IN JANUARY 1984, CIA director William Casey briefed President Reagan and his national security cabinet about the progress of their covert Afghan war. It had been four years since the first Lee Enfield rifles arrived in Karachi. Mujahedin warriors had killed or wounded about seventeen thousand Soviet soldiers to date, by the CIA’s classified estimate. They controlled 62 percent of the countryside and had become so effective that the Soviets would have to triple or quadruple their deployments in Afghanistan to put the rebellion down. Soviet forces had so far lost about 350 to 400 aircraft in combat, the CIA estimated. The mujahedin had also destroyed about 2,750 Soviet tanks and armored carriers and just under 8,000 trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles. The war had already cost the Soviet government about $12 billion in direct expenses. All this mayhem had been purchased by U.S. taxpayers for $200 million so far, plus another $200 million contributed by Prince Turki’s GID, Casey reported. Islamabad station chief Howard Hart’s argument that covert action in Afghanistan was proving cost effective had never been laid out so starkly for the White House.1
By early 1984, Casey was among the most ardent of the jihad’s true believers. After arriving at CIA headquarters in a whirlwind of controversy and ambition in 1981, it had taken Casey a year or two to focus on the details of the Afghan program. Now he was becoming its champion. Hopping oceans in his unmarked C-141 Starlifter to meet with Turki, Akhtar, and Zia, Casey cut deals that more than doubled CIA and Saudi GID spending on the Afghan mujahedin by year’s end. And he began to endorse or at least tolerate provocative operations that skirted the edges of American law. Outfitted with mortars, boats, and target maps, Afghan rebels carrying CIA-printed Holy Korans in the Uzbek language secretly crossed the Amu Darya River to mount sabotage and propaganda operations inside Soviet Central Asia. The incursions marked the first outside-sponsored violent guerrilla activity on Soviet soil since the early 1950s. They were the kind of operations Casey loved most.2
He faced resistance within the CIA. His initial deputy, Bobby Ray Inman, saw covert action as a naïve quick fix. After Inman left, Casey’s second deputy director, John McMahon, a blunt Irish veteran of the agency’s spy satellite division, worried continually that something in the Afghan covert program was going to go badly wrong and that the agency was going to be hammered on Capitol Hill. He wondered about the purpose of the U.S. covert war in Afghanistan, whether it could be sustained, and whether the Reagan administration was putting enough emphasis on diplomacy to force the Soviets to leave. McMahon wanted to manage the Afghan arms pipeline defensively, sending only basic weapons, preserving secrecy to the greatest possible extent. “There was a concern between what I call the sensible bureaucrats, having been one of them, and the rabid right,” recalled Thomas Twetten, one of McMahon’s senior colleagues in the clandestine service. Also, the CIA’s analysts in the Soviet division of the Directorate of Intelligence told Casey that no amount of aid to the mujahedin was likely to force a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. In one classified assessment they predicted that the Soviet military would pressure the Afghan rebels until “the cost of continued resistance [was] too high for the insurgents to bear.” These career analysts regarded Soviet economic and military power as vast and unshakable. Casey, too, saw the Soviet Union as a mighty giant, but he wanted to confront the communists where they were weakest—and Afghanistan was such a place.3
Reagan’s election had brought to power in Washington a network of conservatives, Casey among them, who were determined to challenge Soviet power worldwide. Their active, risk-taking vision embraced the full range of competition between the superpowers. They endorsed a “Star Wars” missile defense to nullify the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles. They backed the deployment of new medium-range Pershing missiles to Europe to raise the stakes of a Soviet invasion there. Led by Reagan himself, they spoke of the Soviet Union not in the moderating language of détente, but in a religious vocabulary of good and evil. They were prepared to launch covert action wherever it might rattle Soviet power: to support the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, and to arm anticommunist rebels in Central America and Africa. The Afghan theater seemed especially compelling to Casey and his conservative allies because of the stark aggression of the Soviet invasion, the direct use of Soviet soldiers, and their indiscriminate violence against Afghan civilians.
By 1984 some in Congress wanted the CIA to do more for the Afghan rebels. Compared to the partisan controversies raging over Nicaragua, the Afghan covert action program enjoyed a peaceful consensus on Capitol Hill. The program’s maniacal champion was Representative Charlie Wilson, a tall, boisterous Texas Democrat in polished cowboy boots who was in the midst of what he later called “the longest midlife crisis in history.” An alcoholic, Wilson abused government privileges to travel the world first class with former beauty queens who had earned such titles as Miss Sea and Ski and Miss Humble Oil. Almost accidentally (he preferred to think of it as destiny), Wilson had become enthralled by the mujahedin. Through a strange group of fervently anticommunist Texas socialites, Wilson traveled often to meet Zia and to visit the Khyber Pass overlooking Afghanistan. He had few Afghan contacts and knew very little about Afghan history or culture. He saw the mujahedin through the prism of his own whiskey-soaked romanticism, as noble savages fighting for freedom, as almost biblical figures. Wilson used his trips to the Afghan frontier in part to impress upon a succession of girlfriends how powerful he was.
The former Miss Northern Hemisphere, also known as Snowflake, recalled a trip to Peshawar: It was “just very, very exciting to be in that room with those men with their huge white teeth,” and “it was very clandestine.”4
Beginning in 1984, Wilson began to force more money and more sophisticated weapons systems into the CIA’s classified Afghan budget, even when Langley wasn’t interested. Goaded by small but passionate anticommunist lobbies in Washington, Wilson argued that the CIA’s lukewarm attitude toward the jihad, exemplified by McMahon, amounted to a policy of fighting the Soviets “to the last Afghan.” The agency was sending just enough weaponry to ensure that many brave Afghan rebels died violently in battle, but not enough to help them win. As a resolution pushed through Congress by Wilson put it, “It would be indefensible to provide the freedom fighters with only enough aid to fight and die, but not enough to advance their cause of freedom.” He told congressional committee members on the eve of one crucial funding vote: “The U.S. had nothing whatsoever to do with these people’s decision to fight. They made this decision on Christmas Eve and they’re going to fight to the last, even if they have to fight with stones. But we’ll be damned by history if we let them fight with stones.”5
Those arguments resonated with William Casey. The jowly grandson of an Irish saloon keeper, Casey was a seventy-one-year-old self-made multimillionaire whose passionate creeds of Catholic faith and anticommunist fervor distinguished him from many of the career officers who populated Langley. The professionals in the clandestine service were inspired by Casey’s enthusiasm for high-rolling covert action, but like McMahon, some of them worried that he would gamble the CIA’s credibility and lose. Still, they loved his energy and clout. By the mid-1980s, Casey had established himself as perhaps the most influential man in the Reagan administration after the president; he was able to shape foreign policy and win backing even for high-risk schemes. Reagan had broken precedent and appointed Casey as a full member of his Cabinet. It was already becoming clear that Casey would be the most important CIA director in a generation.
An eclectic crusader in his life’s twilight, he bullied opponents and habitually evaded rule books. He was fixated on the Soviet Union. He believed that the epochal conflict between the United States and the Soviets would not be settled by a nuclear arms race or by war in Europe. Casey’s reading of Soviet doctrine and history convinced him that Andropov’s aging KGB-dominated Politburo intended to avoid an apocalyptic nuclear exchange with the West. Instead they would pursue the Brezhnev doctrine by waging a slow campaign—across generations if necessary—to surround and undermine America’s capitalist democracy by sponsoring Marxists in wars of “national liberation” waged in the Third World. Casey saw himself as about the only person in Reagan’s Cabinet who fully understood this tenacious Soviet strategy. He was prepared to confront the communists on their chosen ground.
He was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion, Maryknoll, on Long Island. He attended Mass daily and urged Christian faith upon anyone who asked his advice. Once settled at the CIA, he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church to anticommunists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of American law. He believed fervently that by spreading the Catholic church’s reach and power he could contain communism’s advance, or reverse it.6
Casey shared with Reagan a particular emphasis on the role of Christian faith in the moral mission to defeat communism, yet he was a more obvious pragmatist than the president. He had run spies behind enemy lines during World War II and had built a business through crafty deals and cold-eyed lawsuits. He was surrounded at Langley by legions of Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik disciples. Casey was an excitable gunrunner and a profoundly devoted Catholic. He saw no conflict; he was bending rules for the greater good.
If anything, Casey’s religiosity seemed to bind him closer to his proselytizing Islamic partners in the Afghan jihad. Many Muslims accounted for Christianity in the architecture of their faith and accepted some of its texts as God’s word. There were Catholic schools in Pakistan, and Zia grudgingly tolerated the country’s Christian minority. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis were less relaxed. Once, while traveling secretly to Saudi Arabia to negotiate with Prince Turki, Casey asked his station chief to find a Catholic Mass for him to attend in Riyadh on Easter Sunday. The chief tried to talk him out of it; formal Christian worship in the kingdom was banned. But Casey insisted, and Prince Turki scrambled to arrange a private service.7 The Saudi ulama rejected religious pluralism, but many in the Saudi royal family, including Prince Turki, respected unbending religious faith even when it was Christian. Casey won the GID’s personal loyalty to the extent that Saudi intelligence, with permission from King Fahd, agreed to secretly fund Casey’s riskiest anticommunist adventures in Central America.
More than any other American, it was Casey who welded the alliance among the CIA, Saudi intelligence, and Zia’s army. As his Muslim allies did, Casey saw the Afghan jihad not merely as statecraft, but as an important front in a worldwide struggle between communist atheism and God’s community of believers.
CASEY’S CLASSMATES were the sons of New York City policemen and firemen. Almost 60 percent were Irish Catholic, and many others were Italian. Casey rode the bus to Fordham University in the Bronx from his family’s modest suburban home in Queens. In the early 1930s, the Depression’s shocking deprivations caused many young Americans in the lower middle classes to be drawn to radicals who preached socialist equity or even communist unity. Not William Joseph Casey. His father was a clerk in the city sanitation department, one of tens of thousands of Irishmen who owed their government jobs to the city’s Democratic patronage machine. But Casey would break early with his family’s liberal political inheritance. Fordham’s Jesuit teachers filled his mind with rigorous, rational arguments that Catholicism was truth. The Jesuits “let him know who he was,” his wife said later. He was no renunciant. At Fordham he guzzled bootleg beer and gin with his friends and bellowed Irish Republican Army songs as he staggered home.8
On July 12, 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of the Coordinator of Information, America’s first independent civilian intelligence agency focused on overseas threats. He named as its first director William Joseph Donovan, a wealthy Irish Catholic corporate lawyer from New York. Donovan had run two private fact-finding missions for Roosevelt in Europe and had urged the president to create a spy service outside of the military or the FBI. A year after its founding Roosevelt renamed the agency the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.
In September 1943, Casey, a Navy lieutenant, junior grade, was a landing craft production coordinator shuffling papers around a stifling Washington office. He had resolved not “to spend this war goosing ship builders,” and he had heard through his office grapevine about the outfit usually referred to as “Oh So Secret.” Casey knew a lawyer who knew Donovan, and he pushed himself forward. He was interviewed, lobbied as best he could, and within weeks was in the presence of Donovan himself, a paunchy, blue-eyed, white-haired teetotaler with red cheeks and an appetite for new ideas. Fearless in battle against rivals and relentless in the task of building his government empire, Donovan had won Roosevelt’s personal loyalty. He had recruited to his fledgling spy service du Ponts, Morgans, Mellons, and what a Washington newspaper columnist called “ex-polo players, millionaires, Russian princes, society gambol boys, and dilettante detectives.” With the war raging in North Africa and the Pacific, the OSS had swelled to fifteen thousand employees. Casey won a job in headquarters. It changed his life and his destiny.9
“I was just a boy from Long Island,” Casey said later. “Never had I been in personal contact with a man of Donovan’s candlepower. He was bigger than life. . . . I watched the way he operated, and after a while, I understood. You didn’t wait six months for a feasibility study to prove that an idea could work. You gambled that it might work.”10
Casey shipped out to London. Nineteen days after D-Day he rode an amphibious truck onto Normandy’s Omaha Beach. The British had forbidden the OSS from running its own spy operations in Europe. They especially regarded running spies on German soil a doomed mission, needlessly wasteful of agent lives. After the Normandy invasion the British relented. In September 1944, Casey wrote Donovan a classified cable titled “An OSS Program Against Germany.” He noted that hundreds of thousands of foreign-born guest workers in Germany—Russians, Poles, Belgians, and Dutch—moved freely in and out of the country with proper papers. Exiles from those countries could be equipped as agents and placed behind Nazi lines under cover as workers. In December, Donovan told Casey, “I’m giving you carte blanche. . . . Get us into Germany.”11
As he recruited and trained agents, Casey reluctantly concluded that he needed to work with communists. They were the ones ardent enough in their beliefs to endure the enormous risks. Donovan had taught Casey that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, Casey said later. In Hitler he was fighting a greater evil, and he would recruit unsavory allies if they were needed.
Casey had parachuted fifty-eight two-man teams into Germany by the end of April 1945. He would see them off at night from unmarked airstrips in Surrey, England. Some died in plane crashes; one team was dropped by error in sight of an SS unit watching an outdoor film; but many others survived and flourished as Germany crumbled. Ultimately Casey judged in a classified assessment that about 60 percent of his missions succeeded. He had sent men to their deaths in a righteous cause. He did not make large claims about his agent penetrations, saying later, “We probably saved some lives.” Their greatest value may have been that “for the first time, we operated under our own steam.” He concluded that the OSS probably could have run agents in Germany successfully a year earlier. The British ban on such operations bothered him for years afterward. Who knew what lives they might have saved?12
After the war Casey earned a fortune in New York by analyzing tax shelters and publishing research newsletters. He dabbled in Republican politics and accepted a tour under President Nixon as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. There he cut secret deals, obfuscated about his investments, and barely escaped Washington with his reputation. As he aged, he hankered again for high office and respectability. He was invited into Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign as its manager and helped pull out a famous 1980 primary victory over George H. W. Bush in New Hampshire. After the triumph over Jimmy Carter, he moved to Washington to join the Cabinet. His first choice was the State Department, but when the offer to run the CIA came through, Casey’s history with Donovan and the OSS made it impossible to resist. He would take on the Soviet empire in many of the same ways he had taken on Germany, and in the same spirit.
Perched on a rise above the Potomac River, CIA headquarters sprawled across a wooded campus behind a chain-link fence laced with barbed wire. But for the satellite dishes and antennae sprouting from every rooftop, the compound would be indistinguishable from the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. The director’s office, which was on the seventh floor of a bland concrete and glass building near the center of the campus, overlooked a bucolic wood. It was a large office but not ornate and had its own private elevator, dining room, and bathroom with shower. Casey moved in and began banging about the place as if he owned it. At 9 A.M. meetings three times a week he exhorted his fourteen top deputies to action.
The CIA “had been permitted to run down and get too thin in top-level people and capabilities,” he wrote Reagan early on. As Casey’s executive assistant Robert Gates put it, telling the new director what he wanted to hear, “The CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture.” Casey wanted more human agents working outside of embassies, using what the agency called “nonofficial cover” as businessmen or academics, and he wanted to draw more heavily on American immigrant communities to find agents who could penetrate foreign societies. He came across as a whirlwind. Gates recalled of their first encounter: “The old man, nearly bald, tall but slightly hunched, yanked open his office door and called out to no one in particular, ‘Two vodka martinis!’ ” There was “panic in the outer office” because the director’s suite had been dry under Stansfield Turner. This was Casey, Gates reflected. “He would demand something be done immediately which the agency no longer had the capability to do. He would fire instructions at the closest person regardless of whether that person had anything to do with the matter at hand. And he would not wait around even for confirmation that anyone heard him.”13
Perhaps that was because he was so difficult to hear. Casey mumbled. In business his secretaries refused to take dictation because they couldn’t understand what he was saying. He had taken a blow to the throat while boxing as a boy and he had a thick palate; between these two impediments the words refused to flow. Ahmed Badeeb, Turki’s chief of staff, called him “the Mumbling Guy.” Attempting to translate during meetings with Crown Prince Fahd, Badeeb could only shrug. Even President Reagan couldn’t understand him. During an early briefing Casey delivered to the national security cabinet, Reagan slipped Vice President Bush a note: “Did you understand a word he said?” Reagan later told William F. Buckley, “My problem with Bill was that I didn’t understand him at meetings. Now, you can ask a person to repeat himself once. You can ask him twice. But you can’t ask him a third time. You start to sound rude. So I’d just nod my head, but I didn’t know what he was actually saying.” Such was the dialogue for six years between the president and his intelligence chief in a nuclear-armed nation running secret wars on four continents. Casey was sensitive about the problem. “I can tell you that mumbling is more in the mind of the listener than in the mouth of the speaker,” he said. “There are people who just don’t want to hear what the Director of Central Intelligence sees in a complex and dangerous world.”14
Casey believed that his mentor, Donovan, had left the CIA to the United States “as a legacy to ensure there will never be another Pearl Harbor.” Since Casey could envision only the Soviets as the authors of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor’s scale, he focused almost entirely on Moscow’s intentions. Spy satellites and signals collection had made it likely that the United States would have advanced warning of a Soviet military strike, Casey conceded; in that sense, Donovan’s goal had been achieved. But Casey thought the CIA had to do much more than just watch the Soviets or try to steal their secrets. “The primary battlefield” in America’s confrontation with Marxism-Leninism, Casey said, “is not on the missile test range or at the arms control negotiating table but in the countryside of the Third World.” The Soviets were pursuing a strategy of “creeping imperialism,” and they had two specific targets: “the isthmus between North and South America” and “the oil fields of the Middle East, which are the lifeline of the Western alliance.” The latter target explained the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Casey believed.15
In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev had laid out Soviet plans to gain ground worldwide by aiding leftists in wars of national liberation, and the next generations of Soviet leaders had reaffirmed his doctrine. Just as European leaders had failed to understand that Hitler meant exactly what he said when he announced in Mein Kampf that he planned to conquer his neighbors, so the United States had placed itself at risk by failing to grasp and respond to the Soviet Union’s announced ambitions. The CIA’s role now, Casey said, was to demonstrate “that two can play the same game. Just as there is a classic formula for communist subversion and takeover, there also is a proven method of overthrowing repressive government that can be applied successfully in the Third World.” It was in Afghanistan that he was beginning to make this “proven method” of anticommunist guerrilla war work. As his classified briefings to Reagan proved, “Far fewer people and weapons are needed to put a government on the defensive than are needed to protect it,” Casey said. He boasted on another occasion: “Afghan freedom fighters have made it as dangerous for a Russian soldier or a Soviet convoy to stray off a main road as it was for the Germans in France in 1944.”16
Casey saw political Islam and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the “realistic counter-strategy” of covert action he was forging at the CIA to thwart Soviet imperialism. Robert Ames, one of the CIA’s leading Middle East analysts, influenced Casey’s thinking about the role of religion in this campaign. Ames told Casey in 1983 about cases such as South Yemen where the Soviets manipulated the education of young people to suppress religious values in order to soften the ground for communist expansion. The Soviets were pursuing their aims in the Islamic world by recruiting “young revolutionaries” who would change their nation’s education systems in order to “uproot and ultimately change the traditional elements of society,” Ames said, as Casey recalled it. “This meant undermining the influence of religion and taking the young away from their parents for education by the state.” Religious education such as Casey himself had enjoyed could counter this Soviet tactic—whether the education was in Islamic or Christian beliefs. Because the Soviets saw all religious faith as an obstacle, they suppressed churches and mosques alike. To fight back, militant Islam and militant Christianity should cooperate in a common cause.17
MUCH OF A CIA DIRECTOR’S travel involved schmoozing with counterparts. Casey’s manners were rough. He was poor at small talk, and as a colleague put it, he always “ate like he was hungry,” sometimes dripping food onto his chest. But he worked his accounts tirelessly. For global tours his black Starlifter transport came outfitted with a windowless VIP compartment secured in the vast cargo bay. Inside were couches, a bed, worktables, and a liquor cabinet. For security he would depart and arrive at night when possible, and he pushed himself on a schedule that would exhaust younger men.
Casey’s Afghanistan-focused trips usually brought him first to Saudi Arabia. He met regularly with Prince Turki, sometimes with Interior Minister Naif, and usually with the crown prince or the king. Saudi ministers often worked at night, when the temperatures in the desert cooled, and by aristocratic habit they kept even important visitors waiting for long stretches in the gilded, overstuffed waiting rooms of their palaces and offices. Casey grumbled and mumbled impatiently. King Khalid once summoned him to see his dairy herd, managed by an Irish family, and then sent him in a jeep to view herds of royal camels. Casey barely tolerated these sorts of tours, and he blanched when the king thrust a glass of warm camel’s milk at him.
Casey knew that the Soviet economy depended on hard currency revenue from oil exports. He urged the Saudis to use their power in the oil markets to moderate prices and deprive the Soviets of any OPEC-generated windfalls. Of course, lower oil prices would aid the American economy, too. The Saudis understood their leverage over both the Soviets and the Americans, and they traded oil favors with a merchant’s cold eye.18
In Pakistan, Casey’s Starlifter touched down in darkness at the Islamabad civil-military airport. Akhtar and the station chief would be on the tarmac to meet him. There were formal liaison meetings at ISI headquarters where the two intelligence teams would review details about shipments to the mujahedin. The ISI generals saw Casey as a forgiving ally, always focused on the big picture, content to let ISI make the detailed decisions on the ground, even when working-level CIA case officers disagreed. Casey explained that Akhtar “is completely involved in this war and certainly knows better than anyone else about his requirements. We simply have to support him.” On one trip Akhtar presented Casey with a $7,000 carpet.19
“Here’s the beauty of the Afghan operation,” Casey told his colleagues. “Usually it looks like the big bad Americans are beating up on the natives. Afghanistan is just the reverse. The Russians are beating up on the little guys. We don’t make it our war. The mujahedin have all the motivation they need. All we have to do is give them help, only more of it.”20
Casey’s visits usually included dinner with Zia at Army House in Rawalpindi, where to Casey’s dismay servants filled the wineglasses with Coke and 7-UP. Casey seemed genuinely surprised by Zia’s politeness and by the general’s easy warmth. They talked about golf and Zia’s short iron game, but it was geopolitics that animated them most.
Casey and Zia both emphasized that Soviet ambitions were spatial. For them, Soviet strategy echoed the colonial era’s scrambles among European powers for natural resources, shipping lanes, and continental footholds. Pakistan’s generals, stepchildren of imperial mapmakers, understood this competition all too well. Separately, Casey and Zia each had developed a presentation for visitors about Soviet expansionism involving red-colored maps. Zia used his to drive home his belief that Moscow had invaded Afghanistan in order to push toward the Middle East’s oil. He displayed a regional map and then pulled out a red triangular celluloid template to illustrate the Soviets’ continuing southwestern thrust toward warm water ports and energy resources. In one meeting he told Casey that the British colonialists had drawn a firm line across northern Afghanistan during the nineteenth century to halt Russian encroachments, and as a result the Russians hadn’t moved south for ninety years. Now the United States had a “moral duty” to enforce a line against the Soviets. Casey had developed a similar briefing about Soviet geopolitical ambitions, only on a global scale. He had ordered the CIA’s Office of Global Issues in the Directorate of Intelligence to draw a map of the world that showed Soviet presence and influence. It was splotched in six different shades to depict the categories of Soviet imperial accomplishment: eight countries totally dominated by the Soviets; six that were Soviet proxies; eighteen that had been significantly influenced by Moscow; twelve that confronted Soviet-backed insurgencies; ten that had signed treaties of friendship and cooperation; and three more that were highly unstable. A second annotated map showed how the Soviets, using the KGB as well as economic and military aid, had increased their influence in country after country between 1970 and 1982.21
A pinktinted country in Casey’s red-splattered world was India, which had signed wide-ranging treaty agreements with Moscow even while it maintained its democratic independence. Casey briefed Zia periodically on Indian military movements. Zia often lectured that India was the region’s true danger. The Americans might be reliable allies against communism, but they had proven fickle about the Indo-Pakistani conflict. Zia told Casey that being an ally of the United States was like living on the banks of an enormous river. “The soil is wonderfully fertile,” he said, “but every four or eight years the river changes course, and you may find yourself alone in a desert.”22
ISI tried to keep CIA officers away from the border camps where Afghan rebels trained, but Casey insisted that he be allowed to visit. In early 1984, the first time he asked, the panicked Pakistanis turned to the Islamabad CIA station for help in dissuading him. Soviet special forces had become active across the Pakistani borders, and ISI feared the Russians might pick up word of Casey’s movements or accidentally encounter him in an ambush. It was hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario for Pakistan’s national security than the prospect, however slim, that the CIA director might be kidnapped by the KGB on Pakistani soil. But Casey refused to be put off. In the end ISI collaborated with the Islamabad station to set up a temporary—essentially fake—mujahedin training camp in the hills that sprawled to the north behind Islamabad, far away from the Afghan border. They loaded Casey in a jeep at night, declined at least initially to tell him where they were going, and bumped in circles along rough roads for about the time that would be required to reach the Afghan frontier. Then they unpacked him from the convoy and showed him a small crew of Afghans training on 14.5-millimeter and 20.7-millimeter antiaircraft guns. The Afghans made a lot of noise, and Casey wept tears of joy at the sight of his freedom fighters.23
Back in Washington that summer he heard more and more complaints from Congress and from ideological conservatives that the CIA’s cautious, hands-off approach to the Afghan war was hurting the rebel cause. Spurred by Charlie Wilson’s romanticized tales and envious of his battlefield souvenirs, more and more congressional delegations toured Pakistan and the frontier. Visiting congressmen heard complaints from Afghan commanders such as Abdul Haq about ISI corruption, ISI control over weapon distribution, and the erratic quality of the weapons themselves. They lobbied Casey for more sophisticated arms and more direct American involvement in the jihad. At Langley, McMahon balked. Case officers in the Near East Division detected the birth of a classic Washington syndrome: When any government program is going well, whether a foreign covert action or a domestic education plan, every bureaucrat and congressman in town wants to horn in on it. Suddenly CIA officers began to hear whispers from the Pentagon that perhaps the mujahedin would be more effective if the U.S. military played a greater role. Casey’s CIA colleagues spit nails over such gambits, but he hardly cared at all. He thought the critics of CIA caution were probably right. On July 28, 1984, Casey told McMahon by memo that with all the new money beginning to wash into the Afghan pipeline and because of the rising complaints, “a thorough review and reevaluation of the Afghan program is in order.”24
Casey appointed a new station chief to succeed Howard Hart in Islamabad. William Piekney rotated to Pakistan that summer from Paris, where he had been deputy. A former officer in the Navy and a veteran of CIA stations in Tunisia and Guinea, Piekney was a smoother, more cerebral spy than Hart. He had none of Hart’s sharp elbows and none of his fascination with antique weaponry. Nor was he a firebrand conservative. He saw McMahon as the victim of right-wing baiting and sympathized with his colleague’s frustrations. Piekney was a balancer, a fine-tuner, a team-builder. He would take visiting congressmen and senators into the Islamabad embassy’s secure “bubble” and deliver an articulate briefing about the war’s hidden course and the punishment being inflicted on the Soviets. As more and more Pentagon visitors began to turn up in Pakistan, rubbing their hands and asking to help, Piekney tried to smother them with kindness while keeping them well away from the CIA’s business. Dealing with the Pentagon was always a tricky equation for the agency. The Pentagon dwarfed the CIA in resources. The CIA’s annual budget was a Pentagon rounding error. It was in the CIA’s interest, Piekney believed, to try to keep the relationship balanced.25
With the Pentagon’s acquiescence, Casey helped arrange an annual feat of budgeting gimmickry that siphoned Defense Department money to pump up the funds available for Afghan covert action. As each fiscal year ended in October, mujahedin sympathizers in Congress, led by Wilson, scrutinized the Pentagon’s massive treasury for money allocated the year before but never spent. Congress would then order some of those leftover sums—tens of millions of dollars—transferred to the Afghan rebels. Charles Cogan, the old-school spy who ran the Near East Division, resisted accepting these new funds, but as Gates recalled, “Wilson just steamrolled Cogan—and the CIA for that matter.”26
The funding surge in October 1984 was so huge that it threatened to change the very nature of the CIA’s covert action in Afghanistan. Congress that month shoveled another enormous injection of leftover Pentagon money to the CIA for use in support of the mujahedin, bringing the total Afghan program budget for 1985 up to $250 million, about as much as all the previous years combined. If Saudi Arabia’s GID matched that allocation, that would mean the CIA could spend $500 million on weapons and supplies for the mujahedin through October 1985, an amount so large in comparison to previous budgets that it was hard to contemplate. In late October, Casey cabled the Saudis and the Pakistanis to say that the United States planned to commit $175 million immediately and place another $75 million in reserve, pending further discussions with them. Under Wilson’s spur, Casey had tripled funding for the Afghan covert war in a matter of weeks.
Casey wanted to stretch the war’s ambitions to a similar degree. “Unless U.S. policy is redesigned to achieve a broader attack on Soviet vulnerabilities it cannot restore independence to Afghanistan,” Casey wrote in a classified memo to McMahon and other senior CIA officers on December 6, 1984. “Continuation of the current U.S. program will allow the Soviets to wear down the Afghan resistance at a cost affordable and tolerable to themselves.” He insisted that the CIA take a close look at the Pentagon’s latest proposals to provide satellite intelligence about Soviet targets in Afghanistan. Casey concluded: “In the long run, merely increasing the cost to the Soviets of an Afghan intrusion, which is basically how we have been justifying the activity when asked, is not likely to fly.”27
Casey was rewriting his own presidential authority. “Restoring independence to Afghanistan” was not a goal spelled out for CIA covert action in the January 1980 presidential finding renewed by President Reagan. Nor was it a possibility deemed plausible by many of Casey’s own Soviet analysts. No longer would the CIA be content to tie the Soviets down, Casey was saying. They were going to drive them out.
He flew back to Pakistan late in 1984. This time he would see true mujahedin training camps on the Afghan frontier—no more artificial training shows. Piekney met his Starlifter on the tarmac. Shortly after dawn one morning they boarded Pakistani military helicopters and flew toward Afghanistan. It was the first time any helicopter had ever landed at an ISI camp. Casey wore a round, flat Afghan cap and a zippered green nylon coat with cloth trim. He looked like an unlikely rebel. Akhtar, his chief escort, wore sunglasses. At the first camp ISI trainers showed Casey scores of mujahedin in the midst of a ten-day guerrilla course. They learned basic assault rifle tactics, how to approach and withdraw, rocket-propelled grenades, and a few mortar systems. American taxpayer dollars were hard at work here, Akhtar assured him. In his speeches to Afghan commanders and trainees, the ISI chief repeatedly emphasized the need to put pressure on the Soviets and the Afghan communists in and around the capital. “Kabul must burn!” Akhtar declared. At the second camp they showed Casey the Chinese mine-clearing equipment that could blast a narrow furrow across a Soviet-laid minefield. ISI brigadiers lobbied Casey for better equipment: The tracks cleared by the Chinese system weren’t wide enough for the mujahedin, and they were taking unnecessary casualties.28
Back at ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi, Casey raised the subject of the most sensitive operation then under way between the two intelligence services: pushing the Afghan jihad into the Soviet Union itself.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the CIA’s covert action staff had produced proposals for secret publishing and propaganda efforts targeting Muslims living in Soviet Central Asia as well as Ukrainians. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was among the most passionate advocates for a covert American program to stir up nationalism in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian border republics. But the State Department balked at the plans. Fomenting rebellion inside the Soviet Union could provoke unpredictable retaliation by Moscow, even including attempts to launch attacks inside the United States. At Langley the idea stirred controversy.29
The CIA had strong contacts dating back decades among exiled nationalists from the Baltics and Ukraine. It knew far less about Soviet Central Asia, the vast and sparsely populated steppe and mountain region to Afghanistan’s immediate north. Pushed by Casey, American scholars and CIA analysts had begun in the early 1980s to examine Soviet Central Asia for signs of restiveness. There were reports that ethnic Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, and Kazakhs chafed under Russian ethnic domination. And there were also reports of rising popular interest in Islam, fueled in part by the smuggling of underground Korans, sermonizing cassette tapes, and Islamic texts by the Muslim Brotherhood and other proselytizing networks. The CIA reported on a May 1984 lecture in Moscow where the speaker told a public audience that Islam represented a serious internal problem. American diplomats operating out of the U.S. embassy in Moscow traveled regularly through Central Asia seeking evidence and fresh contacts, but they were closely shadowed by the KGB and could learn little.30
Drawing on his experiences running dissident Polish exiles as agents behind Nazi lines, Casey decided to revive the CIA’s propaganda proposals targeting Central Asia. The CIA’s specialists proposed to send in books about Central Asian culture and historical Soviet atrocities in the region. The ISI’s generals said they would prefer to ship Korans in the local languages. Langley agreed. The CIA commissioned an Uzbek exile living in Germany to produce translations of the Koran in the Uzbek language. The CIA printed thousands of copies of the Muslim holy book and shipped them to Pakistan for distribution to the mujahedin. The ISI brigadier in charge recalled that the first Uzbek Korans arrived in December 1984, just as Casey’s enthusiasm was waxing. ISI began pushing about five thousand books into northern Afghanistan and onward across the Soviet border by early 1985.31
At the same time, ISI’s Afghan bureau selected small teams among the mujahedin who would be willing to mount violent sabotage attacks inside Soviet Central Asia. KGB-backed agents had killed hundreds of civilians in terrorist bombings inside Pakistan, and ISI wanted revenge. Mohammed Yousaf, the ISI brigadier who was the Afghan operations chief during this period, recalled that it was Casey who first urged these cross-border assaults during a meeting at ISI headquarters late in 1984, on the same visit that the CIA director traveled to the rebel training camps by helicopter.
As Yousaf recalled it, Casey said that there was a large Muslim population across the Amu Darya that could be stirred to action and could “do a lot of damage to the Soviet Union.” The CIA director talked about the propaganda efforts but went further. Casey said, according to Yousaf, “We should take the books and try to raise the local population against them, and you can also think of sending arms and ammunition if possible.” In Yousaf’s recollection, Akhtar voiced agreement about the Koran smuggling efforts but remained silent about the sabotage operations. Robert Gates, Casey’s executive assistant and later CIA director, has confirmed that Afghan rebels “began cross-border operations into the Soviet Union itself” during the spring of 1985. These operations included “raising cain on the Soviet side of the border.” The attacks took place, according to Gates, “with Casey’s encouragement.”32
If Casey spoke the words Yousaf attributed to him, he was almost certainly breaking American law. No one but President Reagan possessed the authority to foment attacks inside the Soviet Union, and only then if the president notified senior members of the congressional intelligence committees. The risks of such operations in the nuclear age were so numerous that they hardly needed listing. Colleagues of Casey’s at the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House later expressed doubt that he had sanctioned cross-border attacks.33 They suggested that Yousaf had probably conflated accurate recollections about Casey’s support for the Koran and propaganda book smuggling with ISI’s independent decision to begin secretly arming Afghan teams to penetrate Soviet Central Asia.
Perhaps. But Gates’s account appears unambiguous, and Yousaf’s recollections are precise. It would hardly have been unusual for Casey to pursue covert action outside the boundaries of presidential authority. ISI was the perfect cutout for operations on Soviet territory, providing the CIA with a layer of deniability. And as Gates reflected later, referring more generally to his sense of mission, Casey had not come to the CIA “with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming it, or improving the quality of intelligence. . . . Bill Casey came to the CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.”34
In any event, the CIA’s analysts and case officers knew what their Pakistani partners were doing across the Soviet border. Yousaf would pass along requests to the Islamabad station for such equipment as silent outboard motors, which he said he needed for river crossings on the Amu Darya. Piekney, the new station chief, lived in fear that one of these Afghan teams would be captured or killed in Soviet territory and that equipment in their possession would be traced to the CIA, creating an international incident on the scale of the 1960 U-2 shootdown.
Fear of such a public relations catastrophe, or worse, persuaded many analysts at Langley and at the State Department that ISI’s guerrilla attacks on Soviet soil were reckless. Morton Abramowitz, then chief of intelligence at the State Department, saw classified reports about the mujahedin crossing over and urged that ISI be told such assaults were unacceptable. Piekney delivered the message in informal meetings with General Akhtar. The CIA station chief insisted that ISI “not authorize or encourage the Afghans to take the battle into Soviet territory,” as Piekney recalled it. “We all understood, however, that the Afghans would exploit opportunities that arose and do pretty much what they wanted to do,” Piekney remembered. Pakistani intelligence “privately felt it would not be a bad thing” if the Afghan rebels hit targets inside Soviet territory from time to time. “Our only real option was to withhold official U.S. endorsement of that kind of activity and discourage it, which we did.” In any event, the less the CIA knew about the details, the better. Nobody could control armed Afghans determined to cross their northern border anyway, the CIA was prepared to argue if the operations became public.35
The north of Afghanistan lay separated from Pakistan by steep mountain ranges, snow-clogged passes, and large Soviet deployments, and was populated by Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, and adherents of Islam’s minority Shia faith. The mujahedin commanders operating along the Soviet border had few connections to ISI’s Pashto-speaking colonels and brigadiers who were handing out the big bags of money and guns in Peshawar. For the Soviets, too, the north of Afghanistan was exceptionally important. The region possessed natural gas resources, vital roads, and ethnic populations whose clans spilled into Soviet republics. As the war went badly, the Soviets considered at times just hunkering down in northern Afghanistan to protect the Soviet Union’s southern rim.
But such a retreat was impractical. By the mid-1980s the Afghan rebels’ most effective military and political leader operated in the northern provinces, right in the Soviet Union’s mountainous backyard. Unlike the mujahedin commanders who would turn up for staged training camp demonstrations, this Afghan leader rarely traveled to Pakistan. He operated almost entirely from his own strategic blueprint. According to CIA reporting, his forces were responsible for some of the first attacks inside the Soviet Union in the spring of 1985. William Piekney wanted to arrange a meeting with him, but it was impossible to manage the logistics. He was too far away to visit.
Ahmed Shah Massoud seemed to prefer it that way.