CIA Led Way With Cash Handouts
At 10:20 p.m. on Oct. 19, the Jawbreaker team marked a landing zone on the Shomali Plain. The first U.S. Special Forces A-team, Team 555, "Triple Nickel," was finally on its way after numerous weather delays. Two MH-53J Pave Low helicopters, the Air Force's largest, missed the target zone and landed far apart from each other. Army Chief Warrant Officer David Diaz and his 12-member A-team hopped out of the copter.
They were the essential eyes-on-target that the American pilots needed to bomb front lines. Each man was responsible for about 300 pounds of gear and supplies, including equipment needed to laser-designate targets.
For the next week, the Special Forces teams used laser target designators to direct U.S. bombing runs. Though the A-team had some initial successes, Gary could see they were getting leftovers -- U.S. bombers who had been assigned to other fixed targets. If these bombers didn't find their target or for some reason did not expend their munitions, they were available to come to the front lines and attack Taliban fighters there. But Gary had witnessed too many occasions when the A-team would spot a convoy of Taliban or al Qaeda trucks -- once, there were 20 trucks -- and would call and call to get a bomber but couldn't get one. The planes were still focused on predesignated fixed targets.
Gary sat down at one of the 10 computers his team had in their dusty quarters and wrote a cable to CIA headquarters. If we don't change the pattern, we're going to lose this thing, he wrote. The Taliban had never been bombed hard. They think they can survive this. The Northern Alliance is ready. They want to go, and they are as ready as they ever will be, but they're losing confidence. They think what they are seeing is all we can do. If we hit these Taliban with sustained bombing for three or four days, the young Taliban are going to break.
Gary sent the cable, which was only two pages long. Tenet decided to take it to the White House the next day.
'That's One Bargain'
Hank went to Afghanistan to assess the front lines with some of the agency's paramilitary teams. The millions of dollars in covert money that the teams were spreading around was working wonders. He calculated that thousands of Taliban members had been bought off. The Northern Alliance was trying to induce defections from the Taliban itself, but the CIA could come in and offer cash. The agency's hand would often be hidden as the negotiations began -- $10,000 for this sub-commander and his dozens of fighters, $50,000 for this bigger commander and his hundreds of fighters.
In one case, $50,000 was offered to a commander to defect. Let me think about it, the commander said. So the Special Forces A-team directed a J-DAM precision bomb right outside the commander's headquarters. The next day, they called the commander back. How about $40,000? He accepted.
The CIA and Special Forces teams were concentrated around Mazar-e Sharif, the city of 200,000 on a dusty plain 35 miles from the Uzbek border. A week earlier, a Special Forces lieutenant colonel had been infiltrated into the area with five other men to coordinate the work of the A-teams. The teams were directing devastating fire from the air at the Taliban's two rings of defensive trenches around the ancient city.
One team had split into four close air support units, spread out over 50 miles of rugged mountain terrain. The absence of fixed targets had freed up the U.S. bombers for directed attacks by the separate units, which were able to use bombs as if they were artillery. The big difference was the precision and the size of the munitions. These were 500-pound bombs. Taliban supply lines and communications had been severed in the carpet bombing. Hundreds of their vehicles and bunkers were destroyed, and thousands of Taliban fighters were killed, captured or had fled.
U.S. Special Forces, working with the Northern Alliance and the CIA, began directing airstrikes to the Taliban's trenches around Mazar-e Sharif. The city fell Nov. 9. (Darko Bandic - AP)
The massive violence the United States could bring was finally being coordinated.
On Nov. 9, Mazar fell. Three days later, the White House learned that Kabul had been abandoned. And on Dec. 7, the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar fell, effectively leaving the Northern Alliance, its Pashtun allies and the United States in charge of the country.
In all, the U.S. commitment to overthrow the Taliban had been about 110 CIA officers and 316 Special Forces personnel, plus massive air power.
Tenet, the CIA director, was extremely proud of what the agency had accomplished. The money it had been able to distribute without traditional cost controls had mobilized the tribals. In some cases, performance standards had been set: Move from point A to point B, and you get several hundred thousand dollars. A stack of money on the table was still the universal language. His paramilitary and case officers in and around Afghanistan had made it possible -- a giant return on years of investment in human intelligence.
The CIA calculated that they had spent only $70 million in direct cash outlays on the ground in Afghanistan, and some of that had been to pay for field hospitals. In an interview, Bush said, "That's one bargain," and he wondered aloud what the Soviets had spent in their disastrous war in Afghanistan that had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mark Malseed contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company