A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE MILLENNIUM had passed, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center picked up intelligence that Osama bin Laden had arrived in Derunta Camp, in a jagged valley near Jalalabad.
The camp had become a focus of White House and CIA intelligence collection efforts. It was a typical bin Laden facility: crude, mainly dirt and rocks, with a few modest buildings protected by ridges. Massoud’s intelligence sources reported that no Afghans were permitted in Derunta, only Arabs. Testimony from al Qaeda defectors and interrogation of Arab jihadists showed that Derunta was a graduate school for elite recruits. Ahmed Ressam had trained there. Richard Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group had examined evidence that al Qaeda pursued experiments with poisons and chemical weapons at Derunta. The Defense Intelligence Agency had reported about a year before the millennium that bin Laden aides were developing chemical arms at the camp. The Pentagon routed satellites above Derunta and took pictures. The CIA recruited Afghan agents who traveled or lived in the Jalalabad region. It was an area of high mobility and weak Taliban control, and it did not take long for the agency to develop sources. Through its new liaison in the Panjshir, the Counterterrorist Center pushed technical intelligence collection equipment to Massoud’s southern lines. These efforts produced intercepts of Taliban radio traffic in Kabul and Jalalabad. In addition, the CIA inserted an optical device, derived from technology used by offshore spy planes, that could produce photographic images from a distance of more than ten miles. Massoud’s men, with help from CIA officers, set up an overlook above Derunta and tried to watch the place with the agency’s high-tech spyglass. This intense collection effort did not produce conclusive evidence that bin Laden possessed chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, but it showed that he wanted them. The Derunta reporting fed Tenet’s fear that bin Laden’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction was a “serious prospect.”1
The Counterterrorist Center relayed its report to Massoud that bin Laden had arrived in Derunta. Bin Laden frequently inspected training camps, where he met with lieutenants, made speeches, and shot a few guns. He moved continuously in unannounced, zigzag loops around Afghanistan. He lectured at mosques, received delegations, and graced banquets with his presence, always surrounded by dozens of Arab bodyguards. Derunta was a regular stop.
Massoud ordered a mission on the basis of the CIA’s report. He rounded up “a bunch of mules,” as an American official put it, and loaded them up with Soviet-designed Katyusha rockets. He dispatched a small commando team toward Derunta. Massoud’s shifting southern lines often allowed his men to move within artillery distance of Kabul and Jalalabad. Fighters who knew the terrain could walk on footpaths through the mountains to secure elevated firing positions.
After the team was on its way, Massoud reported his plan to Langley. The CIA’s lawyers convulsed in alarm. The White House legal authorities that provided guidance for the new liaison with Massoud had not authorized pure lethal operations against bin Laden. The Massoud partnership, for now, was supposed to be about intelligence collection. Now the CIA had, in effect, provided intelligence for a rocket attack on Derunta. The CIA was legally complicit in Massoud’s operation, the lawyers feared, and the agency had no authority to be involved.
The bin Laden unit at Langley shot a message to the Panjshir: You’ve got to recall the mission. We have no legal standing to provide intelligence that will be used in rocket attacks against bin Laden, the CIA officers pleaded. Massoud’s aides replied, in effect, as an American official put it, “What do you think this is, the Eighty-Second Airborne? We’re on mules. They’re gone.” There was no way to reach the attack team. They did not carry satellite phones or portable radios. They were walking to their launch site, and then they would fire off their rockets, turn around, and walk back.2
Langley’s officers waited nervously. Some of them muttered sarcastically about the absurd intersections of American law and a secret war they were expected to manage. The worst case would be if the rocket attack went badly and killed innocent civilians. The best case would be if Massoud’s men killed bin Laden; they could take the heat if that happened. Days passed, and then weeks. Massoud’s aides eventually reported that they had, in fact, shelled Derunta Camp. But the CIA could pick up no independent confirmation of the attack or its consequences. The lawyers relaxed, and the incident passed, unpublicized.3
For the bin Laden unit’s officers the episode only underlined the issues Massoud had emphasized at their meetings in the Panjshir. Why was the United States unable to choose sides more firmly in Massoud’s war against the Taliban? “What is our policy toward Afghanistan?” the bin Laden unit officers demanded in agency discussions. “Is it counterterrorism? Is it political?”4
Although Clarke was a relative hawk on bin Laden in the Clinton Cabinet, increasingly Cofer Black and his colleagues at the Counterterrorist Center resented the role played by the White House–run Counterterrorism Security Group. They were in broad agreement about the seriousness of the bin Laden threat, but the CIA’s field operatives—“we who actually did things,” as one of them put it—sought only two kinds of support from Clarke’s White House team: funding and permissive policy guidance. By 1999 they felt increasingly that Clarke and Berger could not or would not deliver on either front. “We certainly were not better off by their intervention in ops matters in which they had no experience,” recalled one officer involved. In the CIA’s executive suites Tenet and clandestine service chief James Pavitt stressed that Langley would not make policy on its own—that was the lesson of the Iran-Contra debacle, they believed. For their part, Clarke and his White House colleagues repeatedly questioned the CIA’s ability to act creatively and decisively against bin Laden. Clarke felt that the current generation of CIA officers had “over-learned” the lessons of the 1960s and 1980s that covert action “is risky and likely to blow up in your face.” Clinton’s Cabinet lacked confidence in its spy service. Explaining what she perceived to be CIA caution in the field, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright quipped to her Cabinet colleagues that because of the scandals and trials suffered during earlier decades, the CIA’s active generation of field officers were still coping with the deep bruises of their “abused childhood.”
Under the revised guidelines the CIA and Massoud’s men could only develop plans for bin Laden’s capture. They needed to have a way to bundle him up and fly him out of Afghanistan as part of the plan. Massoud’s men could use lethal force if they encountered resistance from bin Laden’s bodyguards—as they almost certainly would. The CIA also still had to avoid any action that would fundamentally alter Massoud’s military position against the Taliban.
Albright and Berger continued to believe that providing covert military aid to Massoud would only lead to more Afghan civilian deaths while prolonging the country’s military stalemate. Massoud’s forces were too small and too discredited by their past atrocities to ever overthrow the Taliban or unite the country, they and many analysts inside the State Department believed. Increasingly the White House and even senior CIA managers such as Cofer Black worried as well about Pakistan’s stability. If they angered Pakistan’s army by embracing the Taliban’s enemy, Massoud, this could destroy the Clinton administration’s attempt to negotiate controls on Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program. As so often before, Pakistan’s Islamist-tinged elite managed to appear just dangerous and unpredictable enough to intimidate American officials. The Pentagon, especially General Anthony Zinni at CENTCOM, who remained close to Musharraf personally, emphasized engagement with Pakistan’s generals. To covertly provide weapons or battlefield intelligence to Massoud would be to join India, among others, in a proxy war against Pakistan. Zinni also opposed more missile strikes in Afghanistan.
On the front lines of the Panjshir Valley, Massoud and his men took a jaundiced view of American priorities. Episodes like the Derunta attack confused and entertained them. “We were puzzled,” remembered one of Massoud’s senior aides. “What was ‘unlethal’ operations if you have an enemy that is armed to the teeth; they have everything. Then you are not allowed to have lethal operations against him?” Still, Massoud recognized that the CIA “represented a democracy, they represented an organized society where institutions function with restrictions,” as the senior aide recalled. Massoud also believed that within the American bureaucracy, “intelligence people are always aggressive.” Massoud and his advisers were “confident that the CIA wished to do a lot in Afghanistan, but their hands were tied. It was not intelligence failure. It was political failure.” When they met with visiting CIA officers or exchanged messages about the new, detailed rules for operations against bin Laden, even after the Derunta attack, “we never heard the word ‘kill’ from any American we talked to,” the senior Massoud aide remembered. “And I can tell you that most of the individuals who were reading these legal notes were also laughing. It was not their draft.”5
For two decades Massoud had watched in frustration as the United States deferred to Pakistan in its policies toward Afghanistan. In that sense the Clinton administration’s policy was not new. Massoud understood that Washington’s “relationship with Pakistan was considered strategic,” as his senior aide put it. “Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan was considered a minor issue,” and so the United States ignored it. This continuing American deference to Islamabad fueled Massoud’s cynicism about the CIA’s campaign against bin Laden, however. About a dozen Americans had died in the Africa embassy bombings. Many hundreds of Afghan civilians, the kin of Massoud’s commanders and guerrillas, had been slaughtered soon afterward by Taliban forces on the Shomali Plains north of Kabul. Yet American law did not indict the Taliban masterminds of the Shomali massacres. It did not permit military aid to attack the Taliban. American politicians rarely even spoke about these massacres. This seemed to some of Massoud’s men a profound and even unforgivable kind of hypocrisy.6
GEORGE TENET’S EXHORTATIONS about bin Laden cascaded through the CIA. It was rare for the Director of Central Intelligence to personally invest himself in a single counterterrorist mission, as Tenet had done. The result during 1999 and early 2000 was a surge in recruitments of unilateral agents who could operate or travel in Afghanistan. It was the largest CIA drive for unilateral Afghan agents since the late years of the anti-Soviet war. Near East Division case officers and officers dispatched by the Counterterrorist Center sought contact with every potential Afghan source they could find. Some might be informal sources, helping the CIA because of their political opposition to the Taliban. Others were recruited secretly onto the CIA’s unilateral payroll. Case officers began to turn some Taliban military leaders, including a brigade-level commander in eastern Afghanistan. One energetic young case officer operating from Islamabad single-handedly recruited six or seven Taliban commanders operating in eastern Afghan border regions. The Islamabad-based case officers also contacted every mujahedin veteran of the anti-Soviet period who was known to the CIA. These included old commanders with Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, who was now an ally of Massoud and opposed to the Taliban; Shiite commanders who had worked with the CIA around Kabul during the late 1980s; and Pashtun elders and political figures who spent most of their time in Pakistan but who had kin networks in eastern Afghanistan and sometimes traveled across the border. (An exception was Abdul Haq, still regarded as unreliable by his former CIA allies.) All of these recruitments and contacts were kept secret from Pakistani intelligence, just as the unilateral program had been in the late 1980s. None of the recruited agents was close to bin Laden. Despite several years of effort the CIA had been unable to recruit a single agent inside the core al Qaeda leadership. Black knew that the CIA was in trouble “without penetrations of [the] UBL organization,” as a classified Counterterrorist Center briefing to Clinton’s national security Small Group put it late in 1999. “While we need to disrupt operations . . . we need also to recruit sources,” Black’s briefing documents declared, even though “recruiting terrorist sources is difficult.” Still, the growing size of the CIA’s private agent network on the edges of the leadership, Tenet said later, could be measured in the agent reports that flowed through Langley headquarters: In 1999, for the first time, the CIA generated more unilateral reports about bin Laden from its own agents than reports from liaisons with other intelligence agencies. The Defense Intelligence Agency, working its own Pakistani and Afghan sources, produced scores of its own classified reports about bin Laden.7
One purpose of the recruitments was to collect detailed intelligence about bin Laden’s movements, his training camps, the houses where he stayed, the houses where his wives stayed, and the houses where al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Atef, and other top lieutenants lived or worked. Gradually the CIA built up a detailed map of bin Laden’s infrastructure in Afghanistan. Reports and photography from unilateral agents were matched against satellite imagery to fill in maps of camps and urban neighborhoods.
Bin Laden practiced intensive operational security. He was wary of telephones. He allowed no Afghans into his personal bodyguard, only Arabs he had known and trusted for many years. He varied his routes, did not stay in any one place for long, and never told anyone but his Arab inner circle about his plans. These practices limited the effectiveness of the CIA’s recruitments because the agency’s sources and paid agents were mainly Afghans who were kept at bay by bin Laden’s core bodyguard and leadership group. The CIA was unable to penetrate the inner circle, but bin Laden did have one security weakness, as agency operatives saw it: his several wives. Even after it was obvious that the Americans knew about Tarnak Farm near Kandahar, for example, bin Laden kept one of his families there and visited regularly. As a pious Muslim he tried to follow the Islamic practice of treating all his wives equally. The women had nearly identical lodging. At one point the CIA believed bin Laden had two different wives in Kabul. He would visit their houses regularly. The Islamabad station, through its tribal agents in Kandahar, recruited an Afghan who worked as a security guard at one of the Kabul houses bin Laden used. But the agent was so far down the al Qaeda information chain that he never knew when bin Laden was going to turn up; he was summoned to guard duty just as the Saudi’s Land Cruisers rolled in, and it was difficult to get a message out before bin Laden was gone again. “We occasionally learned where bin Laden had been or where he might be going or where someone who looked a little like him might be,” Madeleine Albright recalled. “We heard of suspicious caravans or of someone tall with a beard moving about with bodyguards . . . it was maddening.”8
The CIA’s agent networks and operational problems were different in each of the cities where bin Laden stayed. The agency had the best coverage around Kandahar, where its core group of paid tribal assets had been operating for years. Their reporting was now supplemented by swelling networks of anti-Taliban Pashtun activists who could move in and out of the region from Pakistan with ease. “Anytime he went to Kandahar, we would know it,” an American official recalled. “We had very good sources in Kandahar. The problem was . . . nobody could say where he was going to be the next day at noon.” Kandahar also was the Taliban’s military stronghold. Even if the CIA pinpointed bin Laden downtown, there was no easy way to organize a snatch operation; the attacking force would face strong opposition from Taliban units. There was also a likelihood of civilian casualties if the White House ordered missile strikes in the city. Besides, American counterterrorism policy did not identify Mullah Omar or the Taliban as the enemy. By Clinton’s declared policy at the United Nations and elsewhere, the Taliban was not fair game for targeted strikes.9
It would be less complicated to catch bin Laden at a training camp, on a road in rural Kandahar, or in nearby Uruzgan province, Mullah Omar’s home. In the summer of 1999 a truck bomb detonated outside Omar’s downtown Kandahar house, killing and wounding some of his relatives. In the aftermath bin Laden used his wealth to construct new compounds for the Taliban leader. He built Omar an extravagant, unapproachable walled palace on Kandahar’s outskirts. And bin Laden began a construction program in Uruzgan, including a new training complex for foreign al Qaeda volunteers. When the CIA learned about the Uruzgan project, it ordered satellite imagery and agent reports to document the camp. Its officers also hoped bin Laden might wander in for an inspection. Abdullah, Massoud’s foreign policy adviser, recalled that the CIA supplied detailed maps of the Uruzgan camp, based on satellite photography, in the hope that Massoud’s agents would mount an attack if bin Laden visited. At one point a team of four or five Afghan CIA agents with the southern tribal group approached the camp at night to scout it firsthand. Al Qaeda guards opened fire and wounded one of the agents. Bin Laden opened a similar camp near the Helmand River, to the west of Kandahar, but the CIA had few recruits whose tribal and ethnic heritage allowed them to travel comfortably in that area.10
Kabul was an easier place to spy in than Kandahar. The Afghan capital was a sprawling and ethnically diverse city, a place of strangers and travelers, where any Afghan could claim to belong. At one stage the CIA’s southern tribal team moved north to Kabul’s outskirts and rented a farm as a base. They moved in and out of Kabul to scout homes where bin Laden stayed. They developed plans in which—if they had the right intelligence—they would strike a Kabul house where bin Laden slept, snatch the Saudi from his bed, and retreat from the city in jeeps. This was a variation on the 1998 plan to attack bin Laden at Tarnak Farm, which had been reviewed skeptically by White House aides and rejected by CIA managers. The tribal group even ordered explosives from the CIA because their plan called for them to blow up small bridges over culverts as they made their escape.
The group never acted. Their elaborate plans were not matched by any apparent desire to carry them out. The agents reported about half a dozen aborted attacks. In some cases they claimed bin Laden had changed routes unexpectedly. In one case they reported women and children were with bin Laden, and that they held off in compliance with CIA guidance. At the White House the few Clinton aides who knew about the group had long been cynical about their intentions. Between late 1998 and early 2000 the White House attitude toward the TRODPINT team had evolved from “hopeful skepticism to outright mockery,” as one official recalled it. Now even the CIA, which still valued the group’s reporting and defended them against critics, realized they were not likely to mount risky assaults. The CIA’s assessment was that the tribal team knew it might succeed in killing bin Laden in a raid but was likely to suffer heavy losses in the effort. To try to kidnap bin Laden in a city as bustling as Kabul and move him to a safe location while being chased by his bodyguard, as U.S. policy officially required, looked like an implausible episode of Mission: Impossible. The group’s rented farm, paid for by the CIA, was a working vineyard. Bill Milam, the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, who was briefed on the operation, would ask his intelligence colleagues sarcastically, “So what are they waiting for—the wine to ferment?” Still, the agents did help map al Qaeda safehouses around the capital, including three different places where bin Laden stayed and houses frequented by his Egyptian lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.11
The CIA’s tribal grape growers had been run mainly by case officers in the Near East Division. The new liaison with Massoud offered a chance for the Counterterrorist Center to attempt a fresh penetration of Kabul by working through the intelligence service of the Northern Alliance. About half of the capital’s population was Tajik. Massoud had a rich network of intelligence sources among Tajik residents and even some Taliban government officials. But bin Laden himself was “extremely elusive” while in Kabul, recalled Zekrullah Jahed Khan, one of Massoud’s intelligence aides. The Saudi might stay in Kabul for two straight months, but he would stay at one base for only two or three hours. He spent much more time in the eastern mountains and Kandahar than in the capital. Al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef were easier to track. The Egyptian doctor spent much of his time in Kabul. Atef traveled frequently to the military front lines around the capital. Recalled an American official: “We said, ‘Okay, bin Laden’s too hard. How about al-Zawahiri? And Atef?’ ”12
That effort became a focus of day-to-day work between Langley’s Counterterrorist Center and Massoud’s intelligence network. The CIA supplied collection equipment and used satellite photography to validate observations made by Massoud’s agents on the ground. Together they developed “a pretty good idea of where the bad guys were,” as one American official recalled. One visual signature they relied on was the clustering of luxury sport utility vehicles. Most Afghans did not own cars, much less SUVs. The CIA would put its satellites over Kabul, and its analysts would say, as an official remembered, “Well, eight Land Cruisers. Someone is bad in that house.” But al-Zawahiri’s entourage was not as large or as conspicuous as bin Laden’s. He was not easy to track. Besides, when Massoud’s men began to get a fix, they confronted the problem of legal authorities for lethal operations. The CIA was not permitted to fly into the Panjshir with a sniper rifle and a satellite map of al-Zawahiri’s house even if it could develop one. Any joint operation had to be a plausible, well-planned attempt to capture the Egyptian. When they tried to discuss these kinds of plans with Massoud’s men, the Americans found them evasive. As an American official recalled: “The Northern Alliance thought, ‘Oh, okay, you want us to capture him. Right. You crazy white guys.’ ”13
Reporting from Massoud’s intelligence service and unilateral Afghan agents, however, raised some hope that bin Laden might one day step unwittingly into a Northern Alliance trap. Massoud’s aides told the CIA that bin Laden sometimes inspected al Qaeda troops near Kabul or in northern Afghanistan. Once in a while bin Laden wandered into the wrong place. In a recent battle northeast of Kabul, Massoud’s men reported, bin Laden had gone on an inspection tour and become trapped on the northern side of Massoud’s position. He had escaped only by packing out over mountain paths. After the CIA obtained authorities for operations with Massoud, American officials began to hope that bin Laden would mistakenly stray behind Northern Alliance lines one more time.
CIA and White House officials also were encouraged to discover that bin Laden had, at least once, traveled all the way to the northern border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, to the port town of Hairaton on the Amu Darya River. According to Afghans who had seen him, bin Laden made speeches there about coming Islamist political and military triumphs in Central Asia; he had wanted to see the sites of his future conquests for himself. The northern border region was controlled by the Taliban, but local commanders often were not committed to the cause; many had switched their allegiance from Massoud’s alliance only recently. The CIA harbored hopes that bin Laden would travel to the far north again. This was one reason they had invested so much effort training and equipping the Uzbekistan commando team: A strike just across the Amu Darya border into Uzbek areas of Afghanistan might be relatively easy to mount if they had the right intelligence. Mohammed Atef, too, traveled north to command military operations. He was not as conspicuous or famous a figure as bin Laden, but he might be a more accessible target.14
Bin Laden’s journeys west and north followed a somewhat predictable path: He would ride west on the Ring Road from Kandahar, then loop north and east through Ghowr province where there was a valley he liked to visit. The CIA mapped houses in obscure Ghowr, one of Afghanistan’s most isolated and impoverished regions. From there the Saudi usually moved east to Kabul and then sometimes on to Jalalabad before turning south again to Paktia and Kandahar. Americans who studied this track called it “the circuit.” They tried to map reliable reports of bin Laden’s movements in great detail. At Richard Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group they even tried to develop logarithmic formulas that attempted to predict, based on past behavior, where bin Laden was likely to move next when he was at any given point on the circuit. Over time, even the most security-conscious people can repeat themselves out of habit or unconscious instinct.
The agency’s working idea was to try to keep bin Laden out of “KKJ,” an insider’s acronym for the densely populated cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. It did not seem plausible after 1999 that a CIA proxy force could mount a successful snatch operation in a Taliban-ruled urban area, but during 2000, bin Laden traveled to rural northern areas less frequently. The CIA picked up reports that he and his men had been intimidated by banditry and robbery gangs on some of the more lawless northern roads where the Taliban’s writ did not run. There were no more triumphal speeches on the border of Central Asia, and the Uzbek commandos languished.15
The CIA developed a specific visual signature for bin Laden’s traveling convoy: several Land Cruisers and a bodyguard of twenty to one hundred Arab men. It was the daily work of officers at the Counterterrorist Center to develop and discuss specific operational plans for an armed snatch attempt against bin Laden. After the disappearance of the Pakistani commando team, they had three realistic options: the Uzbek commandos, Massoud’s forces, or the grape-growing tribal tracking team around Kandahar. The tactical problem was obvious: The CIA’s most plausible proxy forces operated in Afghanistan’s north, while bin Laden spent most of his time in the south and east. The CIA struggled to find a convincing plan.16
SIX FEET FIVE INCHES TALL, chiseled and square-faced, General Hugh Shelton was a civilian’s idea of what a general should look like. Defense Secretary William Cohen appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top position in the American military, shortly before the Africa embassy bombings. After bin Laden became a pressing national security priority in the autumn of 1998, Shelton seemed an ideal Pentagon partner. He had been a Special Forces team leader in Vietnam, a commander of elite airborne troops, and finally commander of all American Special Forces. Unlike many generals he had direct experience in unconventional tactics, counterinsurgency, and the use of small strike teams in the Third World. As a military leader he preferred to operate by consultation and consensus. He did not seem to his civilian colleagues an especially original or forceful general, but his record of battlefield valor and field command marked him as an authentic war fighter, not one of the Washington generals who made their careers as uniformed politicians.17
The White House first asked the Pentagon for detailed military plans to attack and arrest bin Laden in the autumn of 1998.When Shelton and his aides briefed Sandy Berger at the White House, they reported that a “boots on the ground” operation involving American Special Forces or Army Rangers would require large numbers of troops—thousands—plus aircraft carriers, transport planes, and refueling tankers. Even so, the chances of success were not great, Shelton said. They lacked a foothold in the region, a secure base of operations. “We don’t have Pakistan,” Shelton observed, as Sandy Berger remembered it. “We don’t have Uzbekistan, we don’t have Tajikistan.” Without better intelligence than what they were seeing from the CIA, even a well-supported mission was “likely to fail,” the Pentagon’s planners believed.18
Shelton, Cohen, and their senior aides saw the CIA’s reporting from Afghanistan every day. Even as the size and scope of the agency’s unilateral agent network grew, the intelligence it produced looked unsound to them as a basis for committing American soldiers to Afghanistan. The CIA’s agents simply could not keep track of bin Laden on a daily basis. “All we had was a brother who had a brother of a man who was allegedly in his security detail, or the cousin of somebody who had once been told, ‘Get the feast ready, because the sheikh is coming,’ ” remembered a Pentagon civilian who regularly reviewed the CIA’s reporting. Cohen recalled telling his colleagues: “We can do this. It’s high risk, but if you’ve got the information to tell us where he is, we will be prepared to recommend that we use force.” But Cohen was cautioned by his recent experiences watching U.S. Special Forces hunt with limited success for fugitive war criminals in the Balkans. He concluded that “someone who exercises good tradecraft is very difficult to locate and capture in enemy territory,” and that bin Laden’s tradecraft was “better than senior Serb war criminals.”19
There was no way to be certain how Taliban troops would react to a U.S. Special Forces raid; any sensible plan had to assume the Taliban would be hostile. A raid in an urban area, therefore, looked highly dangerous. The CIA’s clandestine effort to track bin Laden outside of “KKJ” and snare him in less heavily defended border areas made more sense in theory, but there was no joint planning with the CIA about this possibility. In any event the Pentagon saw huge tactical and political problems if the United States tried to operate on its own anywhere near Pakistan.20
Clinton, Berger, the National Security Council staff, and Pickering at the State Department all saw Shelton as too cautious, too mired in conventional Pentagon doctrine about logistics and force protection. Pickering saw Shelton’s slide shows about how many thousands of troops would be required to snatch bin Laden as “a standard military position—give us forty-eight months and five divisions. These were gold-plated arguments. . . . They thought, perhaps with some justification, that the NSC and State wanted to correct every problem with them as cannon fodder.” Clinton pleaded with Shelton after a Cabinet meeting for even a symbolic raid: “You know,” the president told the general, “it would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show these guys we’re not afraid.” But when Shelton returned with an options briefing, his plans all outlined large deployments and cautioned that there would be scant probability of success.21
Shelton felt the pressure from Richard Clarke especially. Clarke pressed the Pentagon relentlessly for smaller, stealthier plans to attack bin Laden. Shelton saw the White House counterterrorism chief as “a rabid dog.” He conceded that “you need that in government—you need somebody who won’t take no for an answer.” Still, Shelton and the generals felt Clarke and other White House civilians had “some dumb-ass ideas, not militarily feasible. They read something in a Tom Clancy novel and thought you can ignore distances, you can ignore the time-distance factors.”22
In Special Forces doctrine the quality of intelligence determines the size of the force required to conduct a raid. The more uncertain the intelligence, the larger the required force. The calculation is as much art as science, but it rests on common sense. If an American Delta Force commando, for instance, is able to watch a target with his own eyes and communicate by secure radio to attacking forces, then a commander can be highly certain about when to launch, and he might feel confident about sending a relatively small force. But if the tactical intelligence is being relayed by non-Americans of uncertain competence or loyalty, and if their intelligence is fragmentary or subject to sudden change—as was the case with the CIA’s reporting about bin Laden in Afghanistan—then a commander should size the attacking force to cope with unpredictable resistance. Shelton felt he had a very hard time convincing the civilians in Clinton’s White House of these plain ideas.23
Any raid by American forces into Afghanistan would have to launch from the sea and cross either Iranian or Pakistani airspace. The Pentagon had no land-basing arrangements close enough to Afghanistan for a helicopter to make a round-trip. Special Forces helicopters and some specially equipped C-130 support transports could evade Iranian or Pakistani radar, but seaborne helicopter carriers would have to circle in waters off the coast and could not hide. Pakistan and Iran both kept close watch on ships moving in international waters near their shores. Pentagon intelligence had monitored Pakistani communications well enough to know that Pakistan tracked American warships and reported on their positions when they neared Pakistan’s shores. Only submarines could reliably evade such detection. The Pentagon had permanently stationed cruise missile–equipped subs rather than surface ships off Pakistan’s coast in case the president ordered another missile strike against bin Laden. The Pentagon assumed that Pakistan maintained spy networks in Oman and the Persian Gulf to watch American armadas come and go. Shelton also assumed that if Pakistan detected a U.S. raiding mission, it would alert the Taliban; the Taliban would then alert bin Laden, allowing him to escape or prepare an ambush for American forces. The list of catastrophic precedents rang in Shelton’s ears: Desert One, the failed U.S. Special Forces raid in 1980 to rescue American hostages in Tehran; the 1993 disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia (which al Qaeda operatives had helped to carry out); the ambush losses suffered by Soviet special forces in Afghanistan during the late 1980s. Shelton repeatedly cited Desert One to Clinton’s White House aides as a cautionary example. He made an impression. Some of Clinton’s senior aides believed that that failed raid had effectively ended the presidency of the last Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter.24
A generation earlier the CIA had possessed its own sizable covert paramilitary forces—sea, land, and air—which it used to attack problems like this one. The CIA had run a small war in Guatemala, a failed raid at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, and a secret air war in Laos. The agency’s Special Activities Division retained some paramilitary assets, but the unit was a fraction of its previous size. Its strengths were intelligence collection missions, covert operations with local militia forces, and very small strikes. Some American officials believed it did not possess the airplanes or support facilities to pull off a mission in Afghanistan without help from the Pentagon. Still, it bothered some of Clinton’s aides that the CIA never even suggested using its own forces to go after bin Laden.25
For their part, officers at the Pentagon and the CIA believed that Clinton, as commander in chief, had failed to make—or to force his Cabinet to make—a firm tactical decision about how best to capture or kill bin Laden and his lieutenants. There were no good options, they all admitted. But the White House fostered dispersed, highly compartmented, isolated operations and planning at the CIA and the Pentagon. Clinton’s policy seemed to involve the pursuit of many policies at once. He did not make clear, for instance, whether his priority was to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles or to mount a lethal capture operation. Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group tried to fuse and share intelligence reporting and to seize opportunities for sudden strikes against al Qaeda, but Clinton himself hung back. He goaded Clarke’s efforts with “need to do more”–style notations on the margins of National Security Council memos, but he never insisted on final plans or attack decisions. As a result the CIA Counterterrorist Center attempted to develop both the cruise missile track and a snatch operation using proxy forces, but its officers never collaborated with the Pentagon in a concentrated fashion on either one. Staggering through impeachment, it would have taken an exceptional act of will for the president to push through a decision to attack, given the difficulties of the target and the divisions in his Cabinet. At the White House, Clinton’s National Security Council aides firmly believed that they were the aggressive ones on the al Qaeda case, pursuing every possible avenue to get at bin Laden over calcified resistance or incompetence within the CIA and Pentagon bureaucracies. From the other side of the Potomac, Clinton’s White House often looked undisciplined, unfocused, and uncertain—and the bin Laden planning was no exception.26
Politics entwined these debates with more threads of doubt. In the context of impeachment and Clinton’s uncomfortable relations with the military, some White House aides suspected that Shelton’s reluctance to attack bin Laden was partially political, that neither he nor other generals were prepared to take risks for a weakened president they did not trust. For his part, Clinton worried about his “personal responsibility to the soldiers and their families,” recalled one of his senior aides. “People underestimate what that’s like.” The worst case would be “a failed mission in which you insert a few hundred Special Forces and they get routed.”27
They all kept returning to the same issues. Among the most important was the status of the Taliban. By 2000 there were still a few analysts at the State Department’s intelligence bureau who argued for patient engagement with the Taliban. But most of Clinton’s Cabinet now accepted that al Qaeda had hijacked Mullah Omar. Clinton squeezed the Taliban with economic sanctions, but he also continued to endorse negotiations with them, declared a policy of neutrality in Afghanistan’s war, and resisted entreaties to aid Massoud.
This divided policy affected internal debates about the cruise missile option. Clarke said to Berger that if the White House openly recognized the Taliban as the enemy, it could take a more flexible approach to cruise missile strikes. Clinton then would no longer require precise, two-source intelligence about bin Laden’s location. Clinton could pursue a bomb-and-pause approach against the Taliban, choosing his targets carefully based on the best available CIA intelligence about bin Laden, but defending the strikes in public as an attack against the Taliban and terrorist infrastructure. The strikes could be tied to the long-standing American demand that the Taliban turn bin Laden and his lieutenants over for trial. If the Taliban refused, the United States could just bomb again, especially when it had strong intelligence about bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Atef, or other leaders. Shelton recalled that the idea of hitting Taliban infrastructure and leadership targets developed to the point where he was asked to examine the residences of Taliban leaders and places where they worked, and to develop target data “in the event that we wanted to make that decision,” to bomb the Taliban directly.28
Sandy Berger rejected this proposal for a wider war. The August 1998 cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda had been a political disaster at home and abroad. The repeated firing of cruise missiles at impoverished, long-suffering Afghanistan—without strong intelligence about who would be killed and with the near-certainty of civilian deaths—would only raise bin Laden’s standing in the Islamic world, foster new al Qaeda recruitments, and draw worldwide condemnation of the United States. Pickering agreed with Berger. “We had force in the region and were prepared to use it,” Pickering recalled, if they had a precise fix on bin Laden’s location. “But we were not prepared to fire Tomahawks on a daily basis or to try to use bombing aircraft, crossing Pakistani airspace when, in fact, we didn’t have even the right intelligence or the right predicate to do it.” Sixty-seven Americans had been killed by terrorists during the Clinton presidency, Berger noted pointedly. There was no political context for an American war in Afghanistan. Instead Berger worked on the issues he felt were realistic. After the Millennium near-miss Clarke wrote that it seemed clear that the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda had “not put too much of a dent” in bin Laden’s organization and that “sleeper cells” had formed on American soil. Berger pulled the national security cabinet together on March 10 to endorse new efforts: More support for CIA operations abroad; more attention to foreign terrorist groups at home; and tighter border security. It was a campaign of budget allocations, law tightening, and foreign liaison programs—practical but limited.29
IT WOULD BE SO MUCH EASIER if Massoud or his allies would just take care of bin Laden themselves. But would he do so even if he had the chance? The White House and the CIA debated Massoud’s motivations. The officers who met the commander in the Panjshir or who had known him previously understood that Massoud was a pious Muslim who saw himself as a global Islamic leader. If he struck out against bin Laden and killed him—or worse, if he bundled him off to the Americans—he would pay a heavy price in the Muslim world. Massoud might be able to defend a decision to kill bin Laden in battle—he was in a war—but to kidnap an Islamic sheikh on behalf of the CIA and to deliver him to a humiliating trial in an American courtroom? That would not do much to burnish Massoud’s reputation as an independent-minded guerrilla legend. What was his incentive to take that kind of chance even if such an operation were possible? The CIA could not offer him the prospect of American military or even political support against the Taliban. Shelton and others at the Pentagon were skeptical about even a covert military partnership with Massoud. The Northern Alliance “had its own baggage,” Shelton recalled, “and when you attach the U.S. flag to their formation, and you become a partner with them, then you also become one who can be held accountable for their actions.” Massoud was not a partner that Shelton wanted to embrace.30
Still, the CIA deepened its intelligence partnership with Massoud’s men during 2000. Some of Clinton’s White House aides figured Massoud would just tell the agency what it wanted to hear, pocket the relatively small amounts of money and equipment on offer, and go about his business as before. But even so, why not give it a try? They had few other plausible options.
There was an argument about which section of the agency would make additional secret trips into northern Afghanistan. Was Massoud now a Counterterrorist Center account, or did he belong to the Afghanistan section of Near East? The discussions produced a Solomonic decision: Future missions to the Panjshir would be alternated between the Counterterrorist Center’s JAWBREAKER teams and the NALT teams drawn from the Near East Division.31
Cofer Black flew out to Tajikistan with a team from the bin Laden unit in the early summer of 2000. In tattered Dushanbe, Massoud’s men picked him up in an old Mercedes-Benz which they proudly claimed had belonged once to Najibullah, Afghanistan’s communist-era secret police chief and doomed president. They drove the American team to one of Massoud’s safehouses. Inside, with aides and translators, Massoud laid out a battle map and reviewed the Taliban’s positions. As always when he had an American audience, he talked about the broader threat that the Taliban posed to the Islamic world and to the West. He talked about the sufferings endured by the Afghan people under Taliban oppression.32
Black wanted to solidify their partnership and advance their efforts at shared intelligence collection. He asked if Massoud had any Arab prisoners who could be interrogated. Massoud said he had only a few, none of any value. They had trouble taking prisoners when they fought Brigade 55, bin Laden’s Arab mercenary force. When Massoud’s forces closed in, the Arab soldiers hurriedly gathered in a circle, pulled the pins on their grenades, and committed collective suicide. Massoud became very specific about “problems of the resistance,” as one of his intelligence aides in the meeting recalled, including “the problems of purchasing weapons from Russia,” and the kind of military equipment that the Americans could supply if they wanted to make a difference in the war.
Massoud “made it very clear to the American side that it was a good time, if they wanted, to somehow punish the Taliban,” his aide remembered. The Taliban were weakening politically, but Massoud’s forces were struggling. The CIA team reported to their colleagues that Massoud portrayed himself as the only anchor, the only force challenging the Taliban. Massoud had asked them for substantial support, they reported to Langley.
The CIA team said they were arguing on his behalf in interagency councils in Washington. “They were trying to show Mr. Massoud that he had succeeded in finding an audience in the United States,” recalled Massoud’s intelligence aide, “and that his mission and his cause was on the U.S. agenda. . . . They wanted to tell him that maybe in the future they will assist him.”
Massoud’s men knew it would be hard for the CIA to keep that promise. The agency’s intelligence aid was helpful, but as a means to change American policy in Afghanistan, the CIA seemed like a limited partner. “Things were going well but very slowly—very slowly,” recalled Abdullah, Massoud’s foreign policy adviser. “I was never of the opinion that we could get big changes” even with the CIA’s help in policy debates. “The system in the United States—it takes dramatic events for things to move.”33