PERVEZ MUSHARRAF HOPED to position himself as a modern, even progressive military usurper. He called himself Pakistan’s “chief executive,” appeared publicly in business suits, and issued extravagant promises about reform and democratic restoration. He hired a Washington lobbyist, Lanny J. Davis, who had been Clinton’s mouthpiece during impeachment, to convince the White House of his liberal outlook. But in Islamabad, within the councils of his own army, Musharraf had to establish a new order, and he could not pay a lobbyist to help. He was especially beholden to one general, Mahmoud Ahmed, who had been the frontline commander of the raid into Kargil, reporting directly to Musharraf, and who at the time of the coup had been the commander of the Tenth Corps, the army unit barracked in Rawalpindi and responsible for security in the capital. On that perilous October evening in 1999, as his superior circled uncertainly on a plane above Karachi, Mahmoud (as he was called by his colleagues) rolled a brigade into Islamabad to detain Nawaz Sharif and secure the government for the army. Then, honoring the chain of command, Mahmoud stood aside. All of the Pakistani political elite understood that Musharraf owed his power to Mahmoud’s conduct, and they watched in the first weeks after the coup to see how this debt would be repaid. They did not have to wait long: Musharraf quickly announced that Mahmoud would become the new director-general of ISI. Mahmoud would clean up the mess left by Ziauddin, Sharif’s lackey who now was under house arrest in Lahore.1
In Ziauddin’s fall from power the CIA’s South Asia branch had lost an ally. The general was dull-minded and his authority was weak, but at least he was cooperative, always ready to hold a meeting. Now the CIA had to establish a new relationship with Mahmoud. If Pakistani intelligence could be turned to the American agenda, it offered by far the fastest, easiest path to disrupt al Qaeda’s Afghan sanctuary and capture or kill bin Laden.
The CIA began to research Mahmoud’s biography, looking for a way to establish a connection with him. He was an artillery officer. He had served with Musharraf in the same unit earlier in their careers. Case officers discovered that when Mahmoud was a student at Pakistan’s elite officers’ college, he had written his thesis on the battle of Gettysburg. The new Islamabad station chief, known to his colleagues as Bob, talked with Mahmoud about visiting the United States to meet with counterparts at Langley, including George Tenet. The CIA promised to arrange an expert guided tour of Gettysburg. It would be a chance for intelligence officers on both sides to get to know each other better.2
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad already had a passing acquaintance with Mahmoud. Pakistan’s army prohibited ambassadors or station chiefs from making official visits to corps commanders, but the Americans saw Mahmoud anyway. The general’s duties with the Tenth Corps meant he sometimes received dignitaries at the Islamabad airport, and he occasionally socialized on the capital’s diplomatic circuit. He seemed to be a general of a certain Pakistani type: British in comportment, spit and polish in appearance, disciplined and correct. He wore a waxed handlebar mustache in the colonial style. He obviously was an ardent nationalist, and his authorship of the Kargil raid suggested the depths of his animus toward India. Yet on the surface he did not seem to be an unusually religious general. He spoke openly with the Americans about the need to bring military discipline and chain-of-command authority to Pakistan’s intelligence service. These private comments could be interpreted as a repudiation of how Ziauddin had tried to politicize ISI to protect Sharif and flank the army, but they also hinted at a desire to manage Pakistani intelligence more closely, to rein in rogue elements—or so some of the Americans who talked with Mahmoud that winter chose to believe.3
Clinton’s national security advisers, still divided over how to react to Musharraf’s coup, debated early in 2000 about whether the American president should visit Pakistan. Clinton had committed to visit India in March. The Secret Service maintained that a stopover in Pakistan would be too dangerous. Pakistani intelligence could not be trusted to protect details of Clinton’s itinerary, they argued, and there were too many motivated, well-equipped terrorist groups in the region. Al Qaeda or Taliban squads might move Stingers from Kandahar and fire at the American president’s plane. Musharraf’s government, watching India lobby hard in Washington to persuade Clinton to shun Pakistan, pushed the White House for a reciprocal visit. Lanny Davis worked Capitol Hill. In Islamabad the government made gestures on terrorism. Mahmoud volunteered to help the CIA take custody of two Arab militants, one with an American passport, who had been secretly detained by Pakistani police. Musharraf announced that he was “actively considering” a trip to Kandahar to lobby Mullah Omar to hand bin Laden over to the Americans.4 It was in many ways a cynical charm offensive, designed to compete with India’s diplomacy. It did not mark a shift in Pakistan’s jihad strategy. Pakistan’s army had long ago learned that it could earn credits with the Americans, especially with the CIA and FBI, by cracking down on relatively small numbers of al Qaeda terrorists who were not important to Pakistan’s policies in Kashmir or Afghanistan.
The tactic seemed to work again: Clinton decided in March on a one-day visit to Islamabad. Clinton’s decision had many facets. He wanted to coax Pakistan away from nuclear dangers, promote American engagement, and cultivate regional stability. Partly because there were so many sensitive issues, Clinton’s team did not want to push the Pakistani army too hard on terrorism. Reading the American agenda attentively, Musharraf quietly allowed Kashmiri radical groups with close ties to ISI and al Qaeda—including one whose leader signed bin Laden’s original 1998 fatwa declaring war on the United States—to reorganize and dramatically expand their recruitments across Pakistan on the eve of Clinton’s trip.5
Clinton’s visit was one of the strangest in presidential history. He was the first American president to visit Pakistan since Richard Nixon in 1969.6 By defying advice to stay away he forced the Secret Service into an elaborate, deception-laden security regime for the Islamabad stopover on the way back from India. “We’re going to show them a new look,” a Secret Service agent announced on the tarmac in Bombay, adapting the language of American football coaches to the challenge of counterterrorism. A Clinton lookalike wandered between two white executive jets and boarded one marked with the presidential seal. The real president slipped into an unmarked CIA G-5. His aides were already aboard; the window shades were drawn shut.
“Are we going to have these windows down the whole time?” Clinton asked. “I can’t fly like that.”
“Mr. President, as soon as we get up in the air . . .”7
Clinton seemed indifferent to the threat of Stingers. He napped, did a crossword puzzle, and then took a short briefing from his Pakistan specialists. On the ground in Islamabad his double walked conspicuously to the terminal, prepared to draw the fire of assassins. When all proved safe, Clinton slipped into an armored car for a ride down Islamabad’s broad avenues to a meeting in Musharraf’s modern boxy office complex. There were no waving crowds; the Secret Service had ordered that the roads be absolutely clear.8
On a balcony downtown Clinton looked out and remarked, “I don’t see any people around.”
“Mr. President, you can’t because we were asked to make sure that there weren’t any people around,” one of his hosts from the Pakistan foreign ministry explained.
“Oh, really? I didn’t know that.”
“Didn’t you notice that from the airport to this place there weren’t any people around?”
“Yes, it did strike me.” They joked about how it was now possible to visit a country without actually seeing anyone who lived there. Recalled the Pakistani official: “It was really quite humiliating, there’s no question about it.” Many elite Pakistanis felt that Clinton had treated their entire nation like the inmate population of a medium-security prison.9
Clinton and Musharraf talked for almost two hours, surrounded by aides for all but a few minutes. The Americans listed their talking points in the usual order of priority: nuclear proliferation, regional tensions, and economic issues, then terrorism and other problems. Clinton’s counterterrorism aides said later that there were worries about whether Musharraf would survive long in office, and so they did not want to talk about bin Laden in front of Pakistanis of “uncertain loyalties.”10
In a smaller session with Musharraf, recalled National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Clinton pressed “very hard” and told the general “to use Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban to get bin Laden.” A Pakistani official present remembered Clinton worrying aloud that bin Laden would acquire weapons of mass destruction. Musharraf said he would do as much as he could. But he urged engagement with the Taliban to encourage good behavior. The next day Musharraf told Thomas Pickering that Pakistan had little leverage in any event.11
Clinton spoke live on Pakistani television for fifteen minutes. Through the relative safety of a broadcast camera lens he warned the people he had not seen against the “danger that Pakistan may grow even more isolated, draining even more resources away from the needs of the people, moving even closer to a conflict that no one can win.”12
The CIA used the visit to secure Mahmoud’s commitment to travel to the United States. The ISI chief flew to Washington in April. The agency arranged for a private tour of the Gettysburg battlefield, escorted by a teacher from the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Gary Schroen and other CIA officers came along as well. Their tour guide had spent many hours walking the battlefield park to retrace the 1863 command decisions of Robert E. Lee. Mahmoud came alive and talked animatedly about battle tactics, personalities, and the fateful turning points of the American Civil War. The Pakistani general was relaxed, talkative, seemingly engaged. The CIA men had made a personal connection with Mahmoud, a first step toward deeper cooperation or recruitment, it seemed.13
There were limits to their hopes. Officers in the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center remained deeply skeptical that Mahmoud or any other Pakistani general would ever do the right thing about the Taliban. Also, when Mahmoud talked with CIA officers at Langley and with officials at the White House, he often seemed to condescend and evade. One official who met with him recalled, speaking caustically, “His orientation toward the Americans was to attempt to educate us about the complexities of that area of the world. With very little prompting he would do me the kindness to bring out a map and show me how high the mountains are, how difficult it is to operate.”14
These sorts of repetitious frustrations with ISI generals and brigadiers had built to the point where at least a few American officials suggested that Clinton present an ultimatum: Either Pakistan moved to cut off aid to the Taliban, or it would be placed on the official list of countries that supported terrorism. But Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton and others at the Pentagon urged caution. Shelton remembered that he “vacillated a couple of times” during these months as he tried to decide whether America had crossed into appeasement of Pakistan or whether it just had to accept the obstacles and continue to engage. General Zinni of CENTCOM declared that Pakistan “may hold the key to stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia.” America had to keep reaching out, he argued. The Clinton national security team forged an informal compromise: The CIA’s Near East Division and Islamabad station would try to butter up Mahmoud and recruit him into partnership, while other American officials would try to pressure him hard.15
Thomas Pickering had become Clinton’s diplomatic intimidator, a designated bad cop assigned to deliver tough messages that other officials in liaison roles felt they could not afford to send. A bald, bulky diplomat with several decades of experience in political and intelligence issues, Pickering often leaned into his guests as he spoke, and he could unfurl rapid-fire sentences with direct and solemn force. In his office above C Street on April 4, 2000, Pickering lit into Mahmoud about Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. He warned that the Taliban were harboring terrorists who had killed Americans. “People who do that are our enemies, and people who support those people will also be treated as our enemies,” Pickering intoned. Pakistan ought not to “put itself in that position.” Of course, announced American policy still offered the Taliban hope of reward if it reformed, and American officials never called Mullah Omar an enemy in public. After earlier reports of sharp tensions between Taliban leaders and bin Laden, U.S. intelligence discovered that the Taliban’s Council of Ministers had unanimously endorsed its alliance with al Qaeda at the end of 1999. Mullah Omar had even reportedly executed Taliban dissenters over the issue. Pickering warned Mahmoud that U.S. policy was on the verge of a turn: Washington might even sanction support for Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Afghan war if the Taliban did not do something about bin Laden soon.16
Mahmoud flew back to Pakistan and quickly arranged a trip to Kandahar to meet with Mullah Omar. Classified Pakistani papers later discovered in Kabul describe the talking points Mahmoud carried to the meeting. The Pakistani intelligence chief told Omar that the situation was becoming serious. Mahmoud listed America’s demands: “Nothing short of the extradition of Osama bin Laden to a place where he could be brought to justice would satisfy the U.S.” Also, “Washington wants immediate results.” If the Taliban refused to comply, the Americans were demanding that Pakistan end all support.17
Even more dramatically, Mahmoud reported, the Americans might endorse “missile attacks targeting the Taliban’s military assets. Osama—and even Omar himself—could be targeted.” In addition, “Russia and its allies could be given the go ahead to embark on hot pursuit against terrorists” into Afghanistan. They could bomb strategic targets in northern Afghanistan, “thereby eliminating the military potential of the Taliban to the complete advantage of Ahmed Shah Massoud. . . . The U.S. and Russia could coordinate their actions in pursuance of the above measures.”18
It was all a bluff. The Clinton administration was not prepared to follow through on these sorts of threats. Pickering had opened a few talks with Russian intelligence about possible cooperation on Afghanistan but nothing so advanced as what Mahmoud reported to Mullah Omar. Richard Clarke and others had urged missile strikes against Taliban targets, but Sandy Berger, among others, remained opposed. Still, the United States could always make threats. Perhaps the Taliban would capitulate.
Mahmoud asked Omar to “resolve the Osama bin Laden issue before it is too late. . . . The U.S.must be given a plan of action. The Osama issue also affects Pakistan because his aides are using Pakistan as a transit point.”
The Taliban leader replied, according to Mahmoud’s report, that he “wanted to get rid of Osama but did not know how.”19
It was impossible for the Americans to tell how sincerely Mahmoud pressured the Taliban at this meeting.Was it all just for show, winks all around? Or did Mahmoud truly believe it would be better for Pakistan if bin Laden was gone? The Americans could see that Pakistan’s army continued to play the Afghan issue both ways in the spring and summer of 2000. Mahmoud might relay American threats, but ISI was not prepared to cut off oil, money, or military supplies to the Taliban. When FBI Director Louis Freeh met Musharraf in Lahore on April 6 and pleaded for help on bin Laden, he found the general “polite but unhelpful.” Musharraf explained that he had “personal assurances from Mullah Omar” that bin Laden was innocent of terrorism.
When Musharraf met with Omar’s interior minister in May, he did not threaten any economic punishment, and he did not even demand that bin Laden be handed over. Musharraf said instead he might revive the idea of forming an Islamic court to try bin Laden, a proposal long ago rejected by the Clinton administration. George Tenet flew secretly to Islamabad and met with Musharraf on June 21. Musharraf accepted his proposal for a joint working group on terrorism. Tenet said he was not asking the Pakistanis to deliver bin Laden the next Tuesday—he was “ambitious but not crazy,” he said. The Americans were lowering their expectations, accepting Musharraf’s stall.20
Meanwhile, there was the war against Massoud: On the ground in Afghanistan that summer, Pakistani volunteers poured across the border to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.
It was around this time that the Pakistani intelligence chief began to talk openly with some of his colleagues about a new Islamic religiosity in his life. Explaining what he meant, speaking in English, Mahmoud said that he had become a “born-again Muslim.”21In the gossip-obsessed parlors of elite Islamabad, a casual confession like that from the chief of ISI got around. Eventually the American embassy learned of it, too. Neither the embassy’s diplomats nor the Pakistani officials who worked more closely with Mahmoud were quite sure what to make of his private declarations about Islam. The general did not grow a beard or proselytize openly or ask his wife to take the veil at home—a step so rare among the Pakistani elite that it would have signaled a powerful conversion. Still, in the roiling sea of ambiguity that was ISI and the Pakistan army, the notion that a born-again Muslim was now in charge of the intelligence agency and the jihad campaigns seemed foreboding.
Some of his colleagues saw Mahmoud as angry and hurt in part because of the dressing down he had taken from Pickering in Washington. Pakistan’s generals and diplomats were proud but easily bruised. “He went back feeling very humiliated,” one senior Pakistani official recalled. “And he told the CIA forces, ‘You brought me here, and I don’t need to listen to this. I thought you wanted to engage and hear from us.’ ”22
Whatever the cause, CIA officers could see that soon after Mahmoud returned from Washington that spring, he began to shut them off. The official CIA-ISI intelligence liaison in Islamabad went cold. CIA officers had been able to meet with Ziauddin once a week or more often if they wished. Now they could barely get in to visit Mahmoud once a month. The daily paper exchanges of intelligence continued, but the high-level partnership between the CIA and Pakistani intelligence turned icy. There was no prospect, for instance, that a secret Pakistani commando team to capture bin Laden could be revived. Musharraf delivered a speech that summer declaring that he had completed a review of Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan, and he had decided to carry on as before. Mahmoud Ahmed had seen Gettysburg. Now he had his own wars to tend.23
SAUDI ARABIA COMPETED with Pakistan for the status of America’s most frustrating counterterrorism ally. As on Pakistan, the Manson Family in the bin Laden unit of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center took one of the hardest lines. Time after time the CIA asked the Saudi interior ministry or its intelligence department for help investigating specific al Qaeda operatives and cells. The agency’s frontline officers felt they got next to zero cooperation. They could only guess at Saudi motives. They knew that the kingdom’s politically insecure royal family convulsed whenever news of their helping the Americans became public, out of fear that such publicity would aid their Islamist opposition. Even the most confidential terrorism investigations in the American system inevitably leaked to the press. That seemed to be one reason that the Saudis refused to get involved. Some among the Manson Family wondered, in addition, whether the Saudis had forged some kind of unofficial pact with bin Laden in which he agreed to concentrate his fire on the United States, away from Saudi Arabia. That certainly seemed to be the effect, if not the conscious intent, of Saudi interactions with bin Laden. Even if there was no such formal understanding, the Saudis seemed to regard American worries about bin Laden as alarmist, overwrought.24
By 2000 the Saudi royal family, like Pakistan’s army, had developed multi-layered defenses against American pressure on terrorism issues. Like Pakistan’s elite, the liberals in Saudi Arabia’s royal family positioned themselves in Washington as America’s lonely and besieged allies, doing all they could—thanklessly—to protect the United States from the Islamist hatred of their country’s Muslim masses. The Saudis continued to prove their loyalty month after month by managing global oil prices with American interests firmly in mind. By cooperating on the fundamental questions of oil and military basing rights, the Saudis acquired the freedom to pursue their own agenda on secondary issues: the Palestinians, rapprochement with Iran, and the threat of Saudi-born Islamic extremism. They pushed forward a clean-shaven, well-dressed spokesman, Adel al-Jubeir, who defended Saudi policy in a fluent American idiom. From a kingdom where politics arose from family ties and power was bargained through personal contacts, the Saudi royals concentrated nearly all their effort on networks of friends at the highest levels of the American government. This approach insulated the Saudi elite from their country’s harsh and sometimes fulminating critics at the working levels of the U.S. police and intelligence bureaucracies.
The Americans struggled to understand just how much support reached bin Laden in Afghanistan from Saudi sources. It appeared to be substantial, even into 2000. A Saudi government audit of the National Commercial Bank, the kingdom’s largest, showed that at least $3 million had flowed from its accounts to bin Laden. One of Saudi Arabia’s largest charities, the International Islamic Relief Organization, acknowledged that it had sent about $60 million to the Taliban.25
But when Michael Sheehan, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, tried to send a cable urging American embassies to push their host governments to crack down on Islamic charity groups, other State diplomats managed to suppress the cable and overturn its recommendations. They argued that Sheehan did not understand all the good works Islamic charities performed worldwide.26
The pattern was repeated elsewhere in the national security bureaucracy. When they attacked Saudi Arabia as uncooperative or dangerous, counterterrorism specialists were chided by their colleagues at State or the Pentagon as narrow-minded cops who were unable to fit their concerns into the larger context of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Describing the global terrorist threat in 2000, the State Department’s official annual report made no mention of Saudi Wahhabi proselytizing, and it referred only to “allegations” that Saudi Islamic charities might be aiding terrorists. The Saudi royal family had “reaffirmed its commitment to combating terrorism,” the State Department reported, but it was “not clear,” the department continued gently, whether all of the government’s regulations “were enforced consistently.” American investigators later reported that they could find “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al Qaeda. Still, al Qaeda found fertile fundraising ground in the kingdom” in part because of “very limited oversight” of private charitable donations.27
Prince Turki faded further. After his break with Mullah Omar in 1998, he tried to facilitate cooperation with the CIA on terrorism but was rarely able to deliver, at least in the view of mid-level American officers.
Turki’s own fear about bin Laden’s ability to strike at Saudi interests “kept rising” during 1999 and 2000, he recalled, because “the leadership of the Taliban had committed themselves 100 percent to bin Laden. And hence he would have even more leeway to act than he did before.” Turki considered trying to plant an agent inside bin Laden’s circle in Afghanistan “many, many times,” but he could not come up with a plausible plan. He tried to turn captured Islamists back on al Qaeda as agents working for Saudi intelligence “without much success,” as he recalled. But he would not send his own intelligence officers on such a mission to Afghanistan. “It was too dangerous, and I never did it. . . . I would not sacrifice one of our people.” Congressional investigators later concluded that the CIA and other American intelligence agencies “did not effectively develop and use human sources to penetrate the al Qaeda inner circle” and that “in part, at least,” this failure was “a product of an excessive reliance on foreign liaison services.”28
MASSOUD BELIEVED by the summer of 2000 that he had regained some military and political momentum against the Taliban. He had repeated his great survival feat of the 1980s anti-Soviet war. By fierce personal will, by his refusal to leave Afghan soil, by his ability to lead and hold the loyalty of his Tajik followers, he had weathered the worst periods of hopelessness and isolation after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Now he had passable supply lines to Iran. He had commercial deals to buy ammunition from Russia. India chipped in about $10 million and built a hospital in his territory. He had modest intelligence aid from the CIA. His enemies remained formidable, especially the suicide platoons of al Qaeda and the seemingly inexhaustible waves of Pakistani volunteers bused from madrassas to the northern battlefields. Yet to many Afghans there were more and more signs that the Taliban were weakening. In February 2000 the famed leader of the original 1979 Afghan mutiny against Soviet occupiers in Herat, Ismail Khan, escaped from a Kandahar prison, fled to Iran, and stirred new revolts against the Taliban in western Afghanistan. Pashtun tribal leaders staged protests against Taliban conscription. Prominent Pashtun exiles—Abdul Haq, King Zahir Shah, Hamid Karzai—opened talks with Massoud’s representatives about a grand anti-Taliban political alliance that would unite Afghanistan’s north and south.29
Massoud encouraged these political discussions. He was skeptical of exiles who refused to risk their lives and their comfort by fighting from Afghan soil. He and Abdul Haq remained uncomfortable rivals. Massoud’s aides had suspicions about Pashtuns like Karzai who lived in Pakistan and who had earlier supported the Taliban. But with the help of private intermediaries such as Peter Tomsen, the former American ambassador to the Afghan mujahedin, the Taliban’s Pashtun opponents linked up with Massoud. Some of them wanted Massoud to participate in political talks that would create a unified Afghan government in exile, symbolically blessed by the king, to which disaffected Taliban commanders could defect. Others, like Hamid Karzai, wanted Massoud’s help to mount armed rebellions against the Taliban in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.
During 2000, Massoud envisioned a military campaign against the Taliban that would unfold in stages. His first goal was to rebuild the strength of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban remained weakest in the north because it lacked an ethnic and tribal base. Massoud hoped that Ismail Khan, Aburrashid Dostum, and other anti-Taliban commanders could seed small pockets of sustainable rebellion in isolated, defensible mountain areas. His strategy was to light little brush fires all around northern and western Afghanistan, wherever the Taliban were weak, and then fan the flames. As these rebel pockets emerged and stabilized, Massoud would drive toward them with his more formal armored militia, trying to link up on roadways, choking off Taliban-ruled cities and towns and gradually expanding the territory under his control.
Once he had more solid footing in the north, Massoud planned to pursue the same strategy in the Pashtun south, helping rebels like Karzai seed themselves first in defensible mountain areas, then moving gradually to attack towns and cities. “Commander Massoud’s idea was that Karzai should send commanders to these areas where it was liberated so they could revolt,” recalled Massoud’s foreign policy adviser, Abdullah. Karzai could also establish bases in safer Northern Alliance territory such as the Panjshir “and then expand.” Massoud dispatched Abdullah and other aides to meet with Karzai’s people to develop these ideas. “He was thinking it would not be easy,” Abdullah remembered. “It will not be overnight. It will be a long-term struggle.” Massoud “was absolutely confident of liberating the north sooner or later,” recalled one of his senior intelligence aides. “And he was projecting a force for the south for a longer struggle.”30
To develop this plan in a serious way Massoud needed helicopters, jeeps, and trucks. He needed to resupply allied rebels separated by vast distances. The country’s few passable roads were tightly controlled by the Taliban. Massoud wanted to leapfrog quickly around the north to avoid frontal battles, get behind Taliban and al Qaeda lines, and emerge from his defensive crouch in the Panjshir. But to do this effectively he would need greater mobility.
Organizers of this nascent anti-Taliban alliance traveled to Washington in the summer of 2000 to ask for American political support and practical aid. Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who was one of the few members of Congress to take an interest in Afghanistan, held hearings. Hardly anyone paid attention. Danielle Pletka, who ran the Afghan issue at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cringed whenever she arranged meetings for Karzai and Massoud’s aides because she feared that not a single member or congressional aide would bother to show up, and she would be left red-faced and alone at the conference table. “No one cared,” she recalled. At typical meetings on Afghanistan “anywhere from none to two” members or staff would attend.31
The State Department offered modest support for the political track of the Massoud-Karzai alliance. Inderfurth traveled to Rome and met the exiled king, Zahir Shah. State contributed a few hundred thousand dollars to organize meetings, but that was as far as the department was willing to go. Pickering met the well-dressed Abdullah, Massoud’s envoy, in Washington and told colleagues that he worried the Northern Alliance was another liberal insurgent movement like the Iraqi National Congress—professional rebels and exiles.32
American intelligence and diplomatic reporting documented the Taliban’s weakening grip during 2000. The Taliban’s “popularity and legitimacy now appear to be in decline,” Inderfurth testified to Congress on July 20. “We believe the Taliban have reached their high-water mark.” Yet American policy remained paralyzed over whether to confront the Taliban or engage. Inderfurth described the Clinton administration’s evolving strategy as “two-pronged.” One track put “firm pressure” on the Taliban with threats and economic sanctions; on the other track they sought “to engage the Taliban in a serious dialogue.” Despite the new, promising links forged between Massoud and the moderate royalist Pashtuns, the United States refused to choose sides. “My strong criticism of the Taliban should not be read to imply U.S. recognition for the opposition Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud,” Inderfurth emphasized.33
It was in many ways the same failure of political vision that had shaped American policy toward Afghanistan between 1988 and 1992, under two Republican administrations. Then, as in 2000, the United States refused to commit to an emerging fragile alliance between Massoud and centrist Pashtuns. The effect of this refusal, in both periods, was to cede the field to Pakistan’s extremist clients: Hekmatyar earlier, and the Taliban later.
The CIA’s Near East Division, responsible for Afghan politics, did not regard the emerging anti-Taliban movement among Pashtuns as a serious force. CIA officers dismissed Abdul Haq as an egomaniac and a blowhard. They respected Karzai but saw him as a very small player. As they recruited among anti-Taliban Pashtuns, they struggled to find anyone who could really deliver. Jallaladin Haqqanni, a CIA favorite during the 1980s, pledged firm allegiance to the Taliban. Old warlords like Gul Agha Sherzai did not seem especially motivated or capable. The agency’s case officers revived many Pashtun contacts in search of recruitments but came away skeptical.
Conditioned by past experiences as well as their decades-old liaison with ISI, some Near East officers remained highly doubtful about Massoud even as the Counterterrorist Center–led contacts with him deepened. They did not see much potential, either, in a Massoud-royalist alliance as a basis for military rebellion. U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Bill Milam and the CIA’s Islamabad station chief both “felt Massoud and the Northern Alliance could not govern Afghanistan and that, secondly, they probably couldn’t beat the Taliban anyway,” recalled one American official. The CIA also concluded, as Gary Schroen put it, that “there was no Pashtun opposition. The Pashtuns were totally disorganized, fragmented, disarmed by the Taliban.”34 But this was a view shaped and distorted by Pakistani intelligence. As in the past, by refusing to take a risk and partner more aggressively with Massoud, the United States passively allowed Pakistan’s policy to become its own.
Richard Clarke’s counterterrorism group at the White House, which usually pressed for the most aggressive tactics against bin Laden, opposed a deep military alliance with Massoud during the summer of 2000. Clarke argued that the Northern Alliance was “not a very good group of people to begin with,” as one official involved put it. “They’re drug runners. They’re human rights abusers. They’re an ethnic minority. It’s just not something that you’re going to build a national government around.”35
Without full-fledged U.S. support, Karzai and Massoud took matters into their own hands. Karzai traveled that autumn to the Panjshir with a delegation of royalist Pashtuns. They hoped their meeting would send a signal to wavering Afghans that a new anti-Taliban alliance was in embryo.
In private talks Karzai told Massoud he was ready to slip inside Afghanistan and fight. “Don’t move into Kandahar,” Massoud told him, as Karzai recalled it. “You must go to a place where you can hold your base.” There were too many Arabs around Kandahar. It might be too early to mount a southern rebellion, Massoud warned. Perhaps Karzai should consider operating out of the north until their joint revolt was further developed. Karzai said he would consider that.
“He was very wise,” Karzai recalled. “I was sort of pushy and reckless.”36
Karzai’s friends warned him that if he became too vocal about his opposition to the Taliban, Pakistani intelligence would respond. Karzai still maintained a home in Quetta. His friends reminded him of his father’s fate and of the unsolved murders of Abdul Haq’s family members in Peshawar. Recalled Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun nationalist and Pakistani human rights activist who knew Karzai: “I pressed him to leave this country because he would be killed.”37
THE CIA STRUGGLED to maintain its liaison with Massoud. It was difficult and risky for the agency’s officers to reach the Panjshir. The only practical way in was through Dushanbe in Tajikistan. From there the CIA teams usually took one of the few rusting, patched-together Mi-17 transport helicopters the Northern Alliance managed to keep in the air. CIA officers alarmed Langley with the cables describing their travel. On one trip the Taliban scrambled MiG-21 jets in an effort to shoot down Massoud’s helicopter. If they had succeeded, they would have discovered American corpses in the wreckage. Even on the best days the choppers would shake and rattle, and the cabin would fill with the smell of fuel. The overland routes to see Massoud were no better: miles and miles of bone-jarring Afghan mountain ruts snaking along sheer cliffsides.When a Near East Division team drove in from Dushanbe, one of its vehicles flipped and a veteran CIA officer, a former station chief in Cairo, dislocated his shoulder.38
These reports accumulated in Langley on the desk of Deputy Director of Operations James Pavitt, who had overall responsibility for the management of CIA espionage. Pavitt was a blue-eyed, white-haired former case officer and station chief who had served in Europe during the Cold War, including tours in East and West Berlin. He had written speeches for a Democratic congressman as a young man, then served in the White House as a CIA liaison during the first Bush administration. Like Tenet, who had appointed him, he was a spy manager with a feel for politics. Pavitt began to ask why CIA officers were taking such huge physical risks to work with Massoud. Were they getting enough from the liaison to justify the possibility of death or injury? If a CIA officer was killed on one of these trips, Pavitt was the one who would have to visit his widow and explain why it had all mattered so much.Was it likely that Massoud would help capture or kill bin Laden, or were they taking unnecessary chances?
Pavitt’s questions provoked sometimes heated replies from working-level officers in the Counterterrorist Center. The bin Laden unit chief—who had flown in Massoud’s helicopters himself—and the center’s operations chief, known to his colleagues as Hank, passionately argued that the Panjshir liaison had to continue, that the risks were worth it. The liaison with the Northern Alliance was by now producing several hundred CIA intelligence reports each year. It would be cowardly to drop contact with Massoud because of safety concerns, they implied. This was typical uncompromising Manson Family ardor, thought some officials who heard the debates. “There was a lot of concern about engagement in Afghanistan because it was very, very, very risky,” remembered one American official. Those opposed to the CIA’s Panjshir missions argued, as this official recalled, “You’re sending people to their deaths.” Cofer Black, mediating with Pavitt, took a more sympathetic view of Pavitt’s fears. He said he endorsed Pavitt’s worries about the helicopters. Counterterrorist officers were the ones who would die if one of these ungainly machines went down.39
The agency sent out a team of mechanics knowledgeable about Russian helicopters to try to resolve the issue. Massoud’s men took them to their Dushanbe airfield and opened up one of the Mi-17s. The CIA mechanics were stunned: Massoud had managed to patch an engine originally made for a Hind attack helicopter into the bay of the Mi-17 transport. It was a mismatched, gum-and-baling-wire machine, a flying miracle. The CIA mechanics were so appalled that they did not even want Massoud’s pilots to fire up the helicopter’s rotors. They were afraid the whole thing would come apart and send shrapnel flying.
At Langley the debates about risk and reward persisted. Cofer Black continued to worry aloud about the safety question but argued that the Counterterrorist Center had to maintain contact with Massoud to prepare for the day—a virtual certainty, he and the officers in the bin Laden unit said—when al Qaeda pulled off a major attack against the United States. Then the White House would change its policies toward the Taliban, and it would need Massoud. Black was not much for understatement. He told his colleagues that this aspect of the CIA’s Panjshir mission was about “preparing the battlefield for World War Three.”
Tenet signed off on a compromise: The CIA would secretly buy its own airworthy Mi-17 helicopter, maintain it properly in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and use CIA pilots to fly clandestine teams into the Panjshir.
The helicopter issue was a symptom of a larger problem. By the late summer of 2000 the CIA’s liaison with Massoud was fraying on both sides. On the American side, the most passionate believers in Massoud were in the Counterterrorist Center, especially in the bin Laden unit. Officers with the unit who worked out of the Islamabad station were seen by their colleagues as “slightly over the top,” recalled one American official. Massoud’s intelligence network cooperated on collection and planning, but it became increasingly clear that Massoud did not intend to launch a snatch raid against bin Laden.
The CIA’s Counter-Narcotics Center reported that Massoud’s men continued to smuggle large amounts of opium and heroin into Europe. The British reported the same. They could all readily imagine the headlines if their operation was exposed: CIA SUPPORTS AFGHAN DRUG LORD. The Counterterrorist Center’s view of Massoud’s strategic importance to the United States was “not embraced,” recalled one American official involved. “There was much gnashing of teeth and angst and clucking and hand-wringing.”
For their part, Massoud’s aides had hoped their work with the CIA would lead to wider political support in Washington and perhaps military aid. They could see no evidence that this was developing. Instead they were badgered repeatedly about an attack on bin Laden. “We never thought of capturing bin Laden alive in that type of Hollywood operation,” recalled one of Massoud’s intelligence aides. “It was never a consideration for people who knew the real situation in Afghanistan.” The Northern Alliance’s few shaky helicopters could barely clear the mountain passes. They had no air cover. Their forces were not very mobile on the ground. Bin Laden usually was surrounded not only by his own bodyguard but by hundreds if not thousands of Taliban soldiers. One of Massoud’s aides likened the mission urged on them by the CIA to a game of chess in which they would have to capture the king without touching any other piece on the board.40
Massoud and his men respected many of the individual CIA officers they dealt with but increasingly felt frustrated by the agency’s policies and tactics. Massoud’s men asked their CIA counterparts, as this intelligence aide recalled it: “Is there any policy in the government of the American states to help Afghanistan if the people of Afghanistan help you get rid of your most wanted man?” America’s decision to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal was never far from their minds. But the CIA officers could make no such promise. The most they could say was that bin Laden’s capture “would definitely influence policy in Washington,” creating goodwill toward the Northern Alliance.
This was not enough. Massoud’s men could easily imagine—and discussed among themselves many times—mounting a joint operation with the CIA to assassinate bin Laden by sniper fire, bombing, or a commando raid if this would result in a new American policy recognizing the Northern Alliance. But the CIA was not permitted to engage in that sort of military planning, and the agency had been unable to deliver any change in U.S. policy toward the Afghan war, either.41