Inshallah, You Will Know My Plans”

MILTON BEARDEN REPLACED William Piekney as CIA station chief in Islamabad in July 1986. A large-boned, heavyset, boyish-faced, slang-slinging Texan who aspired to novel writing and seemed to conduct himself as if his life were a Hollywood casting call, Bearden had drawn close to Casey a few years earlier when he was station chief in Khartoum, Sudan. There he had smuggled besieged Israeli intelligence officers out of the country in crates labeled as diplomatic mail, just the sort of dashing operation Casey loved. When Casey traveled in Africa in his blackened Starlifter, Bearden was his escort to late-night meetings with murderous intelligence chiefs. They were both romantics who reveled in the spy’s life. The CIA director needed someone who could manage the massive escalation he had helped set in motion in Afghanistan. He called Bearden into his seventh-floor office at Langley and told him the new policy: “I want you to go out there and win.”1

Bearden understood that Casey “had a giant vision” of global struggle against the Soviet Union through covert action and that “Afghanistan was a little part of it.” Yet Casey made clear that he saw this last push along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as an urgent moral mission. As Bearden saw it, Casey believed that sacrificing Afghan lives without pursuing total victory over the communists was a strategy for “small minds.” Casey was “the best and worst director” the CIA had ever known, Bearden thought.

Inside the Directorate of Operations, Bearden was a popular figure—“Uncle Milty,” an indulgent boss, an operator’s operator, full of humor and bluster. He landed in hot, shapeless Islamabad charged by Casey’s ambition. The station on the embassy’s rebuilt third floor was still modest in size compared to the amount of money and paperwork it now handled. Bearden tore through the antiseptic office suites like a bull rider. “He carried a swagger stick, and he was on a high,” a colleague remembered. He talked to everyone—including the stiff peacock, General Akhtar, the Pakistani intelligence chief—as if they were his personal guests at a Texas keg party. He buttonholed Soviet diplomats at polite receptions and quoted Shakespeare as Afghan policy: “Speak not of the manner of your leaving but leave at once.” At regional conferences for CIA chiefs of station, Bearden would brag, “All of you guys out there, you try to recruit Soviets. Me, I just kill them.” If he got angry at Pakistani intelligence over some problem in the weapons pipeline, he would refuse to take General Akhtar’s calls for a week, just to let him stew. Still, he became a favorite of some Pakistani officers. When his family was snowed in on vacation, the Pakistani air force flew in a C-130 to get them out. Bearden cultivated an impression that the conspiracy-minded Pakistani elite were inclined toward anyway: that the CIA was the real power in the American government. Inside the walled U.S. embassy compound, Bearden’s colleagues noted the small touches: The diplomatic license plate on his official car ended with “01,” the number usually reserved for the ambassador.2

Bearden tried to tame the huge flow of material and money coming to Pakistan. Along the northern border between Pakistan and China, Bearden helped arrange the truck transport of hundreds of mules being sold to the CIA by the Chinese communists for use in smuggling guns that would be fired against Soviet communists. Because there weren’t enough mules, Bearden ordered animals by ship from as far away as Texas and Djibouti. When a freighter from Djibouti went missing on the high seas, Bearden papered the world for several weeks with urgent classified cables headlined “SHIP OF MULES.”3

The Islamabad station had warned in a broad July assessment cable that the pace of mujahedin attacks appeared to be slowing under the relentless helicopter assaults mounted by Soviet special forces, especially along the Pakistani border.4 Langley analysts and Pakistani generals shared a fear in the summer of 1986 that the new Soviet assault tactics might be tipping the war’s balance against the CIA-backed rebels. On September 26, 1986, about two months after Bearden’s arrival, the balance began to tip back. Crouching in scrub rocks on a barren plain near the Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan, just two hours’ drive from Peshawar, a commander named Engineer Ghaffar (“the forgiver”) and two bearded colleagues lifted onto their shoulders the first of a new type of antiaircraft weapon supplied to the rebels by the CIA. Powered by batteries and guided by the most effective portable heat-seeking system yet invented, the Stinger weapon was an American-made marvel of modern frontline arsenals. Its infrared tracking system made it impervious to countermeasures normally taken by Soviet pilots.

A military engineer trained in the Soviet Union, Ghaffar had been selected by Pakistani intelligence to attempt the first Stinger mission, and he had trained in secret in an ISI compound near Rawalpindi. Eight Soviet army Mi-24D helicopter gunships approached the Jalalabad runway. Ghaffar sighted his missile, pushed its black rubber “uncage” button on the grip stock, and pulled the trigger. His first shot pinged, misfired, and rattled in the rocks a few hundred yards away, but another flashed across the plain and smashed into a helicopter, destroying it in a fireball. More missiles flew in rapid succession, and two other helicopters fell, killing their Russian crews.

Akhtar called Bearden as soon as he received the radio report. The station chief sent a cable to Langley describing the strikes but warned there was no confirmation. A day later the Islamabad embassy’s communications vault rattled with a startling reply: By sheer coincidence a U.S. KH-11 spy satellite had been passing overhead, taking routine pictures of the Afghan battlefield. The satellite had transmitted a clear photo of the Jalalabad airport showing three charred balls of steel scrap, formerly helicopters, lying side by side across an active runway. The incoming cable from Langley was triumphant:


The CIA had learned years before that Ronald Reagan was not much of a reader. Dense, detailed briefings about global affairs rarely reached his desk. But Reagan loved movies. Casey encouraged his colleagues to distill important intelligence so the president could watch it on a movie screen. Before Reagan met visiting heads of state, he would sometimes screen a short CIA-produced classified bio movie about his visitor. Thinking partly of its most important customer, the CIA had equipped Engineer Ghaffar’s team with a Sony video camera to record the Stinger’s debut.

“Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!” the shooters cried as they fired the Afghan war’s first Stingers. By the time Ghaffar had hit the third helicopter, the videotape looked “like some kid at a football game,” as Bearden later described it. “Everybody is jumping up and down—all you’re getting is people jumping up and down—and seeing the earth kind of go back and forth.” The tape’s last sequence showed Ghaffar’s crew unloading Kalashnikov rounds into the crumpled corpses of the Soviet crew as they lay sprawled on the Jalalabad tarmac. Within weeks the highly classified video had been ferried from Islamabad. President Reagan screened it at the White House. As the tape and the KH-11 satellite pictures were passed around the Old Executive Office Building and shared with a few members of Congress, a triumphal buzz of excitement spread in Washington.

The decision to supply Stingers had been made against the CIA’s initial advice. Not long after National Security Decision Directive 166 took force, members of the interagency group on Afghanistan had begun to push for the missiles, arguing that they could repulse the Spetsnaz’s helicopter assault tactics. Introducing a made-in-the-U.S.A. weapon on the Afghan battlefield would hand the Soviets a propaganda victory, the CIA’s Near East Division feared. But Morton Abramowitz, the State Department’s intelligence director, backed the idea. After a long and emotional debate, the CIA capitulated. Even then, months of secret negotiations were required with the Chinese and with Pakistani president Zia before all were satisfied that the risks of Soviet retaliation were worth bearing.5

Soon after Ghaffar’s video trailer was screened at the White House, dozens of mujahedin commanders in eastern Afghanistan began to launch Stingers at Soviet helicopters and lumbering transport planes, with devastating results. Apprehensive Russian and Afghan crews ascended as often as possible above the Stinger’s effective ceiling of about 12,500 feet, severely diminishing their ability to carry out low-flying attack raids. Soviet forces stopped evacuating the wounded by helicopter, demoralizing frontline officers. Within months Bearden had cabled Langley to declare that Stingers had become the war’s “most significant battlefield development.”6

If diverted from Afghanistan, a Stinger could easily be used as a terrorist weapon against passenger aircraft, the agency warned. Their spread in Afghanistan added urgency to the CIA’s need for agents to monitor rebel commanders and Pakistani intelligence. What if Hekmatyar sold Stingers to terrorist groups? What if the missiles were stolen? How would the CIA even know? The agency needed more of its own reporting sources.

Even by its own rich standards, the jihad was now swimming in money. Congress secretly allocated about $470 million in U.S. funding for Afghan covert action in fiscal year 1986, and then upped that to about $630 million in fiscal 1987, not counting the matching funds from Saudi Arabia. With support from headquarters, Bearden expanded the CIA’s unilateral recruitment of independent Afghan agents and commanders without the involvement of Pakistani intelligence. The money needed for such a payroll amounted to crumbs in comparison to the new budgets. The recruited commanders were asked to help the CIA keep track of weapons handouts, Pakistani corruption, and battlefield developments. The payroll had several tiers. A regional commander might draw an agency retainer of $20,000 or $25,000 a month in cash. A somewhat more influential leader might draw $50,000 a month. A commander with influence over one or more provinces might receive $100,000 monthly, sometimes more. An effective commander used these retainers not solely to enrich himself but to hold together clan or volunteer militias that required salaries, travel expenses, and support for families that often lived in squalid refugee camps.

Abdul Haq remained on the CIA’s unilateral payroll. The CIA also continued to deliver payments and supplies directly to Ahmed Shah Massoud. (Unilateral CIA assistance had first been delivered to Massoud in 1984.) The CIA later sent in secure communications sets, allowing Massoud to interact with dispersed commanders and allies in Peshawar without fear of Soviet interception.

Bearden’s Islamabad station expressed skepticism about Massoud. Some people involved thought it might be in part because of the testosterone-fed jockeying between the CIA and the British: Massoud was a British favorite, therefore the CIA didn’t like him much.7 Then, too, there was a residue of distrust dating to the truce deals that Massoud had cut with Soviet forces in 1983. Bearden told colleagues that he respected Massoud’s track record as a fighter but saw Massoud already positioning himself to take power in postwar Kabul, hoarding supplies and limiting operations. “Ahmed, I know what you’re doing, and I don’t blame you, but don’t do it on my nickel” was the thrust of Bearden’s message. A CIA officer at Langley told a French counterpart, referring to the agency’s support for Hekmatyar, “Gulbuddin is not as bad as you fear, and Massoud is not as good as you hope.”8

The CIA’s network of Afghan unilaterals swelled to about four dozen paid commanders and agents. That was a large number of running contacts to keep hidden for long from Pakistani intelligence, given that CIA case officers had to meet regularly with their clients. ISI routinely surveilled known CIA case officers even in the midst of a nominally friendly liaison. Practicing standard tradecraft, the Islamabad station organized its Afghan network so that no one CIA officer, not even Bearden, knew the real names of every agent in the system. Commanders on retainer were given cryptonyms for cabling purposes. Massoud was too well known to be hidden behind code names, but even so, knowledge of that liaison within the U.S. embassy was limited very tightly.

Because of the large sums of dollars now arriving, the Islamabad station tried to streamline its cash distributions to minimize the number of times when American officers had to travel on Pakistani roads carrying fortunes worthy of robbery and murder. The agency began to use electronic transfers for its subsidies to Pakistani intelligence, routing money through the Pakistan Ministry of Finance. To deliver cash to commanders, the CIA also began to use the hawala system, an informal banking network in the Middle East and South Asia that permits an individual to send money to a small trading stall in, say, Karachi, for instant delivery to a named recipient hundreds or thousands of miles away. Especially after the Iran-Contra scandal erupted in Washington late in 1986, the Islamabad station took great pains to document every transfer. Given the amounts now involved, it was as easy to misplace $3 million or $4 million as it was to leave your keys on your desk.9

Most of the reporting that began to flow from the unilateral agents focused on the impact of Stingers, weapons deliveries, and propaganda campaigns. But for the first time came complaints from some Afghan fighters to the CIA about a rising force in their jihad: Arab volunteers. Thousands of them were arriving in Afghanistan.

Afghan commanders would send out notes to the Islamabad station, sometimes with pictures showing a truckload of Arab jihad fighters driving through their territory. The Afghans called them “Wahhabis” because of their adherence to rigid Saudi Islamic doctrine banning adornment and the worship of shrines. Early on, some Afghan fighters clashed with Arab jihadists over the issue of decorated graves. Most Afghan mujahedin buried their dead in rough dirt and stone graves marked by green flags and modest adornments, following Sufi-influenced traditions. Echoing the methods of the Saudi Ikhwan near Jedda more than half a century earlier, the Wahhabis swept through and tore down these markers, proclaiming that they encouraged the worship of false idols. In at least a few cases the Afghans attacked and killed these Arab graveyard raiders. Bearden recalled the thrust of the very early reports arriving from Afghan commanders in the field: “They say we are dumb, and we do not know the Koran, and they are more trouble than they are ever going to be worth.”10

OSAMA BIN LADEN moved his household (he had married and fathered his first children) from Saudi Arabia to Peshawar around the same time that Milton Bearden arrived in Islamabad as CIA station chief. He rented a two-story compound in a quiet, relatively prosperous, pine-tree-cooled section of the city called University Town, where charities, Western aid groups, diplomats, Arab preachers, and wealthy Afghan exiles all lived as uneasy neighbors in walled-off villas.11

From his regular visits, his work with Ahmed Badeeb and Saudi intelligence, his patronage of Arab charities, and his importation of bulldozers and other construction equipment, bin Laden was already a well-known figure among Muslim Brotherhood–connected Afghan rebels. He was closest to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. His acquaintances in Peshawar viewed bin Laden as a young, sweet-tempered, soft-mannered, and above all fabulously wealthy patron of worthy jihad causes. He was a rising young sheikh, not much of an orator but a smiling visitor to the hospitals and orphanages, and, increasingly, an important discussion group member in Peshawar’s radical Arab circles.

Bin Laden rode horses for pleasure, sometimes in the eastern tribal frontier, but for the most part his was a tea-pouring, meeting-oriented life in damp concrete houses where cushion-ringed reception rooms would fill with visiting Kuwaiti merchants and Syrian professors of Islamic law. Days would drift by in loose debates, fatwa (religious edict) drafting, humanitarian project development—a shifting mix of engineering, philanthropy, and theology.

“He speaks like a university professor,” remembered an Arab journalist who met with bin Laden frequently in Peshawar. “‘We will do this, we will do that,’ like he is at the head of the table of the political committee.” His quiet style was unusual: “He is not your typical Arabic popular speaker.”

Peshawar by late 1986 was a city of makeshift warehouses and charities swelling and bursting from the money, food, trucks, mules, and medicine being shipped to the Afghan frontier in quantities double and triple those of six months before. The humanitarian aspects of the jihad were expanding as rapidly as the military campaign. In part this was a result of National Security Decision Directive 166, but in addition United Nations agencies, European charities such as Oxfam, proselytizing Christian missionaries, and government relief agencies such as U.S. AID had all come swarming into Peshawar after 1985 to build hospitals, schools, feeding stations, clinics, and cross-border ambulance services, much of it paid for by the American government. These projects operated on an unprecedented scale: One University of Nebraska–run school program worked at 1,300 sites inside Afghanistan. In one dusty University Town compound, profane, hard-traveled U.N. food specialists might be tossing sacks of seed onto blue-flagged trucks while neighboring American Baptist missionaries sat on wooden benches reading to Afghan children in English from the New Testament, while over the next wall bearded young volunteers from the Persian Gulf bent toward Mecca in chanted prayer.

Operating in self-imposed isolation, major Saudi Arabian charities and such organizations as the Saudi Red Crescent, the World Muslim League, the Kuwaiti Red Crescent, and the International Islamic Relief Organization set up their own offices in Peshawar. Funded in ever-rising amounts by Saudi intelligence and annual zakat contributions from mosques and wealthy individuals, they, too, built hospitals, clinics, schools, feeding stations, and battlefield medic services. European charities such as Médicins sans Frontières recruited volunteer surgeons from Brussels and Paris for short rotations to treat mujahedin victims in Peshawar, and the Islamic charities begin to recruit doctors from Cairo, Amman, Tunis, and Algiers for volunteer tours. Since the Muslim Brotherhood had a strong presence in the Arab professional classes—especially among Egyptian doctors and lawyers—the recruitment network for humanitarian volunteer work became intertwined with the political-religious networks that raised money and guns for the Islamist Afghan leaders such as Hekmatyar and Sayyaf.

Typical of the Brotherhood-recruited volunteers was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a young doctor, scion of a wealthy Egyptian family long active in the Islamist movement. Al-Zawahiri had been imprisoned in Cairo during the early 1980s for activity on the edges of the plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat. After his release he found his way via the Brotherhood’s Islamic Medical Society to Peshawar, volunteering as a doctor at the Kuwaiti-funded Al Hilal Hospital on the Afghan frontier. “I saw this as an opportunity to get to know one of the arenas of jihad that might be a tributary and a base for jihad in Egypt and the Arab region,” al-Zawahiri recalled. An Arab snob of sorts, he saw Egypt as “the heart of the Islamic world, where the basic battle of Islam was being fought.” But to prevail back home, “a jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator, where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics and organizational matters.” Peshawar seemed to him such a place. Al-Zawahiri settled there in 1986.12

Abdullah Azzam was by far the best known Arab Islamist in Peshawar at the time bin Laden and al-Zawahiri took up residence. He helped run a council of Peshawar’s Arab and Islamic charities. Born in a village near the West Bank city of Jenin, Azzam earned a doctorate in Islamic law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo during the 1970s. He became close to the Egyptian exile Mohammed Qutb and began to preach and adapt the radical jihadist doctrines of Qutb’s deceased brother. After teaching in Jedda during the late 1970s, he transferred as a lecturer to the new Islamic University in Islamabad, down the hill from Quaid-I-Azam’s campus. In 1984 he moved down the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar.

The title of the new humanitarian organization Azzam founded that year, the Office of Services, signaled his own thinking about the Afghan jihad: He wanted mainly to aid the Afghans. He traveled the Persian Gulf and lectured at Friday prayers in wealthy mosques from Jedda to Kuwait City, and as the charitable funds flowed, he used them to provide medical and relief services as well as military support.

Bin Laden, his former pupil in Jedda, became an important source of money and then an operations partner beginning in 1984. Together they recruited other volunteers from across the Arab world. Azzam announced that bin Laden would pay the expenses—about $300 per month—of any Arab who wanted to fight on Afghanistan’s battlefields. In 1986 they opened their first office in the United States amid the large Arab community in Tucson, Arizona.13

Overall, the U.S. government looked favorably on the Arab recruitment drives. An international brigade of volunteers—modeled on the international socialist volunteers who had joined the Spanish civil war against Franco during the 1930s—would provide a way to broaden the formal coalition of nations involved in the anti-Soviet jihad, this argument went. As more and more Arabs arrived in Pakistan during 1985 and 1986, “the CIA examined ways to increase their participation,” then-deputy CIA director Robert Gates recalled. An Afghan specialist in the State Department’s intelligence bureau argued that “we should try and coordinate with them.” The idea was “not to see them as the enemy.” But the proposals never moved beyond the talking stage. At the Islamabad station Milt Bearden felt that bin Laden himself “actually did some very good things,” as Bearden recalled it. “He put a lot of money in a lot of the right places in Afghanistan.” Bin Laden was not regarded as “someone who was anti-American.” The CIA did receive negative reports about the Arab volunteers from its Afghan agent network and from Western and Christian aid organizations. Their complaints coursed through the CIA and State Department cabling system, but the issue was only an occasional subject for reporting and analysis. No policy or action plan was ever developed.14

Abdullah Azzam preached stridently against the United States. He would soon help found Hamas. Prince Turki al-Faisal and Saudi intelligence became important supporters. Azzam circulated in a world apart from the official Americans in Pakistan. Even relatively neutral European aid workers living in Peshawar had only sporadic contact with him.

By the summer of 1986 small signs of a split between bin Laden and Azzam had become visible to those involved in the closed circles of the Arab jihadists. Azzam was such a commanding figure, and bin Laden such a relatively minor pupil (however copious his wealth), that there was no question of an open challenge from the protégé, especially in a culture where seniority and scholarship were so respected. Yet bin Laden seemed to be heading in a new direction. The change arose partly from his swelling ego and partly from the political debates now developing in University Town’s Arab parlors:Who was the true enemy of the jihad? The communists? The Americans? Israel? The impious government of Egypt? What was the relationship between the Afghan war and the global goals of the Muslim Brotherhood?15

Saudi and Pakistani intelligence had begun to collaborate on expensive road building and depot building projects along the Afghan frontier, hoping to create physical infrastructure that could withstand the Soviet Spetsnaz assaults. ISI created a sizable cell within its Afghan bureau devoted solely to humanitarian and building projects. When Soviets first attacked supply routes on the Pakistan border in 1984, Afghan rebels often fled. Their retreats disrupted supply flows to commanders inside Afghanistan—just as the Soviets intended. The new border infrastructure—roads, caves, warehouses, and military training camps—was designed to be defended against Soviet attacks. This would allow ISI to create forward supply dumps and more mechanized transport to push weapons into Afghanistan.

Prince Turki and his chief of staff, Ahmed Badeeb, flew to Pakistan as the projects got under way, traveling on the General Intelligence Department’s Gulfstream jets. At ISI headquarters they were feted with elaborate meals and briefed on the war’s developments with charts and maps drawn with the help of American satellites. In the evenings the Saudi embassy would usually host a reception in Turki’s honor, inviting Arab diplomats, local Islamic scholars, and sometimes Osama bin Laden. Turki traveled occasionally to the Afghan border to inspect the new depots and roads. Badeeb stayed for longer periods at the safehouses he had established in Peshawar through the official Saudi charities.

Bin Laden’s imported bulldozers were used for these civil-military projects between 1984 and 1986. Two regions received the most attention: a border area called Parrot’s Beak, almost directly west of Peshawar where a cone of Pakistani territory protruded into Afghanistan, and an area farther south, near Miram Shah, a mountainous region across the border from the Afghan town of Khost. Bin Laden worked mainly in the latter area.

“It was largely Arab money that saved the system,” the Pakistani intelligence brigadier Mohammed Yousaf recalled. The extra sums were spent on transport as well as border infrastructure, largely in support of the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Afghan parties and commanders. Jallaladin Haqqanni attracted and organized the Arab volunteers. He fought in a border region populated by cantankerous, socially conservative Pashtun tribes, a place “steeped in cussedness,” as an American who traveled there put it. An unshaven, thin man who draped himself in bandoliers of assault rifle ammunition, Haqqanni emerged in the late 1980s as the ISI’s main anticommunist battering ram around Khost. Celebrated as a kind of noble savage by slack-bellied preachers in Saudi Arabia’s wealthy urban mosques, Haqqanni became a militant folk hero to Wahhabi activists. He operated fund-raising offices in the Persian Gulf and hosted young Arab jihad volunteers in his tribal territory. In part because of Haqqanni’s patronage, the border regions nearest Pakistan became increasingly the province of interlocking networks of Pakistani intelligence officers, Arab volunteers, and Wahhabi madrassas.

Abdullah Azzam thought some of the cave building and road construction was a waste of money. Bin Laden wanted to spend great sums on a hospital clinic in a remote Afghan border village in Paktia province called Jaji. The crude clinic would be built in a defensible cave, in the same region where bin Laden had been helping to build roads. “Abdullah felt there were twenty-nine or thirty provinces in Afghanistan—why spend so much on one elaborate place right on the border, practically in Pakistan?” recalled one Arab volunteer involved.

But bin Laden’s ambitions were widening: He wanted the Jaji complex so that he could have his own camp for Arab volunteers, a camp where he would be a leader. He opened his first training facility in 1986, modeled on those just over the barren hills run by Pakistani intelligence. Young Arab jihadists would learn how to use assault rifles, explosives, and detonators, and they would listen to lectures about why they had been called to fight. Bin Laden called his first training camp “the Lion’s Den,” by some accounts, “al Ansar” (a name of the earliest followers of the Prophet Mohammed) by others. And despite Abdullah Azzam’s questions, he declared that he was going ahead with his other projects at Jaji.

Inshallah [if it is God’s will], you will know my plans,” bin Laden told his mentor.16

THE ANTI-SOVIET AFGHAN JIHAD was coming to an end, but hardly anyone knew it or understood why. Not bin Laden. Not the CIA.

On November 13, 1986, behind the Kremlin’s ramparts, the Soviet Politburo’s inner circle met in secret at the behest of Mikhail Gorbachev, the opaque, windy, and ambitious reformer who had taken power twenty months before.

Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet armed forces chief of staff, explained that the Fortieth Army had so far deployed fifty thousand Soviet soldiers to seal the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, “but they are unable to close all channels through which arms are being smuggled.” The pack mules kept coming. Blacktopped roads were now being constructed. There was no sign of a realistic military solution.

“People ask: ‘What are we doing there?’ ” Gorbachev observed. “Will we be there endlessly? Or should we end this war?”

If the Soviet Union did not get out of Afghanistan, “we’ll disgrace ourselves in all our relations,” Gorbachev answered himself. In the presence of the Politburo’s inner circle and his closest advisers on reform, he had been thinking aloud about the Afghan problem since he first took office. He publicly referred to the war as a “bleeding wound” early in 1986. As the Fortieth Army failed to make progress on the ground, Gorbachev became bolder about an alternative: leaving Afghanistan altogether. By November the issue seemed to be mainly one of timing. “The strategic goal is to finish the war in one, maximum two years, and withdraw the troops,” Gorbachev told his colleagues that day. “We have set a clear goal: Help speed up the process so we have a friendly neutral country, and get out of there.”17

It was one of the most significant Politburo discussions of the late Cold War, but the CIA knew nothing about it. The Americans would not learn of Gorbachev’s decision for another year. Analysts at the agency and elsewhere in the American intelligence community understood some of the intense pressures then facing Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership. The Soviet Union’s economy was failing. Its technological achievements lagged badly behind the computerized West. Its people yearned for a more normal, open politics. Some analysts captured some of these pressures in their classified reporting, but on the whole the CIA’s analysts understated the Soviet Union’s internal problems. Policy makers in Reagan’s Cabinet were also slow to grasp the determination of Gorbachev and his reformers to implement meaningful changes. Afghanistan was one litmus test for both sides.

During the earlier debates in Washington about the Afghan jihad, the National Security Council had obtained sensitive intelligence about discussions within the Politburo on Afghanistan. According to this reporting, which was classified at the highest possible level, known then as VEIL, Gorbachev had decided when he first took power in the spring of 1985 that he would give the Soviet Union’s hard-line generals one or two years to win the war outright. This assessment seemed to justify an American escalation in reply. But as it turned out, the VEIL intelligence was just an isolated, even misleading fragment. It may have been accurate when it first surfaced, but by the autumn of 1986 the Politburo policy it described had been overtaken by Gorbachev’s gathering plans to leave Afghanistan.18

The CIA’s analysts understood the pressures buffeting Soviet society better than they understood decision-making at the top. The agency would not learn what was really happening inside the Politburo until after the Soviet Union had dissolved. “Our day-to-day reporting was accurate but limited by our lack of inside information on politics at the top level,” Robert Gates, one of the CIA’s leading Soviet analysts, would concede years later. “We monitored specific events but too often did not draw back to get a broader perspective.”19

This included the basic insight that the Soviet Union was so decayed as to be near collapse. Some of the agency’s analysts were relentlessly skeptical of Gorbachev’s sincerity as a reformer, as were Reagan, his vice president, George Bush, Casey, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and other key presidential advisers. All evidence that Soviet power might be weakening seemed to be systematically discounted in Washington and at Langley even as the data mounted in plain view. The CIA’s Soviet analysts continued to write reports suggesting that Moscow was a monolithic power advancing from strength to strength, and during Casey’s reign there seemed little penalty for tacking too far to the ideological right. CIA analysis had been at least partially politicized by Casey, in the view of some career officers. Besides, in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, especially in the Soviet/East Europe Division, all the analysts’ working lives, all their programs, budgets, and plans for the future were premised on the existence of a powerful and enduring communist enemy in Moscow. The Reagan administration was bound by a belief in Soviet power and skepticism about Gorbachev’s reforms.

At the same time that Gorbachev was deciding secretly to initiate a withdrawal of his battered forces from Afghanistan, the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence circulated a report that the Afghan war “has not been a substantial drain on the Soviet economy” and that Moscow “shows continued willingness to incur whatever burden is necessary.” At the CIA station in Islamabad “it still looked as though the war might just go on indefinitely or that the Soviets might even be on the verge of winning it.”20

Gorbachev summoned his Afghan client, President Najibullah, to Moscow on a Friday in early December 1986. A medical student at Kabul University in the same years that Hekmatyar studied engineering there, Najibullah was a more plausible Afghan nationalist than some of the KGB’s previous selections. He was a Ghilzai Pashtun with roots in eastern Afghanistan, and his wife hailed from tribal families with royal connections. Najibullah exuded confidence and spoke effectively. His main liability as a national leader was that the great majority of his countrymen considered him a mass murderer.

Gorbachev privately told Najibullah to try to strengthen his political position in Afghanistan in anticipation of a total withdrawal of Soviet forces within eighteen months to two years.21

As he tried to initiate quiet diplomatic talks to create ground for a withdrawal, Gorbachev seemed genuinely stunned to discover that the Americans didn’t seem to want to negotiate about Afghanistan or the future of Central Asia at all. They remained devoted to their militaristic jihad, and they did not appear to take the possibility of a Soviet withdrawal at all seriously. At times it made Gorbachev furious. “The U.S. has set for itself the goal of disrupting a settlement in Afghanistan by any means,” he told his inner circle.What were his options? Gorbachev wanted to end Soviet involvement. He doubted the Afghans could handle the war on their own, but in any settlement he wanted to preserve Soviet power and prestige. “A million of our soldiers went through Afghanistan,” he observed. “And we will not be able to explain to our people why we did not complete it. We suffered such heavy losses! And what for?”22

ON DECEMBER 15, 1986, the Monday following Gorbachev’s secret meeting with Najibullah, Bill Casey arrived at CIA headquarters to prepare for the upcoming Senate testimony about the Iran-Contra scandal. Just after ten o’clock, as the CIA physician took his blood pressure in his office, Casey’s right arm and leg began to jerk violently. The doctor held him in his chair.

“What’s happening to me?” Casey asked helplessly.

“I’m not sure,” the doctor said. An ambulance rushed him to Georgetown Hospital. The seizures continued. A CAT scan showed a mass on the left side of the brain.

Casey never recovered. His deputy Robert Gates visited him in his hospital room a month later. “Time for me to get out of the way,” the CIA director said. The next morning Gates returned with Attorney General Edwin Meese and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, a silver-haired former Wall Street executive.

Casey had tears in his eyes and could barely speak. Regan tried to ask him about the future of the CIA. “All I got was more ‘argh, argh, argh,’ ” Regan recalled. Casey’s wife, Sophia, interpreted: “Bill, what you mean is ‘Get the best man you can,’ right?”

Regan jumped in. “Bill, what you’re saying is you want us to replace you, right?” Casey made more noises. “That’s very generous and probably in everybody’s best interest,” Regan said. Then Casey’s tears flowed again. “I gripped his hand. It was done,” Regan recalled. “But there had been no real communication.”23

Casey had served as CIA director for six years and one day. Four months later, at his estate on Long Island, he died at age seventy-four.

AS THE YEAR TURNED, Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf, the ISI Afghan operations chief who had been one of Casey’s most enthusiastic admirers, planned for new cross-border attacks inside Soviet territory—missions that Yousaf said he had heard Casey endorse.

In April 1987 as the snows melted, three ISI-equipped teams secretly crossed the Amu Darya into Soviet Central Asia. The first team launched a rocket strike against an airfield near Termez in Uzbekistan. The second, a band of about twenty rebels equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and antitank mines, had been instructed by ISI to set up violent ambushes along a border road. They destroyed several Soviet vehicles. A third team hit a factory site more than ten miles inside the Soviet Union with a barrage of about thirty 107-millimeter high-explosive and incendiary rockets. The attacks took place at a time when the CIA was circulating satellite photographs in Washington showing riots on the streets of Alma-Ata, a Soviet Central Asian capital.24

A few days later Bearden’s secure phone rang in the Islamabad station. Clair George, then chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, was on the line, and his voice was formal, measured.

“I want you to think very carefully before you answer the question I am about to ask,” he said. “Were you in any way involved in an attack on an industrial site deep inside the Soviet Union . . . in Uzbekistan . . . anytime in the last month?”

“If anything like that is going on, we’re not involved here,” Bearden said, equally careful.

He knew that American law prohibited his involvement in such operations; they went far beyond the scope of the CIA’s authority. Iran-Contra and its related inquiries were now in full tilt. The agency was under political fire as it had not been since the 1970s. There were lawyers crawling all over the Directorate of Operations. Bearden and Clair, confronting similar dilemmas in the past, had long taken the view that once the CIA supplied weapons to Pakistani intelligence, it lost all title of ownership and therefore all legal responsibility for the weapons’ use. “We stand by our position that once the stuff is delivered to the Paks, we lose all control over it,” Bearden said.

The Soviets were fed up with the attacks on their own soil. As they counted their dead in Central Asia that April, they dispatched messengers with stark warnings to Islamabad and Washington. They threatened “the security and integrity of Pakistan,” a euphemism for an invasion. The Americans assured Moscow that they had never sanctioned any military attacks by the mujahedin on Soviet soil. From army headquarters in Islamabad, Zia sent word to Yousaf that he had to pull back his teams. Yousaf pointed out that this might be difficult because none of his Afghan commandos had radios. But his superiors in ISI called every day to badger him: Stop the attacks.

Bearden called Yousaf for good measure. “Please don’t start a third world war,” he told him.25

The attacks ended. They were Casey’s last hurrah.

THAT SAME MONTH, freed from the winter snows, Soviet forces in Afghanistan moved east again, attacking the mountain passes near Khost. On April 17, 1987, Soviet helicopters and bomber jets hit Osama bin Laden’s new fortified compound at Jaji, an assemblage of small crevices and caves dug into rocky hills above the border village.

The battle lasted for about a week. Bin Laden and fifty Arab volunteers faced two hundred Russian troops, including elite Spetsnaz. The Arab volunteers took casualties but held out under intense fire for several days. More than a dozen of bin Laden’s comrades were killed, and bin Laden himself apparently suffered a foot wound. He also reportedly required insulin injections and had to lie down periodically during the fighting. Eventually he and the other survivors concluded that they could not defend their position any longer, and they withdrew.26

Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists who observed the fighting from a mile or two away, the battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden’s public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists. When Winston Churchill recounted an 1897 battle he fought with the British army not far from the Khyber Pass, he remarked that there was no more thrilling sensation than being shot at and missed. Bin Laden apparently had a similar experience. After Jaji he began a media campaign designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches around Peshawar and back home in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as a military leader. He also began to expound on expansive new goals for the jihad.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who saw the Afghan war merely as “an incubator” and who wrote about the Afghan people with barely disguised condescension, apparently met bin Laden for the first time during this 1987 media campaign. Bin Laden visited the Kuwaiti hospital where he worked, al-Zawahiri recalled, “and talked to us about those lectures of his.” Bin Laden had spoken openly about the need for a global jihad against not only the Soviet Union but the corrupt secular governments of the Middle East, the United States, and Israel. Al-Zawahiri listened and recalled telling bin Laden, “As of now, you should change the way in which you are guarded. You should alter your entire security system because your head is now wanted by the Americans and the Jews, not only by the communists and the Russians, because you are hitting the snake on the head.”27

Bin Laden commissioned a fifty-minute video that showed him riding horses, talking to Arab volunteers, broadcasting on the radio, firing weapons—the same things many commanders without video cameras did routinely. He sought out Arab journalists and gave lengthy interviews designed “to use the media for attracting more Arabs, recruiting more Arabs to come to Afghanistan,” as one of the journalists recalled. It was the birth of bin Laden’s media strategy, aimed primarily at the Arabic-speaking world; in part he drew on some of the media tactics pioneered by secular Palestinian terrorists and nationalists during the 1970s and early 1980s.

In private, Abdullah Azzam resented bin Laden’s campaign. “You see what Osama is doing—he is collecting and training young people,” a colleague then in Peshawar quoted Azzam as saying. “This is not our policy, our plan. We came to serve these people, that’s why it’s called the Office of Services. . . . He is collecting and organizing young people who don’t like to participate with the Afghan people.” Bin Laden, this participant recalled, “was just sitting in Peshawar and issuing fatwas against this leader and that government, playing politics.”28

Bin Laden had been initiated in combat. In the months afterward he showed little interest in returning to the battlefield, but he had stumbled on a communications strategy far more expansive than his weeklong stand at Jaji.

CASEY’S DEATH foreshadowed changes in the CIA-Pakistani partnership. Under pressure from the United States, Zia had begun to relax martial law in Pakistan. He installed a civilian prime minister who quickly challenged the army’s Afghan policies. After years as Zia’s intelligence chief, Akhtar wanted a promotion, and Zia rewarded him with a ceremonial but prestigious title. Zia named as the new ISI chief a smooth chameleon who spoke English fluently, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul. Denied his own promotion to major general, Mohammed Yousaf retired as chief of operations for ISI’s covert Afghan bureau that same spring. His successor, Brigadier Janjua, inherited an operation that had never been more richly funded but whose direction was beginning to drift.

The personal connections that had bound the CIA and ISI together during the jihad’s early years were now broken. Back in Washington, the CIA was on the political defensive. Casey’s postmortem reputation was plummeting under the weight of Iran-Contra indictments. Everything he had touched now appeared tainted. More Pentagon officers, more members of Congress, more think tank scholars, more journalists, and more diplomats became involved with the Afghan war. A jihad supply line that had been invented and managed for several years by four or five men had become by 1987 an operation with hundreds of participants.

For the first time pointed questions were being raised in Washington about the emphasis given by Pakistani intelligence and the CIA to Afghan leaders with radical Islamic outlooks. The questions came at first mainly from scholars, journalists, and skeptical members of Congress. They did not ask about the Arab jihadist volunteers—hardly anyone outside of Langley and the State Department’s regional and intelligence bureaus were aware of them. Instead, they challenged the reliability of Hekmatyar. He had received several hundred million dollars in aid from American taxpayers, yet he had refused to travel to New York to shake hands with the infidel Ronald Reagan. Why was the CIA supporting him? The questioners were egged on by Hekmatyar’s rivals in the resistance, such as those from the Afghan royalist factions and the champions of Massoud’s cause.

At closed Capitol Hill hearings and in interagency discussions, officers from the CIA’s Near East Division responded by adopting a defensive crouch. They adamantly defended ISI’s support of Hekmatyar because he fielded the most effective anti-Soviet fighters. They derided the relatively pro-American Afghan royalists and their ilk as milquetoast politicians who couldn’t find the business end of an assault rifle. They also rejected the charge that ISI was allocating “disproportionate” resources to Hekmatyar. Under congressional pressure, a series of heated and murky classified audits ensued, with congressional staff flying into Islamabad to examine the books kept by the CIA station and ISI to determine which Afghan commanders got which weapons.

Bearden and the Afghan task force chief at the CIA, Frank Anderson, resented all this criticism; they felt they had devoted long and tedious hours to ensuring that Hekmatyar received only between a fifth and a quarter of the total supplies filtered through ISI warehouses. Massoud’s Peshawar-based leader, the former professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, received just as much from the official pipeline as Hekmatyar, although he passed relatively little of it through to the Panjshir Valley. It was true that Afghan royalist parties received relatively little, but the CIA officers insisted that this was not because the Pakistanis were trying to manipulate Afghan politics by backing the Islamists but, rather, because the royalists were weak fighters prone to corruption.

The CIA’s statistical defenses were accurate as far as they went, but among other things they did not account for the massive weight of private Saudi and Arab funding that tilted the field toward the Islamists—up to $25 million a month by Bearden’s own estimate. Nor did they account for the intimate tactical and strategic partnerships between Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan Islamists, especially along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.29 By the late 1980s ISI had effectively eliminated all the secular, leftist, and royalist political parties that had first formed when Afghan refugees fled communist rule. Still, Bearden defended ISI’s strategy adamantly before every visiting congressional delegation, during briefings in the embassy bubble, and over touristic lunches in the mountains above Peshawar. The mission was to kill Soviets, Bearden kept repeating. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar killed Soviets. The king of Afghanistan, twirling pasta on his spoon outside Rome, had not killed a single one. The CIA was not going to have its jihad run “by some liberal arts jerkoff.”30

Pakistani attitudes were in flux as well. The ISI’s Afghan bureau had become one of the richest and most powerful units in the entire Pakistan army, and it, too, jealously guarded its prerogatives. Janjua, the new operations chief, was an ardent Islamist, much more religious than the typical Pakistani army officer, his CIA colleagues believed. In Peshawar the local Afghan bureau office was run by a formidable Pathan officer who took the nom de guerre Colonel Imam. He was very close personally to Hekmatyar, and over the years he began to make plain his Muslim Brotherhood views in private conversations with CIA counterparts. On ISI’s front lines the Afghan cause was increasingly a matter of true belief by the Pakistani officers involved, an inflated mission that blended statecraft and religious fervor.31

Implementing Zia’s vision, Pakistani intelligence was determined to install a friendly regime in Kabul and, by doing so, create breathing space on Pakistan’s historically unstable western frontier. Islamism was their ideology—a personal creed, at least in some cases—and Hekmatyar was their primary client. Beyond Afghanistan, ISI’s colonels and brigadiers envisioned Pakistani influence pushing north and west toward Soviet Central Asia. Key Pathan officers such as Imam simply did not rotate out of the Afghan bureau. They stayed and stayed. They could not get away with raking off millions in cash and stuffing it in Swiss bank accounts—the ISI and CIA controls were generally too tight for that sort of thing. Still, if an officer was inclined, there was plenty of opportunity to sell off one of the new CIA-imported Toyota trucks or take a small cash commission for facilitating local smugglers and heroin manufacturers. There was no remotely comparable revenue stream to tap if that same ISI major or colonel rotated to Karachi or worse, to some artillery unit facing India in the forsaken desert area of Rajasthan.

Among those now raising noisy doubts about Pakistani intelligence was the Afghan commander Abdul Haq, who had become a popular figure with American journalists covering the war from Peshawar. Since Haq had lost one foot to a land mine on a mission near Kabul, his travel inside was more limited than before. He collaborated with a CBS cameraman to film rocket attacks around Kabul, escorted journalists over the border, and flew off to Washington to lobby for support. He was the most credible, accessible commander to denounce ISI manipulation of Afghan politics. The questions he raised were pointed: Why should the last phase of the Afghan jihad be designed to serve Pakistani interests? A million Afghan lives had been lost; hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, businessmen, and tribal leaders had been forced into exile. Why was ISI determined to prevent the country’s national leaders from beginning to construct a postwar Afghan political system that belonged to Afghans? Bearden grew furious because Haq seemed focused on public relations. The CIA station chief denounced him privately and cut him out of the CIA’s unilateral network. At Langley, Frank Anderson saw Haq as “a pretty good commander who was also particularly effective at P.R.” and who did not have “as many scalps” as less publicized CIA favorites, such as Jallaladin Haqqanni, the ardent Islamist close to bin Laden. Bearden felt that Abdul Haq was spending “much, much more time in Peshawar, possibly dealing with the media, than he was inside Afghanistan. I think he heard that I had, unfortunately, begun to call him ‘Hollywood Haq,’ and this got to him, and he became very, very angry with me.”

Bearden met three times with Hekmatyar in Peshawar. Hekmatyar’s English was excellent. In private meetings he was often ingratiating. As the debate about his anti-Americanism became more visible, he began to fear that the CIA might want to kill him.

“Why would I want to kill you?” Bearden asked him.

Hekmatyar answered: “The United States can no longer feel safe with me alive.”

“I think the engineer flatters himself,” Bearden said.32

SOVIET FOREIGN MINISTER Eduard Shevardnadze briefed the inner Politburo group in May about Najibullah’s early efforts to pursue a new policy of “national reconciliation” that might outflank the CIA-backed rebels. The program was producing “a certain result, but very modest.”

They were all frustrated with Afghanistan. How could you have a policy of national reconciliation without a nation? There was no sense of homeland in Afghanistan, they complained, nothing like the feeling they had for Russia.

“This needs to be remembered: There can be no Afghanistan without Islam,” Gorbachev said. “There’s nothing to replace it with now. But if the name of the party is kept, then the word ‘Islamic’ needs to be included in it. Afghanistan needs to be returned to a condition which is natural for it. The mujahedin need to be more aggressively invited into power at the grassroots.”

The Americans were a large obstacle, they agreed. Surely they would align themselves with a Soviet decision to withdraw—if they knew it was serious. And the superpowers would have certain goals in common: a desire for stability in the Central Asian region and a desire to contain Islamic fundamentalism.

“We have not approached the United States of America in a real way,” Gorbachev said. “They need to be associated with the political solution, to be invited. This is the correct policy. There’s an opportunity here.”33

In Washington the following September, Shevardnadze used the personal trust that had developed between him and Secretary of State George Shultz to disclose for the first time the decision taken in the Politburo the previous autumn. Their staffs were in a working session on regional disputes when Shevardnadze called Shultz aside privately. The Georgian opened with a quiet directness, Shultz recalled. “We will leave Afghanistan,” Shevardnadze said. “It may be in five months or a year, but it is not a question of it happening in the remote future.” He chose his words so that Shultz would understand their gravity. “I say with all responsibility that a political decision to leave has been made.”34

Shultz was so struck by the significance of the news that it half-panicked him. He feared that if he told the right-wingers in Reagan’s Cabinet what Shevardnadze had said, and endorsed the disclosure as sincere, he would be accused of going soft on Moscow. He kept the conversation to himself for weeks.

Shevardnadze had asked for American cooperation in limiting the spread of “Islamic fundamentalism.” Shultz was sympathetic, but no high-level Reagan administration officials ever gave much thought to the issue. They never considered pressing Pakistani intelligence to begin shifting support away from the Muslim Brotherhood–connected factions and toward more friendly Afghan leadership, whether for the Soviets’ sake or America’s. The CIA and others in Washington discounted warnings from Soviet leadership about Islamic radicalism. The warnings were just a way to deflect attention from Soviet failings, American hard-liners decided.35

Yet even in private the Soviets worried about Islamic radicalism encroaching on their southern rim, and they knew that once they withdrew from Afghanistan, their own border would mark the next frontier for the more ambitious jihadists. Still, their public denunciations of Hekmatyar and other Islamists remained wooden, awkward, hyperbolic, and easy to dismiss.

Gorbachev was moving faster now than the CIA could fully absorb.

On December 4, 1987, in a fancy Washington, D.C., bistro called Maison Blanche, Robert Gates, now the acting CIA director, sat down for dinner with his KGB counterpart, Vladimir Kryuchkov, chief of the Soviet spy agency. It was an unprecedented session. They talked about the entire gamut of U.S.-Soviet relations. Kryuchkov was running a productive agent inside the CIA at the time, Aldrich Ames, which may have contributed to a certain smugness perceived by Gates.

On Afghanistan, Kryuchkov assured Gates that the Soviet Union now wanted to get out but needed CIA cooperation to find a political solution. He and other Soviet leaders were fearful about the rise to power in Afghanistan of another fundamentalist Islamic government, a Sunni complement to Shiite Iran. “You seem fully occupied in trying to deal with just one fundamentalist Islamic state,” Kryuchkov told Gates.36

Gorbachev hoped that in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal he could persuade the CIA to cut off aid to its Afghan rebels. Reagan told him in a summit meeting five days later that this was impossible. The next day Gorbachev tried his luck with Vice President George Bush. “If we were to begin to withdraw troops while American aid continued, then this would lead to a bloody war in the country,” Gorbachev pleaded.

Bush consoled him: “We are not in favor of installing an exclusively pro-American regime in Afghanistan. This is not U.S. policy.”37

There was no American policy on Afghan politics at the time, only the de facto promotion of Pakistani goals as carried out by Pakistani intelligence. The CIA forecasted repeatedly during this period that postwar Afghanistan was going to be an awful mess; nobody could prevent that. Let the Pakistanis sort out the regional politics. This was their neighborhood.

Gates joined Shultz, Michael Armacost, Morton Abramowitz, and Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead for a lighthearted luncheon on New Year’s Eve. They joked their way through a serious debate about whether Shevard-nadze meant what he said when he had told Shultz in September that they were getting out. At the table only Gates—reflecting the views of many of his colleagues at the CIA—argued that it would not happen, that no Soviet withdrawal was likely, that Moscow was engaged in a political deception.

The CIA director bet Armacost $25 that the Soviets would not be out of Afghanistan before the end of the Reagan administration. A few months later he paid Armacost the money.38

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