CIA Led Way With Cash Handouts
What Works -- and What Doesn't
Gary dispatched several of his men to the Takar region, the front between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban forces. They went north, a good 60 miles to the east of Kunduz. They found the Northern Alliance forces disciplined, their clothing and weapons clean. But the rifles' safeties were on, a signal that this was not a hot combat zone. The troops lined up in formations and conducted drills. There was a command structure. But there were not enough troops or heavy weapons to move against the Taliban, who were dug in on the other side.
Gary knew that CIA headquarters believed that the Taliban would be a tenacious enemy in a fight and that any U.S. strike would bring out its sympathizers in Afghanistan and in the region, especially Pakistan. They would rally around Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader.
Gary saw it differently. He believed that massive, heavy bombing of the Taliban front lines -- "really good stuff," as he called it -- would cause the Taliban to break and change the picture. On Oct. 1, he sent a secret appraisal to headquarters. "In this case," he wrote, "a Taliban collapse could be rapid, with the enemy shrinking to a small number of hard-core Mullah Omar supporters in the early days or weeks of a military campaign." The report was received with vocal skepticism at the Directorate of Operations, as the old hands and experts openly disparaged the appraisal. But CIA Director George J. Tenet took the cable to President Bush.
"I want more of this," said the president.
On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Gary went in search of an airfield to bring supplies into Northern Alliance territory. The team found one airfield in an area called Golbahar that had been used by the British in 1919. He asked Arif, the Alliance's intelligence chief, to grade out an area and turn it into an airstrip, and he handed out another $200,000. He bought three Jeeps for $19,000 and forked over an additional $22,000 for a tanker truck and helicopter fuel. Arif promised they would buy the truck in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and drive it over the mountains to the CIA team, but it never arrived.
That day, the CIA's counterterrorism special operations chief, Hank, whose last name is being withheld, met in Tampa with Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, who would be in charge of the war. Using maps of Afghanistan, Hank laid out how CIA paramilitary teams working with the various opposition forces could get them moving. The opposition forces, chiefly the Northern Alliance, would do most of the ground fighting. If the United States repeated the mistakes of the Soviets by invading with a large land force, they would be doomed.
Franks's Special Forces teams would be used to pinpoint targets that could be hit hard in U.S. bombing runs. On-the-ground human intelligence designating targets would allow extraordinarily specific and exact information for the precision bombs.
Hank, under instructions from Tenet, made clear that the paramilitary teams would be working for Franks, and in that spirit and somewhat contrary to recent practice, the CIA would give Franks and his Special Forces commanders the identities of all CIA assets in Afghanistan, their capabilities, their locations and the CIA's assessment of them. The military and the CIA were to work as partners.
Franks basically agreed with the plan. He disclosed that the bombing campaign was scheduled to begin any time from Oct. 6 on -- three days away.
Once the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar fell on Dec. 7, Afghanistan was mostly controlled by the United States, the Northern Alliance and their allies. Victory had been swift. (Jerome Delay - AP)
Money talked in Afghanistan, Hank said, and they had millions in covert action money. On one level, the CIA could supply money to buy food, blankets, cold-weather gear and medicine that could be airdropped. Warlords or sub-commanders with dozens or hundreds of fighters could be bought off for as little as $50,000 in cash, Hank said. If we do this right, we can buy off a lot more of the Taliban than we have to kill. Good, the general said.
Through the middle of October, Jawbreaker was still the only American on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan. They were trying to find bombing targets.
"Just hit the front lines for me," Fahim told Gary. Bomb the Taliban and al Qaeda on the other side. "I can take Kabul, I can take Kunduz if you break the line for me. My guys are ready." Fahim was short and stocky, looked like a thug, and appeared to have had his nose broken about three times. His forces were decked out in new uniforms, supposedly waiting for the carpet bombing to begin so they could attack.
Gary visited Fahim's general who was in charge on the Shomali Plain, the area just north of Kabul where Alliance and Taliban troops were dug in. The general was even more bullish, saying the Alliance could take Kabul in a day if the front lines were broken with U.S. bombing. The bombing around the country wasn't accomplishing anything, the general said. His men were intercepting some Taliban radio communications showing that the Taliban were unimpressed. The general was disappointed. He pointed at the Taliban lines: Look, that is where the enemy is. Blowing up some depot in Kandahar wasn't doing anything for them.
Gary concluded that the bombing might be making the chain of command back in Washington feel good, but it wasn't working.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company