GEORGE W. BUSH NEVER SPOKE in public about Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda during his campaign for the presidency. The Republican Party’s foreign policy and defense platforms made no mention of bin Laden or his organization. Terrorism barely registered as an issue during the 2000 contest. After the USS Cole attack in October, a reporter asked Bush about Afghanistan: “If a country is hosting a terrorist cell, should that country also be subject to reprisals?” Bush answered that he would not “play his hand” on that issue until he was president. “But I would tell the world that we’re going to hold people accountable. . . . There’s going to be a consequence.” Asked if the Clinton administration “had done enough to capture the likes of Osama bin Laden or other suspected terrorist leaders,” Bush demurred again. “I don’t have enough intelligence briefings,” he said.1
Reporters peppered him with pop quizzes about foreign policy. Bush’s intellect and qualifications had become campaign issues. He had traveled abroad very little and had no direct experience in international affairs. He could not spontaneously identify General Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s leader. His lapses prompted a writer from Glamour magazine to list a series of names and ask Bush what came to mind: Christine Todd Whitman, Madonna, Sex and the City, the Taliban. Whitman was a “good friend.” On the television show, Bush explained that he did not “get cable.” About the Taliban, he shook his head in silence. The writer provided a hint: “Because of the repression of women—in Afghanistan.” Bush lit up. “Oh, I thought you said some band. The Taliban in Afghanistan! Absolutely. Repressive.”2
Bush relied heavily on Condoleezza Rice, his chief foreign policy adviser during his campaign. Rice was a self-described “Europeanist.” She had written books on the communist-era Czechoslovak army and on the reunification of Germany. She had run the Soviet affairs directorate of the National Security Council under Bush’s father. “I like to be around her,” Bush explained, because “she’s fun to be with. I like lighthearted people, not people who take themselves so seriously that they are hard to be around.” Rice was a self-confident administrator with well-developed views about post–Cold War Europe. But she had to cram during the campaign about areas of the world she knew less well. At one point she described Iran as “the state hub for technology and money and lots of other goodies to radical fundamentalist groups, some will say as far-reaching as the Taliban.” But Iran’s Shiite regime and the Taliban’s radical Sunni mullahs were blood enemies, and Iran actually sent arms and money to Ahmed Shah Massoud, to aid his war against the Taliban. Challenged by a reporter, Rice insisted that the Iranians were “sending stuff to the region that fell into the hands of bad players in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She did not explain what players. Asked about her statement once again, she said that of course she was aware of the enmity between Iran and the Taliban.3
None of the rest of Bush’s closest foreign policy advisers had recent experience in South Asia, either. Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had wide knowledge of global affairs but no personal acquaintance with Pakistan or Afghanistan. Paul Wolfowitz, appointed as deputy defense secretary after the election was resolved, was a specialist in Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had perhaps the most experience in the region. Each had worked closely with Pakistan’s army and government during the 1980s and early 1990s. Armitage had been heavily involved from Washington in the last phase of the anti-Soviet jihad. Powell had worked with Pakistan’s military during the 1990 run-up to the Gulf War. Their experiences, however, were rooted in the close ties between the United States and Pakistan’s army and intelligence service during the Cold War years. Both men had been out of government during the 1990s as that alliance had frayed to the point of dysfunction, partly over bin Laden’s terrorism and the related issue of jihadists fighting in Kashmir.
The son of a former CIA director, Bush was conditioned to believe in the agency’s mission and people. During the long recount dispute in Florida he heard from family friends who urged him to consider leaving George Tenet in place for the good of the CIA’s professionals. Tenet’s most important mentor in the Senate, David Boren, the conservative Democrat from Oklahoma, was a Bush family friend. Boren and his daughter had belonged to the same secretive Yale fraternity, Skull and Bones, as had the two George Bushes. Boren’s daughter later worked for George W. Bush in the Texas state government. In Boren’s estimation, “The families trust each other.” Just after New Year’s Day, 2001, the former senator, now president of the University of Oklahoma, was in Miami to watch his Sooners play in the Orange Bowl football game. His cell phone rang in the midst of a boisterous pep rally. “I want to talk to you about George Tenet,” president-elect Bush said over the noise, as Boren recalled it. “Tell me about this guy.”4
Boren talked Tenet up enthusiastically. “I don’t know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican,” Boren told Bush. “He’s a straight shooter. . . . If there’s anything a president needs, it’s somebody who will tell him what he really thinks, have the courage to disagree with you, and look you in the eye and do so.” These were among Tenet’s great strengths, Boren said. “If you give him a chance to stay, I think it would be good for the agency because he’s totally nonpolitical. . . . The agency has had so many directors, its morale is down. And I think it would be a great gesture for continuity and professionalism if you kept him on.”
“I’m going to meet with him face-to-face,” Bush replied. “I’ll be able to judge this.”5
For a president who valued “lighthearted people” who did not take themselves too seriously, Tenet was made to order. Like Bush he was salty, casual, and blunt. Tenet’s emphasis on the CIA’s traditional missions of warning and objective analysis had also appealed to the elder Bush, after whom Tenet had renamed the CIA’s Langley headquarters. The White House announced on January 16 that Tenet had been asked to stay on at the CIA for “an undetermined period of time.” President Bush would decide “at a later period” how long Tenet would remain at Langley.6
The CIA director had survived, but he was on a tryout. He now had to build steadily, meeting by meeting, an entirely new set of relationships with Bush, Rice, and the national security cabinet. He began to brief Bush on intelligence matters each morning, face-to-face. The president agreed to make an early visit to CIA headquarters at Langley. “We are grateful to you for the active interest that you have demonstrated in our work from day one,” Tenet declared before an overflow headquarters audience. Bush reflected on the differences between the CIA his father had run in 1976 and the agency now. His father’s era had faced “an overarching threat” from Soviet communism, Bush said, but now “that single threat has been replaced by new and different threats, sometimes hard to define and defend against: threats such as terrorism, information warfare, the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”7
Sandy Berger, who felt the first President Bush had failed to arrange adequate transition briefings on national security for the incoming Clinton team, vowed to run a handoff of the sort he would have wished to receive. The “number one” issue on his agenda, he recalled, “was terrorism and al Qaeda. . . . We briefed them fully on what we were doing, on what else was under consideration, and what the threat was.” Berger ordered each directorate in the National Security Council to write an issues memo for Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. The memos were then enhanced by oral briefings and slide show presentations. Berger himself attended only one, the session organized by Richard Clarke to talk about bin Laden and al Qaeda. “I’m here because I want to underscore how important this issue is,” Berger explained to Rice. Later, in the West Wing of the White House, Berger told his successor, “You’re going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and bin Laden specifically than any issue.”8
The warnings did not register. The CIA briefed Bush’s senior national security team about al Qaeda, but its officers sensed no deep interest. Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz—the four with the strongest ideas and the most influence—had spent many months thinking and talking about what they would emphasize during their first one hundred days in the White House. They were focused on missile defense, military reform, China, and Iraq. Neither terrorism nor South Asia was high on the list.
In their early briefings, Clarke’s office described bin Laden as an “existential” threat to the United States, meaning that the danger he posed went beyond the dozens or hundreds of casualties al Qaeda might inflict in serial bombing attacks. Bin Laden and his followers sought mass American fatalities and would use weapons of mass destruction in American cities if they could, Clarke and officers at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center firmly believed. Tenet and Pavitt briefed Bush, Cheney and Rice on intelligence issues, including the al Qaeda threat, which Pavitt recalled describing as one of the gravest threats to the country. Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt and Tenet replied that it would make an impact but not end the peril.When the CIA later elaborated on this point in assessments for Bush’s White House, agency analysts argued that the only way to seriously hurt al Qaeda would be to eliminate its Afghan sanctuary. But they failed to persuade Bush or his top advisers. Throughout the 2000 campaign Bush and his team described missile defense as a central priority. They defined the most important security threat faced by the United States as hostile regimes that possessed or might soon acquire ballistic missiles that could strike American cities. In tandem they argued that China and to some extent Russia loomed as crucial security challenges. CIA briefers sensed that Bush’s national security cabinet viewed terrorism as the kind of phenomenon it had been during the 1980s: potent but limited, a theatrical sort of threat that could produce episodic public crises but did not jeopardize the fundamental security of the United States. “I don’t think we really had made the leap in our mind that we are no longer safe behind these two great oceans,” Armitage said later.9
Clarke saw the early weeks of the Bush administration as an opportunity to win a more receptive audience for his ideas about bombing the Taliban and challenging bin Laden. He had on his desk analytical papers, recommendations, and discarded Cabinet agendas from the last weeks of the Clinton administration. Clarke and his aides composed a three-page memorandum to Rice dated January 25. Their package included Clarke’s previous proposals from 1998 and late 2000. He urged covert aid to Massoud, new Predator flights, and other measures. A Cabinet-level meeting about al Qaeda’s imminent threat was “urgently needed,” he and his chief of staff, Roger Cressey, wrote. This was not “some narrow little terrorist issue.” Suspected al Qaeda “sleeper cells” inside the United States were “a major threat in being.”10
The Bush administration needed a new regional policy in South Asia, Clarke insisted. He emphasized several proposals that had earlier been blocked by Berger and the Clinton Cabinet. These included covert military aid to Massoud and bombing strikes on Taliban “infrastructure” such as Tarnak Farm. Clarke also highlighted in his memo the possibility of “making a deal” with Pakistan about bin Laden. His idea was that Bush should signal Musharraf that confronting al Qaeda was now America’s number one priority. Moreover, the United States would stop pressuring Pakistan about a return to democracy if Musharraf’s army and intelligence service would solve the bin Laden problem once and for all. Clarke also underscored proposals to deliver more money for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center to attack al Qaeda cells worldwide, more covert aid to Uzbekistan, and a tougher diplomatic assault on Islamic charity financing to terrorist groups. Clarke’s memo blended into one agenda aggressive ideas from the previous administration—some partially approved and others that had been rejected.11
Clarke was in an awkward position. He had acquired a reputation as a uniquely powerful Washington mandarin. He was publicly described as the government’s best expert on terrorism policy and the bin Laden threat. He was a hawkish nonpartisan civil servant known and respected by some members of Bush’s team. Rice told Clarke she wanted him to stay on at the National Security Council. Yet it was obvious from the start that Clarke would lose some or most of his power in the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice had strong ideas about how the National Security Council should be managed. Clarke’s personal influence on terrorism issues did not fit Rice’s model. In addition he was tainted by his Cabinet-level participation in the Clinton administration’s policies, which in a season of partisan turnover at the White House looked innately suspect.
Clarke’s January 25 memo went nowhere. No Cabinet meeting about al Qaeda, Afghanistan, or regional policy was scheduled. Weeks later Rice completed the first phase of her NSC reorganization, and Clarke formally lost his Cabinet-level status on terrorism issues. In response he asked Rice for a transfer. Clarke said he wanted to give up his work on bin Laden and concentrate instead on the threat of attacks against American computer systems. Rice agreed, promising to consult Clarke occasionally on terrorism questions.
Hugh Shelton, who stayed on as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used the transition weeks to extricate the Navy from its obligation to maintain cruise missile submarines within striking distance of Afghanistan. The program had proved expensive; in addition, it disrupted deployments, and the CIA had never delivered intelligence precise enough to act upon. Besides, the strong-minded Rumsfeld, determined to pursue missile defense and an ambitious military reorganization, thought terrorism “was out there, but it didn’t happen today,” as Shelton recalled it, so “maybe it belongs lower on the list.” Rumsfeld conceded later that he was focused on other priorities early in 2001, and said that the Pentagon at this time was not organized or trained to deal with an enemy like bin Laden.12
Cofer Black and the bin Laden unit chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center made no objection to the loss of the submarines. Their priority that winter was to accelerate Air Force testing of an armed version of the Predator, which the CIA could then fly over Afghanistan and use to shoot at bin Laden and his top aides. A lethal Predator would eliminate the problem of synchronizing perishable human agent reports from Afghanistan with cruise missile flight times, the CIA officers argued. An armed drone would reduce the “sensor to shooter” timeline, previously counted in hours, to mere seconds. By February the State Department’s lawyers had waved off concerns that an armed drone might violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. But the Air Force had many technical questions yet to resolve. Air Force engineers had fitted the Predator with a modified version of the Hellfire antitank missile, but they did not know what impact its firing would have on the Predator’s flight-worthiness. The Predator was such a light and unwieldy craft that some engineers feared the explosive propulsion of an igniting missile would send the drone reeling backwards, perhaps out of control. A February test in Nevada was encouraging: The drone’s missile struck a target tank turret six inches right of center.13
But the Bush Cabinet had no policy about the novel idea of shooting terrorists with armed flying robots. The Cabinet had barely formed, and neither the principals nor their deputies had yet held a formal discussion of bin Laden. There was some talk of an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and al Qaeda, but none had been properly organized. Iraq, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China, Russia, and missile defense all stood ahead of Afghanistan in the security policy queue.
Black pressed the Air Force to certify that a Hellfire-armed, laser-aimed Predator could kill bin Laden if he spent the night at his Tarnak Farm residence—without taking out large numbers of bystanders. If the CIA was to propose a lethal Predator mission to President Bush or his Cabinet, the agency would need technical proof that it could succeed. But the Hellfire had never been designed to knock down mud-brick or concrete walls. All of the missile’s manuals, specifications, and test results documented its ability to destroy tanks. In an era of expensive high-technology weapons systems, Pentagon culture emphasized precision, idiot-proof firing procedures, and the careful, scientific matching of weapons and targets. If the Pentagon was to make good on presidential orders to limit bystander deaths in a Tarnak missile strike, for example, the Air Force had to predict accurately how many rooms in a building struck by a Hellfire would actually be destroyed. This meant more tests. With CIA assistance an Air Force team built in Nevada a mockup of the Tarnak residence where bin Laden stayed. The Counterterrorist Center pushed for a speedy schedule, but there was no way to conduct such an elaborate test overnight.14
Meanwhile, Clarke argued with Black and others at the CIA over whether to send the Predator back to Afghanistan as the weather warmed, strictly for reconnaissance missions, with only cameras and sensors on board. Even though his role was waning, Clarke wanted the Predator in the air again; this had been the agreed plan back in October, he asserted. But Tenet, Black, and Pentagon officers argued that flying reconnaissance now would be a mistake. The Taliban had clearly identified the drone’s radar signature during the autumn. At the beginning of that series of Predator flights, Black had been told in a briefing that the radar cross-section of the drone was no more noticeable than a small flock of birds. Now they were discovering, Black argued, that the Predator looked on enemy radar much more like a full-sized commercial airliner flying at a conspicuously slow speed, relatively easy to identify. The CIA’s officers figured that at best they would be able to mount five or six Predator missions before the Taliban shot one down. They did not want to waste these flights, they said, before the Predator was armed. Under a new agreement with the Air Force, the CIA had agreed to shoulder half the cost of future Predator missions and losses. That meant the agency would be billed about $1.5 million for each drone that went down. Black and his colleagues also argued that a shootdown might jeopardize Uzbekistan’s cooperation with the CIA. The agency formally asked government analysts whether the Predator’s reconnaissance value justified all these risks. The analysts replied that satellite imagery and reconnaissance aircraft could do virtually as well. Clarke saw the CIA’s position as more evidence of its aversion to risk. No Predators were sent to Afghanistan.15
The CIA was divided over Black’s enthusiasm for armed drones. Some officers in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations remained skeptical. The feeling was “Oh, these harebrained CTC [Counterterrorist Center] ideas,” recalled one official. “This is going to be a disaster.” The internal debates and uncertainty ultimately slowed the pace of deployment.16
There was no foreign policy context for flying armed Predators in Central Asia that winter or spring. The South Asia bureau at the State Department remained leaderless until June. Al Eastham, a career foreign service officer and Clinton holdover, ran day-to-day regional affairs on an interim basis. Eastham continued to emphasize that America would not choose sides in the Afghan civil war. Neither Bush nor his senior advisers provided any contrary public signal. Clarke again pitched Rice on aid to the Northern Alliance in March, but Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley wanted to wait for a broader program that would include Pashtun opponents of the Taliban. Clarke agreed that Pashtuns should be involved but insisted that Massoud needed help immediately. He lost the argument.17
Rice and Armitage received cables and memos offering diverse and sometimes contradictory advice about Afghanistan. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Bill Milam, sent a long cable in early February titled “Options for dealing with Afghan terrorism problem,” which suggested that Bush seize his fresh start to offer the Taliban a last chance grand bargain: large-scale economic aid in exchange for U.S. custody of bin Laden. If the Taliban refused, the U.S. could begin openly backing the militia’s opponents, seeking Mullah Omar’s overthrow. As always, the Islamabad embassy opposed any embrace of Massoud, but its political analysts thought the Bush administration could profitably support anti-Taliban Pashtuns such as Hamid Karzai if the grand bargain idea failed.18
Zalmay Khalilzad, an influential voice inside Bush’s forming National Security Council, echoed some of this advice. The Afghan-born foreign policy analyst had helped oversee the Bush transition. Rice then appointed him to run her Middle East directorate. Khalilzad was an old acquaintance of Hamid Karzai. They had run into each other in Pakistan and elsewhere over the years, and they stayed in touch. After the murder of Karzai’s father by the Taliban, Khalilzad had turned against the Taliban in the articles he published from his consulting office at the RAND Corporation in Washington. He urged Clinton to openly seek the movement’s overthrow.
Among other things, Khalilzad feared the spread of Taliban ideology to Pakistan. “The prospect of a nuclear-armed Pakistan adopting the credo of the Taliban, while unlikely, is simply too risky to ignore,” he had written a year before joining the National Security Council. Yet he also opposed any deep American alliance with Ahmed Shah Massoud. Fearful of a north-south ethnic split, Khalilzad argued adamantly that Pashtuns—exiles and royalists like Karzai—had to be the locus of any successful anti-Taliban strategy. If the goal was Mullah Omar’s demise, “too close a relationship with the Northern Alliance will hinder rather than help this objective,” he believed. Khalilzad wanted to help dissident Pashtuns who could “fracture the Taliban internally.” These views placed him at odds with Cofer Black and the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center, who saw Massoud as by far their most valuable potential ally against al Qaeda. They also did not see how politically weak Pashtun exiles could be effective in fomenting a coup or splitting the Taliban from the inside.19
All this debate meant the Bush administration had no clear direction. It would take months to fashion a new approach. The Cabinet displayed little sense of urgency.
PAKISTAN’S ARMY had long enjoyed better relations with Republican administrations in Washington than with Democrats, yet it was not clear that tradition would hold this time. Musharraf’s advisers in Islamabad knew that Bush’s 2000 campaign had raised massive contributions from Indian-American businessmen. These donors pressed Bush and his advisers to tilt American policy toward India. The Republican Party platform, crafted in part to please financial supporters, emphasized relations with India over those with Pakistan. Conservative intellectuals on the Bush foreign policy team, such as Harvard University’s Robert Blackwill, recommended a strategic shift toward India to counter the menace of a rising China.20
Musharraf and his advisers in Islamabad sent Bush a confidential three-page letter that outlined common ground between Pakistan and the United States and pressed for closer ties. Condoleezza Rice met with Musharraf’s ambassador to Washington, Maleeha Lodhi, an accomplished female former journalist who like Rice had risen to the top of her male-dominated foreign policy establishment. The two governments could work together to isolate bin Laden, Lodhi pledged, but Pakistan’s army still felt that the Taliban were misunderstood in Washington. The Taliban had recently cracked down on opium poppy production, Lodhi noted. “Yeah, Stalin also got a lot of things done,” Rice answered.21
The White House delivered a confidential written reply to Musharraf early in 2001 that contained many encouraging signals about the future of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, but the letter also linked the chances for an improved relationship—debt relief, sanction waivers, and security cooperation—with resolution of the bin Laden problem. “The continued presence of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization is a direct threat to the United States and its interests that must be addressed,” Bush wrote. “I believe al-Qaida also threatens Pakistan’s long-term interests.”
The letter arrived in the midst of an intensifying debate within Pakistan’s army and establishment over support for the Taliban. Musharraf had consolidated army rule by winning the allegiance of politically neutral civil servants such as the diplomats in Pakistan’s British-style elite foreign service. Now the civilians in his government began to openly question the army’s support for jihadists in Afghanistan. “We find practical reasons to continue with policies that we know are never going to deliver and the eventual costs of which we also know will be overwhelming. . . . Thus we are condemned to ride a tiger,” wrote Pakistan’s high commissioner in India, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, in a confidential cable that January, prepared in advance of a meeting of ambassadors in Islamabad. Pakistan had “no choice,” Qazi argued, but had to somehow “resolve the OBL [Osama bin Laden] problem before addressing any other issue.” If the Taliban refused to cooperate, Pakistan should squeeze their supplies and “undermine the authority of those Taliban leaders who refuse to cooperate.” Other key civilians around Musharraf—Lodhi; Arif Ayub, the ambassador to Kabul; and the country’s civilian finance minister—weighed in with similar arguments. Mullah Omar refused to do the Pakistan army’s bidding and refused to acquiesce even on the smallest issues, yet the United States and other world powers all adamantly believed that Pakistan pulled the Taliban’s strings. Pakistan had achieved the “worst of both worlds,” as one official recalled arguing.22
The dissidents in Pakistan’s government supported a break with the Taliban because they thought it was in Pakistan’s national interest. Mullah Omar and his jihadist allies had spooked former Soviet governments in Central Asia and alienated them from Pakistan, chilling trade. The economy sagged under debts, sanctions, and a poor investment climate. Some strains of the Taliban’s violent radicalism had blown onto Pakistani soil. Al Qaeda harbored and trained anti-Shiite fanatics who mounted assassinations and touched off riots in Pakistani cities. All of this was tolerated by Pakistan’s generals in the name of “strategic depth” against India. But what depth had they really won?
A few generals in Musharraf’s cabinet sided with the civilians. One was Moinuddin Haider, a retired three-star appointed by Musharraf as interior minister, in charge of Pakistan’s police and internal security. Haider’s brother had been killed by sectarian terrorists with links to Afghanistan. “We are losing too much,” he argued in closed gatherings with Musharraf and other generals. The Taliban “don’t listen to us on matters of smuggling, narcotics, weapons,” Haider said. “They’re not serious about this.” Even worse, the Taliban had taken to issuing threats against Musharraf. Omar wrote the Pakistani leader a private letter on January 16, 2001, urging him to “enforce Islamic law . . . step by step” in order to appease Pakistan’s religious parties. Otherwise, there could be “instability” in the country. “This is our advice and message based on Islamic ideology,” Omar warned. “Otherwise you had better know how to deal with it.”23
But Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan ran largely on automatic pilot. Musharraf endorsed the alliance with the Taliban in part because he believed that Pakistan needed reliable Pashtun allies next door. Pakistani intelligence kept the jihadist combine churning. Even the civilian liberals in the government resented the constant pressure they received about the Taliban and bin Laden from the American government—the humiliating formal démarches and the endless sanctions and speeches. Even though they abhorred the Taliban’s philosophy, some of the civilian Pakistani elite took a little pride in how Omar and bin Laden flustered and punished the Americans. Liberal Pakistani diplomats used all their wiles to protect the Taliban from international sanctions. They obfuscated, they dodged, they rationalized. It was just a matter of being professional, they believed. However distasteful his outlook, Mullah Omar helped defend Pakistan from the existential threat of Indian aggression. The liberal civilians around Musharraf believed they could work for change gradually from within their government.24
The Taliban kept spinning off in new and bizarre directions, however. On March 1 the movement announced its intention to destroy all the statues in Afghanistan that depicted human form. Militiamen armed with rockets and assault rifles began blasting two ancient sandstone statues of Buddha believed to have been hewn in the third and fifth centuries when a Buddhist community thrived in central Afghanistan. One statue rose 120 feet, the other 175 feet. Their jewels had long ago been stripped away, and their faces had been hacked off by previous Muslim rulers. But the figures remained, glorious and dignified, legs draped by folded robes. The Taliban’s audacious vandalism provoked worldwide condemnation and shock that rarely followed the militia’s massacres of Afghan civilians. Curators and government spokesmen pleaded that the demolitions be suspended. Mullah Omar seemed puzzled. “We do not understand why everyone is so worried,” he said. “All we are breaking are stones.”25
Wealthy Buddhist nations in Asia—many of them donors to Pakistan’s sick treasury—pressured Musharraf to intervene before it was too late. The general asked Moinuddin Haider to fly to Kandahar and reason with Omar. Haider hurriedly consulted Islamic scholars to fashion detailed religious arguments that might appeal to the Taliban. Flanked by translators, note takers, and Islamic consultants, he flew by executive jet to Kandahar’s airport, circling down over Tarnak Farm. The visitors drove to Mullah Omar’s new walled suburban estate on Kandahar’s outskirts, constructed in lavish style by Osama bin Laden. It lay nestled in pine trees on a rise beneath a sharp rock mountain. There was an ornate main palace, a house for servants, a lavish guest house, and a blue mosque with white trim.
“We deliberated for six months, and we came to the conclusion that we should destroy them,” Omar explained when they were settled.
Haider quoted a verse from the Koran that said Muslims should not slander the gods of other religions. Allah would decide who was worthy on the day of judgment, Haider said.
He cited many cases in history, especially in Egypt, where Muslims had protected the statues and art of other religions. The Buddhas in Afghanistan were older even than Islam. Thousands of Muslim soldiers had crossed Afghanistan to India over the centuries, but none of them had ever felt compelled to destroy the Buddhas. “When they have spared these statues for fifteen hundred years, all these Muslims who have passed by them, how are you a different Muslim from them?” Haider asked.
“Maybe they did not have the technology to destroy them,” Omar speculated.
Omar said he feared what Allah would say to him on the Day of Judgment. He talked about himself in the third person. “Allah will ask me, ‘Omar, you have brought a superpower called the Soviet Union to its knees. You could not break two statues?’ And what would Mullah Omar reply?”
Peering from his one healthy eye, the Taliban leader continued: “On the Day of Judgment all of these mountains will turn into sand and fly into the air. And what if these statues in this shape go before Allah? What face, then, will Mullah Omar show to God?”26
HAIDER RELAYED an account of Omar’s visions to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, which in turn cabled a report to Washington. The embassy had largely given up on the idea that the Taliban might be persuaded to voluntarily hand bin Laden over to the United States. Omar’s rantings to Haider about the apocalypse only reinforced this analysis.
Yet Milam and others in the embassy continued to advocate close engagement with Musharraf’s government. Their conversations with relative liberals like Haider persuaded them that Pakistan’s attitude toward the Taliban might be shifting.
Diplomats, defense attachés, and CIA case officers in the Islamabad embassy reported continually on whether Taliban-style Islamic radicalism had begun to infect Pakistan’s army or government elite. Among other things, with help from American and European exchange students at Pakistan’s two prestigious colleges for army officers, the U.S. embassy conducted an annual “beard census” of Pakistani army officers, counting the number of officer graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in accordance with Islamic tradition.27 The numbers seemed reassuring. Only two or three Pakistani generals at the rank of lieutenant general or higher kept beards in 2001. The rate was less than 10 percent among graduates of the elite officers’ schools.
Anglophilic education, a vast and mobile business diaspora, satellite television, a free domestic press, and the lively, open traditions of Pakistan’s dominant Punjabi culture still insulated its society from the most virulent strains of political Islam. The Punjabi liberals who mainly ran Pakistan’s government resented the fearful, nattering lectures they heard from former Clinton administration officials such as Strobe Talbott, who spoke publicly about the dangers of a Taliban-type takeover in Pakistan. Yet even these liberals acknowledged readily by early 2001 that two decades of official clandestine support for regional jihadist militias had changed Pakistan. Thousands of young men in Quetta, Peshawar, and Karachi had now been inculcated in the tenets of suicide warfare. The country’s main religious parties—harmless debating societies and social service agencies in the first decades after partition—had become permanent boards of directors for covert jihadist wars. They were inflamed by ambition, enriched with charity funds, and influenced by radical ideologies imported from the Middle East.
The U.S. embassy poured out cables and analytical papers about the potential for “Talibanization” in Pakistan. The embassy’s defense and political analysts mainly concluded that while the danger was rising, it remained in check. Yet even a slight risk of a takeover by Islamic radicals argued for continued close engagement with Musharraf’s government, these American analysts believed.28
GEORGE TENET INTRODUCED HIMSELF to the new Bush Cabinet by issuing dire warnings about an imminent threat of new terrorist strikes from bin Laden. CIA threat reporting surged during January and February, leading up to the hajj pilgrimage in March. There were “strong indications” that bin Laden was “planning new operations” and was now “capable of mounting multiple attacks with little or no warning,” Tenet said. The CIA warned Prince Turki that it had reports of a planned terrorist strike in Mecca. Al Qaeda recruitment videos circulated in the Middle East, showing bin Laden reading poems in praise of the Cole bombers while touring martial Afghan training camps. For the first time since he was sworn into office, Tenet put terrorism first on his list as he reviewed the most important security challenges faced by the United States in his annual winter briefing to the Senate. The CIA director showed Rice and others the video of bin Laden at Tarnak Farm and outlined the agency’s disruption efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Rice asked Tenet to prepare a memo on covert action authorities for Afghanistan that would expand the CIA’s permissions in the field. When Tenet presented his draft, he and Rice’s office decided to wait to implement the new authorities until the Bush Administration had developed new policies on al Qaeda and Central Asia. Bush himself recalled that Tenet told him the CIA had all the authority it needed.29
Zalmay Khalilzad, at the National Security Council, sought to use the Bush administration’s leverage to establish credible Pashtun opposition to the Taliban on Pakistani soil. But Musharraf’s government refused that spring to allow official Afghan opposition groups, as Khalilzad urged, “because we’d have a civil war,” as one Pakistani official recalled. The discussions continued warily. The Pakistanis told the Americans they were being taken for a ride by self-aggrandizing Afghan exiles. They asked for names of America’s favored “moderate” anti-Taliban Pashtuns. The CIA had to protect unilateral contacts and recruitments among anti-Taliban Pashtuns, however, some of whom lived in Pakistan.30
Tenet traveled secretly to Islamabad that spring of 2001. Mahmoud had remained cold and recalcitrant in the year since his CIA-escorted tour of the Gettysburg battlefield.
Tenet said he saw nothing to lose by keeping the lines open. Mahmoud had tightened up on American access to every sector of the Pakistani army and intelligence service. He had decided to enforce strict liaison rules that blocked American contacts with Pakistani corps commanders, division commanders, and other generals. CIA access to Pakistani intelligence officers remained limited. Inside the U.S. embassy, opinion about Mahmoud’s motivations was divided. Accounts of the ISI chief’s new religiosity had begun to circulate widely. Yet Mahmoud remained correct, formal, and condescending in one-on-one meetings.31
Mahmoud hosted a dinner for Tenet at the ISI mess in Islamabad. There was a numbing routine to these official liaison meals: starched uniforms, exotic headdresses, fruit juice, smiles, and stiff formality. The working sessions were little better. Mahmoud tried to reassure the Americans that he was on their side. Tenet asked for practical help. The CIA’s objective was to penetrate bin Laden’s security, arrest his aides, and break up his operations, Tenet said. The Americans continued to believe that Pakistani intelligence could do much more to help track bin Laden’s location and disrupt his terrorist planning.
The CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration had managed to maintain some cooperation with Pakistani police and intelligence services on drug trafficking issues. They talked about whether it would be possible to use the counternarcotics channel to get bin Laden.32
Tenet came and went quickly. After decades official liaison between the CIA and ISI had its own self-perpetuating momentum. One meeting followed another. High-level visits were reciprocated. As Tenet left, planning began for when Mahmoud might travel again to the United States. Early September 2001 looked as if it might be convenient.