoud more cash, more secure communications, listening devices, and other nonlethal spy gear.29
Black and his bin Laden unit hoped to establish with Massoud a robust program of intelligence exchange, concentrating on the daily mystery of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Tenet and his colleagues overseeing technical collection moved a satellite to obtain better coverage of Afghanistan, and the National Security Agency developed intercept equipment for use inside the country. The bin Laden unit hoped Massoud would enhance these technical approaches on the ground. In his war against the Taliban and its allies, Massoud often maneuvered in battle against bin Laden’s Arab brigade, Pakistani volunteers, and Chechen irregulars. Ultimately the CIA hoped Massoud would order his militia to capture bin Laden during one of these engagements and either kill him or hand him over to the United States.
The new CIA program would eventually complement commando training in Uzbekistan and Pakistan as well as continuing work with the longer-established tribal tracking team in southern Afghanistan, Black explained. The Counterterrorist Center hoped to surround al Qaeda militias with trained, equipped forces drawn from local populations. Then it would seek to locate bin Laden or his lieutenants and maneuver them into a trap.
Given the doubts about Massoud inside the Clinton administration, the Panjshir missions faced close legal and policy review. “It was all CIA initiated,” recalled a senior White House official. The Counterterrorist Center needed approval to make its small cash payments to Massoud on each trip. “Well, how small is small?” the White House official asked. A few hundred thousand dollars, the CIA replied. Clarke and Berger assented.30
The intelligence policy and legal offices at the National Security Council drafted formal, binding policy guidance for the JAWBREAKER-5 mission. Black got involved; he wanted everything written down clearly so there would be no recriminations later if CIA gear or cash was misused by Massoud. “Put it down in ‘Special English’ so people can understand,” Black would say sardonically to his colleagues. He wanted his men to be able to hold copies of the White House legal authorities in their hands when they met with Massoud and his intelligence aides in the Panjshir. He wanted the CIA officers to be able to literally read out their White House guidance in clear terms that were easy to translate. There would be no improvisation, Black said. The Counterterrorist Center chief occasionally cited the English king Henry II’s famous attempt in 1170 to commission the assassination of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, by asking an ambiguous question. Henry II had asked open-endedly: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Black ranted sarcastically to his colleagues: The CIA is not in the “rid me of this priest” business anymore. He wanted presidential orders that were specific and exacting. “You’ve got to spell it out,” he told the White House.31
Massoud was at war with the Taliban. The United States declared a policy of strict neutrality in that war. The White House also wanted to ensure that the CIA’s counterterrorism mission to the Panjshir Valley did not become some kind of Trojan horse strategy for a rogue CIA effort to boost Massoud’s strength and capability in his battles against the Taliban. Clinton said he was prepared to work with Massoud on intelligence operations, despite his record of brutality, but he was not ready to arm the Northern Alliance. The Pentagon and intelligence community both provided analysis to Clinton, as he recalled it years later, arguing that Massoud was receiving all the weapons he could handle from other suppliers, and that in any event he would never be able to defeat the Taliban or govern Afghanistan from Kabul. This certainly was Shelton’s consistent view from the Pentagon. At Langley, the CIA was divided on the question. After absorbing the briefs, Clinton made clear that he was not prepared to have the United States join the Afghan war on Massoud’s side, against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Clinton hand-wrote changes to a February 1999 authorizing memo to emphasize that Massoud’s men could only use lethal force against bin Laden in self-defense. The National Security Council approved written guidance to authorize intelligence cooperation with Massoud, while making clear that the CIA could provide no assistance that would “fundamentally alter the Afghan battlefield.”32
Black underlined this point to the bin Laden unit as its chief prepared to fly to Central Asia. The CIA would be interpreting this White House policy rule at its peril. It would be up to the agency’s colonel-level officers to decide, day in and day out, what kind of intelligence aid would “fundamentally alter” Massoud’s military position against the Taliban and what would not. If they did not get this right, they could wind up in a federal courtroom, Black warned.
Rich, the Algiers veteran and bin Laden unit chief, led the JAWBREAKER team to the Panjshir in October 1999. They flew secretly to Dushanbe, the pockmarked capital of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, a desolate city recovering from postcommunist civil war. At an airfield where Massoud maintained a clandestine logistics base, they boarded an old Soviet-made Mi-17 transport helicopter and swooped toward Afghanistan’s jagged, snow-draped northern peaks.
Beyond the Anjuman Pass, two miles high, they descended into the narrow, cragged river valley that was Massoud’s fortress homeland. He had agreed to receive the CIA team at his principal residence, in a compound near where his family had lived for generations and where Massoud’s own legend as an anti-Soviet guerrilla leader had been born. They stayed for seven days. Most of the time they worked with Massoud’s intelligence officers on operations, equipment, and procedures for communication. The CIA set up secure lines between Massoud, his Dushanbe safehouses, and the Counterterrorist Center at Langley so that any fix on bin Laden’s whereabouts could be instantly transmitted to CIA headquarters and from there to the White House.33
Rich and his team met with Massoud twice, once at the beginning of the visit and once at the end. The CIA officers admired Massoud greatly. They saw him as a Che Guevara figure, a great actor on history’s stage. Massoud was a poet, a military genius, a religious man, and a leader of enormous courage who defied death and accepted its inevitability, they thought. Among Third World guerrilla leaders the CIA officers had met, there were few so well rounded. Massoud prayed five times a day during their visit. In his house there were thousands of books: Persian poetry, histories of the Afghan war in multiple languages, biographies of other military and guerrilla leaders. In their meetings Massoud wove sophisticated, measured references to Afghan history and global politics into his arguments. He was quiet, forceful, reserved, and full of dignity, but also light in spirit. The CIA team had gone into the Panjshir as unabashed admirers of Massoud. Now their convictions deepened even as they recognized that the agency’s new partnership with the Northern Alliance would be awkward, limited, and perhaps unlikely to succeed.
The meetings with Massoud were formal and partially scripted. Each side spoke for about fifteen minutes, and then there was time for questions and answers.
“We have a common enemy,” the CIA team leader said. “Let’s work together.”34
Massoud said he was willing, but he was explicit about his limitations. Bin Laden spent most of his time near Kandahar and in the eastern Afghan mountains, far from where Massoud’s forces operated. Occasionally bin Laden visited Jalalabad or Kabul, closer to Massoud’s lines. In these areas Massoud’s intelligence service had active agents, and perhaps they could develop more sources.
Because he had a few helicopters and many battle-tested commanders, the CIA team also hoped to eventually set up a snatch operation in which Massoud would order an airborne assault to take bin Laden alive. But for now the Counterterrorist Center had no legal authority from the White House to promote lethal operations with Massoud. The initial visit was to set up a system for collection and sharing of intelligence about bin Laden, and to establish connections with Massoud for future operations.
The agency men recognized that in their focus on bin Laden they were promoting a narrow “American solution” to an American problem in the midst of Afghanistan’s broader, complex war. Still, they hoped Massoud would calculate that if he went along with the CIA’s capture operation, it might lead eventually to a deeper political and military alliance with the United States.35
Massoud told the CIA delegation that American policy toward bin Laden was myopic and doomed to fail. The Americans put all their effort against bin Laden himself and a handful of his senior aides, but they failed to see the larger context in which al Qaeda thrived. What about the Taliban? What about Pakistani intelligence? What about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?
Even if the CIA succeeded in capturing or killing bin Laden, Massoud argued to his CIA visitors, the United States would still have a huge problem in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was now much bigger than bin Laden or al-Zawahiri alone. Protected by the Taliban, its hundreds and even thousands of international jihadists would carry on bin Laden’s war against both the United States and secular Central Asian governments.
“Even if we succeed in what you are asking for,” Massoud told the CIA delegation, as his aide and translator Abdullah recalled it, “that will not solve the bigger problem that is growing.”36 This part of the conversation was tricky for the Americans. The CIA team leader and his colleagues privately agreed with Massoud’s criticisms of American policy. The CIA men saw little distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban. They felt frustrated by the State Department diplomats who argued moderate Taliban leadership might eventually expel bin Laden bloodlessly.
The Americans told Massoud they agreed with his critique, but they had their orders. The policy of the United States government now focused on capturing bin Laden and his lieutenants for criminal trial. Yet this policy was not static. Already the CIA was lobbying for a new approach to Massoud in Washington—that was how they had won permission for this mission in the first place. If they worked together now, built up their cooperation on intelligence collection, the CIA—or at least the officers in the Counterterrorist Center—would continue to lobby for the United States to choose sides in the Afghan war and support Massoud. The CIA could not rewrite government policy, but it had influence, they explained. The more Massoud cooperated against bin Laden, the more credible the CIA’s arguments in Washington would become.
Massoud and his aides agreed they had nothing to lose. “First of all it was an effort against a common enemy,” recalled Abdullah. “Second, we had the hope that it would get the U.S. to know better about the situation in Afghanistan.” As the counterterrorism and intelligence work grew, the United States might finally intervene in the Afghan war more forcefully, “perhaps in the later stages,” Massoud calculated, as Abdullah recalled it.37
Meanwhile, if Massoud’s men found themselves “in a position to kill Osama bin Laden, we wouldn’t have waited for approval from the United States,” Abdullah recalled. “We were not doing this just for the U.S. interests. We were doing it for our own interests.”38
In the end Massoud’s men did not object to the discussions about legal limitations as much as they did to what they saw as the selfish, single-minded focus of American policy. “What was irritating was that in this whole tragedy, in this whole chaotic situation, at times that a nation was suffering,” recalled one of Massoud’s intelligence aides who worked closely with the CIA during this period, “they were talking about this very small piece of it: bin Laden. And if you were on our side, it would have been difficult for you to accept that this was the problem. For us it was an element of the problem but not the problem.”39
The CIA team pledged to push Massoud’s arguments in Washington, but they sensed their own isolation in the American bureaucracy. They understood State’s objections. They knew that backing Massoud’s grinding war against the Taliban carried many risks and costs, not least the certainty of more Afghan civilian deaths. They had to make the case—unpopular and to many American officials still unproven—that the Taliban and al Qaeda posed such a grave risk to the United States that it required an extraordinary change.