HOWARD HART STOOD ALONE in Peshawar’s cold, smoky night air. He tried to appear inconspicuous. He was a tall, bespectacled American shuffling his feet on a darkened road in an arid frontier city teeming with Afghan refugees, rebel fighters, smugglers, money changers, poets, proselytizers, prostitutes, and intriguers of every additional stripe. Hart had arrived in Pakistan in May 1981 as the CIA’s chief of station. He ran the agency’s clandestine program to arm anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan. A colleague from the MI6, the British secret service, had arranged an introduction to a young, bluff, confident Afghan rebel commander named Abdul Haq. The Islamabad CIA station ran some Pakistani agents, but it had very few Afghan contacts. Hart had scheduled his nighttime meeting with Haq to coincide with a money drop he had to make to an Indian agent. He carried a small bag with a couple hundred thousand Indian rupees inside. Earlier that day he had driven the hundred miles from Islamabad down the raucous Grand Trunk Road toward the baked, treeless hills that rose to Afghanistan. He had woven beneath the ramparts of Bala Hissar fort and through the city’s ballet of horse carts, wheeled fruit stands, diesel rickshaws, motorcycles, and painted trucks. He did not want to register at a Peshawar hotel because guest passports were routinely copied and passed to Pakistani intelligence. He stood exposed now beside a dim street, waiting, aware that an Afghan guerrilla’s sense of time might not conform to his own.
Down the road rumbled a large, loud motorcycle driven by a man wearing the unmistakable pressure suit, coat, and helmet of a Soviet fighter pilot. Soviet soldiers or airmen were not supposed to be on Pakistani territory, but occasionally Soviet special forces ran small raids across the Afghan border. A CIA case officer’s great fear was being kidnapped by the Afghan communist secret service or the KGB. The motorcycle stopped beside him, and the figure waved for Hart to get on the back. He could only stare in disbelief. Finally the man pulled off his helmet and revealed a beard as bushy as a lumberjack’s. It was Abdul Haq. His fighters had shot down a Soviet plane and then peeled a pressure suit off the pilot’s corpse. The suit fit Haq and kept him warm on winter nights. He did not mind looking like an Afghan Buck Rogers. Hart climbed on the motorcycle and bump, bump, bump, off they drove through muddy rutted lanes. “We had a lovely evening,” Hart would say later. He did tell his new Afghan contact, “Don’t ever do that to me again.”1
It was the beginning of a long and tumultuous relationship between Abdul Haq and the CIA. Courageous and stubbornly independent, Haq was “very certain about everything, very skeptical about everybody else,” Hart recalled. “At the ripe old age—he was probably twenty-seven then—he had been through it all.” Scion of a prominent Pashtun tribal family with roots near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, Abdul Haq had raised a fighting force soon after the Soviet invasion and mounted raids against communist forces around Kabul.When the CIA began shipping guns, Haq became an intermediary between the agency, MI6, and the Kabul front. He was not an especially religious fighter. He espoused none of the anti-American rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood–influenced Afghan guerrillas often favored by Pakistani intelligence. Haq grew to become Howard Hart’s most important Afghan guide to the anti-Soviet war. They were two boisterous, adventurous men who rubbed some of their colleagues the wrong way. They were bound by a driving passion that defined the early years of the CIA’s Afghan jihad: They wanted to kill Soviet soldiers.
Howard Hart had spent the first years of his life in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines. His father had gone to Manila in the late 1930s as a banker and had been trapped when Japan invaded as World War II began. The Hart family spent three years in a Japanese garrison with about two thousand other Americans, Europeans, and Australians. In early 1945, when Japan’s military collapsed, the camp commander decided to commence executions and ordered adult men to dig trenches in the parade ground to receive the dead. General Douglas MacArthur ordered airborne troops to liberate the prisoners. Hart recalled being carried across a Philippine beach under the left arm of a young American paratrooper who held a tommy gun in his right hand. Hart’s mother jogged behind. They were loaded into a landing craft and pushed out to sea. He was five years old.
Later his father took up banking again, moving first to Calcutta and then back to Manila. Hart grew up with Filipino boys whose fathers had fought the Japanese in the jungles. In his childhood games, guerrilla warfare figured as baseball did for other American kids.
He studied Asian politics and learned to speak Hindi and Urdu at American universities, completing graduate school as the Vietnam War swelled in 1965. He thought about enlisting in the Marines but chose the CIA. At “the Farm” at Camp Peary, Virginia, the agency gave Hart the standard two-year course for career trainees, as aspiring case officers were called: how to run a paid agent, how to surveil targets and avoid being surveilled, how to manage codebooks, how to jump out of airplanes. Upon graduation Hart joined the Directorate of Operations, the clandestine service. He was posted to Calcutta, scene of his youth. Later he served in Bahrain and Tehran. When Iranian students seized the American embassy, he was assigned as a country and paramilitary operations specialist to the secret team that attempted a rescue. The mission, called Desert One, ended catastrophically when sand-blown helicopters crashed at a desert staging area far from Tehran on April 24, 1980.
Although young, he was a natural choice to run the Islamabad station in 1981 because of his passion for weapons and paramilitary tactics. He collected knives, pistols, rifles, assault guns, machine guns, bullets, artillery shells, bazookas, and mortars. Eventually he would accumulate in his home one of the CIA’s largest private collections of antique and modern American weaponry. In Islamabad he would act as a quartermaster for the Afghan mujahedin. He ordered guns from CIA headquarters, helped oversee secret training programs for the mujahedin in Pakistani camps, and evaluated weapons to determine which ones worked for the rebels and which did not.
The CIA had no intricate strategy for this war. “You’re a young man; here’s your bag of money, go raise hell” was the way Hart understood his orders. “Don’t fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets, and take care of the Pakistanis and make them do whatever you need to make them do.”2
At Langley a new generation of case officers was coming of age. Many were Vietnam-era military veterans and law enforcement officers. Their influence within the CIA now competed with the Kennedy-era, northeastern, Ivy League officers who had dominated the agency during the 1950s and early 1960s. “The tennis players were being replaced by the bowlers,” as one of the self-styled bowlers put it.
By the early 1980s many Ivy League graduates sought Wall Street wealth, not a relatively low-paid civil service career. American liberals saw the CIA as discredited. Instead of prep school graduates came men like Gary Schroen, working-class midwesterners who had enlisted in the army when others their age were protesting the Vietnam War. They acquired their language skills in CIA classrooms, not on Sorbonne sabbaticals. Many were Republicans or independents. Ronald Reagan was their president. A few of this group inside the Directorate of Operations saw themselves as profane insurgents waging culture and class war against the old CIA elite. Yet as Hart arrived in Islamabad the CIA was still led by the generation of elite clandestine officers, many of them Democrats from the northeast, whose outlook had been shaped by the idealism of the early Cold War and the cultural styles of the Kennedys. Hart’s supervisor in Langley, for instance, was Charles Cogan, a Francophile, polo-playing Harvard graduate who wore an Errol Flynn mustache and read history like a scholar. When he served as station chief in Paris, Cogan “spent his free time riding in the Bois de Boulogne with his French aristocratic friends,” as a colleague put it. Rising beside him in the D.O.’s leadership was Clair George. He was a postman’s son who had grown up in working-class Pennsylvania but had adopted the manners of an East Coast Democrat with country club élan. Thomas Twetten was soon to become the overall head of the clandestine service. After his retirement Twetten became an antique bookseller in Vermont. None of these men bowled regularly.3
Howard Hart did not fall neatly into either camp. He read deeply about British colonial experience in Afghanistan, especially about the tribal complexities of the Pashtuns, to prepare himself for the Islamabad station. He saw himself as an intellectual activist. But he was also a blunt, politically conservative gun afficionado who favored direct paramilitary action against the Soviets. He had little time for subtle political manipulations among the Afghans. He wanted to get on with the shooting.
In Tehran and then while working on the Iran account at headquarters Hart had alienated some of his colleagues, who saw him as unreliable and self-aggrandizing. Because of its intensity and claustrophobic secrecy, the CIA sometimes engenders bitter office politics, the kinds of eyeball-tearing rivalries that develop among roommates or brothers. Hart’s opponents included Bob Lessard, who had been deputy station chief during the sacking of the Islamabad embassy in 1979. Lessard had returned to teach at Camp Peary, convinced that his career was in shards—not only because he and Hart didn’t get along but because of his earlier troubles with the double agent in Kabul. Few within the Near East Division understood how deeply depressed Lessard had become. On Christmas morning 1980, in his CIA quarters at the Farm, he committed suicide with a shotgun.4
Hart arrived in May 1981 at an Islamabad embassy still under reconstruction. The CIA station was crammed into the old U.S. AID building. It was a relatively small station—a chief, a deputy, and three or four case officers. Fearing another Pakistani riot, Hart announced that he wanted a nearly “paperless station.” Typed classified documents would be burned immediately if at all possible. To retain a small number of records, Hart showed his team a secret writing method. They were to place a standard piece of wax paper over their blank sheets and type. To read it later, the case officers were to sprinkle it with cinnamon powder and then blow; the cinnamon would stick to the wax and illuminate the text. “This is the best headquarters could do for me,” Hart told them sheepishly.
Hart’s instructions emphasized the clandestine Afghan war and espionage directed at Pakistan’s nuclear program. He announced that the Islamabad station would not collect intelligence on internal Pakistani politics. The State Department’s diplomats could handle that subject.
Like dozens of nineteenth-century British colonial political agents before him—some of whose memoirs he had read—Hart regarded the Afghans as charming, martial, semicivilized, and ungovernable. Any two Afghans created three factions, he told his colleagues. “Every man will be king,” Hart believed of the Afghans. This political tendency could not be overridden by American ingenuity, he thought. Hart sought to encourage the mujahedin to fight the Soviets in small, irregular bands of fifty or one hundred men. He did not want to plan the rebels’ tactics or field operations. “One of the ways to manage a war properly is don’t worry about the little details,” he said later.
There might be twenty thousand to forty thousand war-fighting mujahedin guerrillas in the field at any one time, Hart figured. Hundreds of thousands more might be visiting family in Pakistani refugee camps, farming, smuggling, or just hanging around until the weather improved. The disorganized, part-time character of the mujahedin didn’t bother Hart. His strategy was to supply hundreds of thousands of rifles and tens of millions of bullets en masse to the guerrillas and then sit back in Islamabad and watch. The Afghans had ample motivation to fight the Soviets, he thought. They would make effective use of the weapons against Soviet and Afghan communists in their own way, on their own timetables.5
In any event, policy makers back in Washington did not believe the Soviets could be defeated militarily by the rebels. The CIA’s mission was spelled out in an amended Top Secret presidential finding signed by President Carter in late December 1979 and reauthorized by President Reagan in 1981. The finding permitted the CIA to ship weapons secretly to the mujahedin. The document used the word harassment to describe the CIA’s goals against Soviet forces. The CIA’s covert action was to raise the costs of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. It might also deter the Soviets from undertaking other Third World invasions. But this was not a war the CIA was expected to win outright on the battlefield. The finding made clear that the agency was to work through Pakistan and defer to Pakistani priorities. The CIA’s Afghan program would not be “unilateral,” as the agency called operations it ran in secret on its own. Instead the CIA would emphasize “liaison” with Pakistani intelligence.6
The first guns shipped in were single-shot, bolt-action .303 Lee Enfield rifles, a standard British infantry weapon until the 1950s. With its heavy wooden stock and antique design, it was not an especially exciting weapon, but it was accurate and powerful. Hart regarded it as a far superior weapon to the flashier communist-made AK-47 assault rifle, which looked sleek and made a lot of noise but was less powerful and more difficult to aim. CIA logistics officers working from Langley secretly purchased hundreds of thousands of the .303 rifles from Greece, India, and elsewhere, and shipped them to Karachi. They also bought thousands of rocket-propelled grenade launchers from Egypt and China. The RPG-7, as it was called, was cheap, easy to carry, and could stop a Soviet tank.7
As battlefield damage assessments poured in from the CIA’s Kabul station and from Afghan liaisons such as Abdul Haq, Hart began to think that the jihad had greater potential than some of the bureaucrats back in Langley realized. The initial popular Afghan reaction to invading Soviet troops had been broad and emotional. In Kabul at night tens of thousands gathered on their rooftops and sang out the Muslim call to prayer, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), in eerie and united defiance. Soviet tanks and troops had killed hundreds of Afghan civilians to quell street demonstrations. As the months passed, Afghan intellectuals, civil servants, and athletes defected to the mujahedin. By late 1981 the rebels roamed freely in nearly all of Afghanistan’s twenty-nine provinces. They mounted frequent ambushes on Soviet convoys and executed raids against cities and towns. The pace of their attacks was escalating.8
Hart concluded within months of his arrival that the war should be expanded. In the fall of 1981 he attended a regional conference of CIA station chiefs in Bangkok. On a piece of paper in his back pocket he had hand-scrawled a new list of weapons that would make the mujahedin more effective. The questions debated at Bangkok included “What would the Pakistanis tolerate? What will the Soviets tolerate before they start striking at Pakistan?” Officers from Langley worried that they might go too far, too fast.
Back in Islamabad, Hart sat in his house at night and drafted long cables to Langley on yellow legal pads, describing a Soviet convoy of tanks destroyed here, a helicopter shot down there. With CIA help the mujahedin were crippling heavily equipped Soviet detachments, Hart wrote, while using dated weaponry and loose guerrilla tactics. In January 1982, Hart cabled headquarters to ask again for more and better weapons.9
Hart and other case officers involved sometimes reflected that it might have been a relatively uncomplicated war, if only the CIA had been able to run it on its own. But the United States did not own a subcontinental empire, as the British had a century before. If the CIA wanted to pump more and better weapons into Afghanistan, it had to negotiate access to the Afghan frontier through the sovereign nation of Pakistan. When the jihad began to gather strength by 1982, Hart found himself increasingly forced to reckon with Pakistan’s own agenda in the war. This meant reckoning with the personal goals of the Pakistani dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. It also meant accommodating Zia’s primary secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
After Vietnam and the stinging Washington scandals of the 1970s, many case officers feared local political entanglements, especially in violent covert operations. Many of them had vowed after Vietnam that there would be no more CIA-led quixotic quests for Third World hearts and minds. In Afghanistan, they said, the CIA would stick to its legal authority:mules, money, and mortars.10
For many in the CIA the Afghan jihad was about killing Soviets, first and last. Hart even suggested that the Pakistanis put a bounty out on Soviet soldiers: ten thousand rupees for a special forces soldier, five thousand for a conscript, and double in either case if the prisoners were brought in alive.11This was payback for Soviet aid to the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, and for many CIA officers who had served in that war, it was personal. Guns for everyone! was Howard Hart’s preference. Langley’s D.O. leaders did not want to organize exiled Afghan political parties on Pakistani soil. They did not want to build a provisional anticommunist Afghan government. They did not even like to help choose winners and losers among the jihad’s guerrilla leaders. Let the Pakistanis fuss over Afghan politics to the extent that it was necessary at all.
This indirect approach was beginning to work, Hart believed. Yet as the mujahedin resistance grew and stiffened, the agency’s passivity about who led the Afghan rebels—who got the most guns, the most money, the most power—helped ensure that Zia-ul-Haq’s political and religious agenda in Afghanistan gradually became the CIA’s own.
MOHAMMED ZIA-UL-HAQ was a young captain in a Punjabi unit of Britain’s colonial army when London’s exhausted government finally quit India in 1947. He had been born and raised on the Indian side of the new border with Pakistan, a line soon drawn in the blood of Hindu-Muslim religious riots. His father had been an Anglophilic civil servant but also a pious lay Islamic teacher. His family spoke in British accents and bandied slang as if in a Wiltshire country house.
As with millions of Punjabi Muslims, the religious violence at Pakistan’s birth seared Zia’s memory. While escorting a train of refugees on a weeklong journey from northern India to Pakistan in 1947, he witnessed a nightmarish landscape of mutilated corpses. “We were under constant fire. The country was burning until we reached Lahore. Life had become so cheap between Hindu and Muslim.” Once in Pakistan, he said later, he “realized that we were bathed in blood, but at last we were free citizens.”12
British-trained Punjabi Muslim army officers such as Zia became one of the new nation’s most powerful ruling groups. Three wars with India anointed them as Pakistan’s supreme guardians. Battlefield experience coalesced them into a disciplined brotherhood. Failed civilian governments and a series of army-led coups d’état conditioned rising young generals to see themselves as politicians.
The nation had been created in Islam’s name, yet it lacked confidence about its identity. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, belonged to a movement of secular, urban Muslim intellectuals. They saw Islam as a source of culture but not as a proselytizing faith or a basis of political order. Jinnah attempted to construct for Pakistan a secular democratic constitution tinted with Islamic values. But he died while the nation was young, and his successors failed to overcome Pakistan’s obstacles: divided territory, a weak middle class, plural ethnic traditions, an unruly western border facing Afghanistan, a hostile India, and vast wealth gaps.
As Zia rose to his generalship, he embraced personal religious faith to a greater degree than many of his comrades in arms. He also believed that Pakistanis should embrace political Islam as an organizing principle. “We were created on the basis of Islam,” Zia said. He compared his country to Israel, where “its religion and its ideology are the main sources of its strength.” Without Islam, he believed, “Pakistan would fail.”13
After 1977 he reigned as a dictator and ceded few political privileges to others. But he did not decorate himself in ornate trappings of power. He was a courteous man in private, patient with his handicapped child, and attentive to visitors and guests. He wore his hair slicked down with grease, neatly parted in the style of film actors of a bygone era, and his mustache was trimmed and waxed. His deferential manner was easily underestimated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had promoted him to army chief of staff apparently in the belief that Zia would be compliant. Zia not only overthrew Bhutto but hanged him.
In the context of 1979’s upheavals Zia was not a radical. He declared Pakistan an Islamic state but did not move as forcefully as Khomeini did in Iran. He created no Pakistani religious police fashioned on the Saudi Arabian model. He did not bring Pakistan’s Islamic clergy to power. Zia believed deeply in the colonial-era army’s values, traditions, and geopolitical mission—a thoroughly British orientation. “Devout Muslim, yes, but too much a politician to have the fundamentalist’s fervor,” as an ISI brigadier put it. “Without Zia there could have been no successful jihad, but behind all the public image there was always the calculating politician who put his own position foremost.” He also sought to safeguard Pakistan, and at times he showed himself willing to compromise with the Soviets over Afghanistan, through negotiations.14
Yet Zia strongly encouraged personal religious piety within the Pakistan army’s officer corps, a major change from the past. He encouraged the financing and construction of hundreds of madrassas, or religious schools, along the Afghan frontier to educate young Afghans—as well as Pakistanis—in Islam’s precepts and to prepare some of them for anticommunist jihad. The border madrassas formed a kind of Islamic ideological picket fence between communist Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gradually Zia embraced jihad as a strategy. He saw the legions of Islamic fighters gathering on the Afghan frontier in the early 1980s as a secret tactical weapon. They accepted martyrdom’s glories. Their faith could trump the superior firepower of the godless Soviet occupiers. “Afghan youth will fight the Soviet invasion with bare hands, if necessary,” he assured President Reagan in private.15
He feared that Kabul’s communists would stir up Pashtun independence activists along the disputed Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pashtuns comprised Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, but there were more Pashtuns living inside Pakistan than inside Afghanistan. A successful independence campaign might well shatter Pakistan once and for all. Within a year of the Soviet invasion, about one million Afghan refugees had poured into Pakistan, threatening social unrest. Soviet and Afghan secret services had begun to run terrorist operations on Pakistani soil, as far inland as Sind province. A stronghold of the Bhutto family, Sind was a hotbed of opposition to Zia. The KGB’s Afghan agents set up shop in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Quetta. They linked up with one of the hanged Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza, and helped him carry out hijackings of Pakistani airliners.16Zia suspected that India’s intelligence service was involved as well. If Soviet-backed communists took full control in Afghanistan, Pakistan would be sandwiched between two hostile regimes—the Soviet empire to the west and north, and India to the east. To avoid this, Zia felt he needed to carry the Afghan jihad well across the Khyber Pass, to keep the Soviets back on their heels. A war fought on Islamic principles could also help Zia shore up a political base at home and deflect appeals to Pashtun nationalism.
Zia knew he would need American help, and he milked Washington for all he could. He turned down Carter’s initial offer of $400 million in aid, dismissing it as “peanuts,” and was rewarded with a $3.2 billion proposal from the Reagan administration plus permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, previously available only to NATO allies and Japan.17Yet as he loaded up his shopping cart, Zia kept his cool and his distance. In private meetings with President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State Shultz, and others, Zia lied brazenly about Pakistan’s secret efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Reagan had come into office criticizing Carter for alienating American allies by harping on human rights. The new president assured Zia that Washington would now be a more faithful friend. “Given the uncertainty and sensitivity surrounding certain areas of our relationship,” Shultz wrote in a classified memo as the Pakistani general prepared to visit Washington late in 1982, President Reagan should “endeavor to convince Zia of his personal interest in these concerns and his sensitivity to Zia’s views.” Shultz added, “We must remember that without Zia’s support, the Afghan resistance, key to making the Soviets pay a heavy price for their Afghan adventure, is effectively dead.”18
Zia sought and obtained political control over the CIA’s weapons and money. He insisted that every gun and dollar allocated for the mujahedin pass through Pakistani hands. He would decide which Afghan guerrillas benefited. He did not want Langley setting up its own Afghan kingmaking operation on Pakistani soil. Zia wanted to run his own hearts-and-minds operation inside Afghanistan. As it happened, this suited the Vietnam-scarred officers at Langley just fine.19
For the first four years of its Afghan jihad, the CIA kept its solo operations and contacts with Afghans to a minimum. That was why Hart had sneaked into Peshawar for his initial contact with Abdul Haq. Such direct encounters between CIA officers and Afghan rebels were officially forbidden by Zia’s intelligence service. The CIA held the meetings anyway but limited their extent. The agency’s main unilateral operations early in the war were aimed at stealing advanced Soviet weaponry off the Afghan battlefield and shipping it back to the United States for examination.
To make his complex liaison with the CIA work, Zia relied on his chief spy and most trusted lieutenant, a gray-eyed and patrician general, Akhtar Abdur Rahman, director-general of ISI. Zia told Akhtar that it was his job to draw the CIA in and hold them at bay. Among other things, Zia felt he needed time. He did not want to take big risks on the Afghan battlefield—risks that might increase Soviet-backed terrorism in Pakistan or prompt a direct military attack. Again and again Zia told Akhtar: “The water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature.” Zia did not want the Afghan pot to boil over.20
ABOUT EVERY OTHER MONTH Howard Hart drove the dozen miles from Islamabad to Rawalpindi to have a meal with General Akhtar at ISI headquarters and catch up on the Afghan jihad. They would talk in Akhtar’s office or in a small dining room, attended by servants in starched uniforms. Outside, gardeners trimmed shrubbery or washed sidewalks. Pakistan’s army bases were the cleanest and most freshly painted places in the country, conspicuous sanctuaries of green lawns and whitewashed walls.
ISI and the CIA had collaborated secretly for decades, yet mutual suspicion reigned. Akhtar laid down rules to ensure that ISI would retain control over contacts with Afghan rebels. No American—CIA or otherwise—would be permitted to cross the border into Afghanistan. Movements of weapons within Pakistan and distributions to Afghan commanders would be handled strictly by ISI officers. All training of mujahedin would be carried out solely by ISI in camps along the Afghan frontiers. No CIA officers would train Afghans directly, although when new and complex weapons systems were introduced, ISI would permit the CIA to teach its own Pakistani instructors.
Akhtar banned social contact between ISI officers and their CIA counterparts. His men weren’t allowed to attend diplomatic functions. ISI officers routinely swept their homes and offices for bugs and talked in crude codes on the telephone. Howard Hart was “H2.” Certain weapons in transit might be “apples” or “oranges.” The CIA was no more trusting. When Akhtar and his aides visited CIA training facilities in the United States, they were forced to wear blindfolds on the internal flight to the base.21
Akhtar himself kept a very low profile. He rarely surfaced on the Islamabad social circuit. He met Hart almost exclusively on ISI’s grounds.
He was the son of a Pathan medical doctor from Peshawar, on the Afghan frontier. (Pathan is the term used by Pakistanis to refer to members of the Afghan Pashtun tribes that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.) He had joined the British colonial army in Punjab just before independence, as Zia had done. They had risen through the ranks together, and Zia trusted him. As a young artillery officer Akhtar had been a champion boxer and wrestler. He had grown over the years into a vain, difficult, self-absorbed general who operated within the Pakistani army as Zia’s most loyal cohort. “If Zia said, ‘It is going to rain frogs tonight,’ Akhtar would go out with his frog net,” Hart recalled. Zia had appointed him to run ISI in June 1979; Akhtar would hold the position for eight influential years.
“His physique was stocky and tough, his uniform immaculate, with three rows of medal ribbons,” recalled an ISI colleague, Mohammed Yousaf. “He had a pale skin, which he proudly attributed to his Afghan ancestry, and he carried his years well. . . . He hated to be photographed, he had no real intimates, and nobody in whom to confide. . . . He was a tough, cold, and a hard general who was sure he knew wrong from right. . . . In fact many of his subordinates disliked him as a martinet.”22
Hart found Akhtar stubborn and unimaginative, but also quite likable. Akhtar’s “self-image was sort of a cross between Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.” The success of Hart’s tour as CIA station chief depended on his ability to work effectively with the ISI chief. In spy parlance, Hart sought to recruit Akhtar—not formally, as a paid agent is recruited with money, but informally, as a friend and professional ally.
As the months passed, Hart would ask the colonel who took notes at all of Akhtar’s private meetings to leave them alone for what Hart called “executive sessions.” Gradually the meetings grew less formal. The core questions they discussed were almost always the same: How much CIA weaponry for the Afghan rebels would Moscow tolerate? How much would Zia tolerate?
ISI’s treasury began to swell with CIA and Saudi Arabian subsidies. Headquartered in an unmarked compound in Rawalpindi, ISI was a rising force across Pakistan. Among other things, the service enforced Zia’s ironfisted martial law regime. Its missions included domestic security, covert guerrilla operations, and espionage against India. ISI functioned as a quasi-division of the Pakistan army. It was staffed down the line by army officers and enlisted men. But because ISI’s spies were always watching out for troublemakers and potential coup makers within the army, many regular officers regarded the agency with disdain. Akhtar’s bullying personality exacerbated its unpopularity within the ranks.
ISI’s Afghan bureau, overseen by several brigadiers, managed Pakistan’s support for the mujahedin day to day. By 1983 the bureau employed about sixty officers and three hundred noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. It often recruited Pathan majors and colonels who spoke the eastern and southern Afghan language of Pashto. These Pakistani officers belonged to border-straddling tribes and could operate undetected in civilian dress along the frontier or inside Afghan territory. Some officers, especially these Pathans, would make decades-long careers within ISI’s Afghan bureau, never transferring to other army units. The bureau was becoming a permanent secret institution.23
At their liaison sessions Hart and Akhtar often traded bits of intelligence. Hart might offer a few CIA intercepts of Soviet military communications or reports on battlefield damage in Afghanistan obtained from satellite photography. Akhtar, who had excellent sources inside the Indian government, would half-tease Hart by telling him how, in private, the Indians espoused their disgust with America. “You should hear what they’re saying about you,” he would say, reading from a tattered folder.
Much of their work involved mundane details of shipping and finance. Congress authorized annual budgets for the CIA’s Afghan program in each of the October-to-October fiscal years observed by the U.S. government. The amounts approved soared during Hart’s tour in Islamabad, from about $30 million in fiscal 1981 to about $200 million in fiscal 1984. Under an agreement negotiated between the Saudi royal family and President Reagan—designed to seal the anticommunist, oil-smoothed alliance between Washington and Riyadh—Saudi Arabia effectively doubled those numbers by agreeing to match the CIA’s aid dollar for dollar. (Still, the CIA’s Afghan program paled beside the Soviet Union’s aid to Kabul’s communists, which totaled just over $1 billion in 1980 alone and continued to grow.24) Hart consulted with Akhtar as each new fiscal year approached. They would draw up lists of weapons needed by the Afghan rebels, and Hart would cable the orders to Langley. Their careful plans were often overtaken by obscure funding deals struck secretly in Congress just as a fiscal year ended. Suddenly a huge surge of weapons would be approved for Pakistan, taxing ISI’s storage and transport capabilities. Hart’s case officers and their ISI counterparts had to get the weapons across to the Afghan frontier.
New and more potent weapons began to pour in. From hundreds of thousands of Lee Enfield .303s they branched out to Chinese-made AK-47s, despite Hart’s reservations about the rifle. They bought RPG-7s in vast quantities, 60-millimeter Chinese mortars, and 12.7-millimeter heavy machine guns in batches of two thousand or more. Hart bought ISI a fleet of trucks to roll at night down the Grand Trunk Road from Rawalpindi depots to warehouses along the Afghan frontier.
There was so much cash washing through the system by 1983 that it was hard for Hart to be sure who was making a reasonable profit and who was ripping off the CIA. The headquarters task force that made the purchases prided itself on buying communist weapons through global arms markets and putting them into the hands of anticommunist Afghans. Dissident Polish army officers accepted payoffs to sell surplus Soviet weaponry in secret to the CIA. The agency then shipped the Polish guns to Afghanistan for use against Soviet troops. The Chinese communists cleared huge profit margins on weapons they sold in deals negotiated by the CIA station in Beijing. Tens of millions of dollars in arms deals annually cemented a growing secret anti-Soviet collaboration between the CIA and Chinese intelligence. (The Chinese communists had broken with the Soviet communists during the early 1960s and were now mortal rivals. “Can it possibly be any better than buying bullets from the Chinese to use to shoot Russians?” asked one CIA officer involved in the Afghan program.) American allies in the Third World jumped in just to make a buck. The Egyptians were selling the CIA junky stores of old weapons previously sold to them by the Soviets. Turkey sold sixty thousand rifles, eight thousand light machine guns, ten thousand pistols, and 100 million rounds of ammunition—mainly of 1940–42 vintage. ISI logistics officers grumbled but accepted them.25
Hart knew the Pakistanis were stealing from the till but thought the thefts were modest and reasonable. The Pakistani army was perhaps the least corrupt organization in the country, which might not be saying a lot, but it was some solace. Anyway, Hart felt there was little choice but to hand over unaccountable cash in a covert program like this one. Either you thought the larger goals of the program justified the expense or you didn’t; you couldn’t fuss over it like a bank auditor. ISI needed money to run training programs for the mujahedin, for example. Zia’s government was genuinely strapped. If the CIA wanted thousands of Afghan rebels to learn how to use their new weapons properly, there had to be stipends for Pakistani trainers, cooks, and drivers. The CIA could hardly set up this kind of payroll itself. By 1983, Hart and his supervisors in Langley felt they had no choice but to turn millions of dollars over to Akhtar and then monitor the results at the training camps themselves, hoping that the “commission” stripped from these training funds by the ISI was relatively modest. Saudi Arabia was pumping cash into ISI as well, and the Saudis were even less attentive to where it ended up.
To try to detect any large-scale weapons thefts, the CIA recruited Abdul Haq and a few other Afghan contacts to monitor gun prices in the open markets along the Afghan frontier. If .303 or AK-47 prices fell dramatically, that would indicate that CIA-supplied weapons were being dumped for cash.
Still, the Pakistanis beat the CIA’s systems. In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 30 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad. The scheme was discovered—the bullets were still marked “POF,” for “Pakistan Ordnance Factory.” ISI had to pay to scrub the Pakistani bullets of their markings, so if they were used in Afghanistan and picked up by the Soviets, they couldn’t be exploited by the communists as evidence of Pakistani support for the mujahedin.26
Akhtar, who seemed embarrassed about the scale of the skimming, told Hart that he was going to organize a more formal system of weapons distribution, using ISI-backed Afghan political parties to hand them out. That way ISI could hold the Afghan party leaders accountable. It was also a way for ISI to exercise more control over which Afghan guerrilla leaders would receive the most weaponry and become the most powerful.
Many of ISI’s favored Afghan leaders, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were Muslim Brotherhood–linked Islamists. Especially after 1983, Akhtar and his colleagues tended to freeze out traditional Afghan royalty and tribal leaders, depriving them of weapons. Akhtar told Hart this was because the Pashtun royalists didn’t fight vigorously enough. As with every other facet of the covert war, the CIA accepted ISI’s approach with little dissent. Hart and his colleagues believed the policy not only agreed with Zia’s personal faith, but it weakened the Afghan rebels most likely to stir up Pashtun nationalism inside Pakistani territory.27
Hart wanted the CIA’s supplies to reach Afghan commanders who would fight the Soviets hard, whatever their religious outlook. “Have you ever met anyone who could unite them all?” Hart asked Akhtar, as Hart recalled it. “You’re going to try to bring your power of the purse, meaning guns and some money, to force them into something? Fine, if you can, but don’t put too much reliance on it.”
By 1983 some diplomats within the U.S. embassy in Islamabad had begun to worry that the CIA’s dependence on ISI was creating disunity within the Afghan resistance. “A change in approach would probably require some differentiation of our policy from that of Pakistan,” a Secret cable from the embassy to the State Department reported. “Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we have largely been content to follow Pakistan’s lead.”28
But few within the U.S. government could see any reason to question the CIA’s heavy dependence on ISI. The Soviets were becoming bogged down in Afghanistan. The war continued to embarrass Moscow internationally. And by 1983 the CIA’s covert action program had become cost effective, according to Hart’s calculations, which he cabled to Langley. The money allocated secretly by Congress each year for weapons for the mujahedin was destroying Soviet equipment and personnel worth eight to ten times that amount or more, Hart reported.
“Howard, how can you help these people when, in the end, they will all be killed or destroyed by the Soviets?” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked Hart during a visit to Pakistan.
“Senator,” Hart replied, “what they are saying to us is Winston Churchill: ‘Give us the tools and we will do the job.’ ”
HART DECIDED to see Afghanistan for himself. Strictly speaking, this was illegal. Hart knew he would be reprimanded or fired if he was caught, but this was the sort of thing a proper CIA station chief just up and did on his own. It was part of the D.O.’s culture. Hart had gotten close to Abdul Haq since their initial meeting in Peshawar, and Haq assured him that they could make a quick tour inside with very little risk. Abdul Haq’s guerrillas ruled the roads and the footpaths, especially in the mountain ravines just above Peshawar. They traveled in Toyota Land Cruisers in heavily armed groups. At night they were especially secure because the Soviets rarely operated in the dark.
Hart worked out a plan to leave his deputy in charge of the station for a few days. He headed toward the frontier in Abdul Haq’s jeep, armed. He would be introduced to other Afghans as a Canadian journalist. Hart worked out his excuses to CIA headquarters in advance: He was traveling up near the border with Abdul Haq to inspect weapons supplies. The terrain was unmarked, and accidentally, regrettably, they had strayed into Afghanistan.
He traveled several miles across the border with a group of about fifty well-equipped mujahedin. They camped at night and met visiting rebel delegations. The conversation was all in Pashto or Dari and had to be translated for Hart’s benefit. Sitting on a rock while bearded, turbaned rebels chattered all around, Hart felt as if he were in some sort of movie. He marveled at the lines of Afghan men wandering past in the cold, shuffling in groups of ten or twenty, barely covered against the chill, some confessing quietly that they had not eaten in two days.
Soviet aerial bombing and road attacks meant it was difficult for the mujahedin to secure steady food supplies, Hart learned. There were few markets outside of the main cities, and the rebels had little cash. “I remember I was terribly embarrassed that night, because they all looked at me, and they thought I was a newspaper man, so they just ignored me. . . . I really wanted to give the guys some money, because they had nothing. They had been walking for weeks.”
The mujahedin exploited the darkness to move in and out of Pakistan, and to set up ambushes. They lit no fires. The bread and tea were cold. This was the real war, Hart reflected, the war so many Afghans knew, a brutal grassroots national struggle fought among rocks and boulders. It was a war fueled by the two superpowers but also indifferent to them.
For a D.O. case officer, Hart’s Islamabad tour was about as good as it got. There had been no public scandals. He had worked Akhtar and the ISI liaison successfully. In Langley his career would get a lift from an excellent report card. “Howard’s relations with General Akhtar are close and productive concerning Afghanistan,” Ambassador Dean Hinton, Spiers’s successor, wrote in a classified evaluation letter as Hart prepared to go. “On the other hand, Howard runs an extraordinary intelligence collection operation against Pakistan. . . . His collection efforts on the Pakistani effort to develop nuclear weapons is amazingly successful and disturbing. I would sleep better if he and his people did not find out so much about what is really going on in secret and contrary to President Zia’s assurances to us.”29
Ship after ship, truck convoy after truck convoy, the CIA’s covert supplies to the Afghan frontier had surged to unprecedented levels during Hart’s tour. The program was hardly a secret anymore, either. President Reagan had begun to hint openly that America was aiding the Afghan “freedom fighters.” Journalists from the United States and Europe traveled inside Afghanistan with mujahedin escorts. Their stories made clear that the rebels were receiving substantial outside help.
Still, Zia maintained his public denials. In private he continued to fear Soviet retaliation against Pakistan. Hardly a meeting with Hart or other CIA officers could pass without the dictator bringing up his metaphor about the need to keep the Afghan pot simmering at just the right temperature—to prevent it from boiling over. At their liaison meetings at ISI headquarters Hart and Akhtar began to turn the metaphor into a private joke. More wood on the fire! they would say to each other as they scrawled out weapons orders on their requisition forms.
Hart now believed the Soviets were not prepared to reinforce their occupying forces in Afghanistan enough to make a serious thrust into Pakistan. “The fuckers haven’t got the balls, they aren’t going to do it,” he concluded. “It is not going to happen, boys and girls, so don’t worry about it.” The CIA was winning. It could afford to press its advantage.