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A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan

At the same time, Executive Order 12333 banned assassination by the CIA or its agents. CIA officers met with their TRODPINT agents in Pakistan to emphasize that their plan to capture bin Laden and hold him in the Afghan cave could not turn into an assassination. "I want to reinforce this with you," one officer told the Afghans, as he later described the meeting in cables to Langley and Washington. "You are to capture him alive."

Physical and Political Risks

As they refined their kidnapping plans in the spring of 1998, the bin Laden unit at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center looked with rising interest at Tarnak Farm. This was a compound of perhaps 100 acres that lay isolated on a stretch of desert about three miles from the Kandahar airport. On some nights, bin Laden slept at Tarnak with one of his wives. He chatted on his satellite phone in this period and lived fairly openly, protected by bodyguards. The question arose: Could the CIA's tribal agents be equipped to raid bin Laden's house and take him from his bed?


Afghan fighters signed up by the CIA to find Mir Aimal Kasi, center, executed in 2002 for killing two CIA employees, were later used to track Osama bin Laden. (1997 Photo Susan Walsh -- AP)

_____Ghost Wars_____
Steve Coll This report was adapted from "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," The Penguin Press (New York: 2004), by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, who discussed the book online. (Read the discussion transcript).
_____Video_____
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
_____More From The Post_____
Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2004)
Legal Disputes Over Hunt Paralyzed Clinton's Aides (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2004)
_____Graphics_____
Bin Laden's Tarnak Farm
The CIA in the Panjshir
_____Background_____
Where the CIA Wages Its New World War (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 1998)
Killings Boost Retaliation Fears (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1997)
Kasi Guilty In Slayings Outside CIA (The Washington Post, Nov 11, 1997)
Saudi Sought in Bombings Moves to Afghan Militia Capital (The Washington Post, Apr 11, 1997)
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Tarnak's main compound was encircled by a mud-brick wall about 10 feet high. Inside were about 80 modest one-story and two-story structures. Flat plains of sand and sagebrush extended for miles. Kandahar's crowded bazaars lay a half-hour drive away.

CIA officers based in Islamabad spent long hours with the TRODPINT team's leaders to devise a plan to attack Tarnak in the middle of the night. The Afghans had scouted and mapped Tarnak up close; the CIA had photographed it from satellites.

The agents organized an attack party of about 30 fighters. They identified a staging point where they would assemble all of their vehicles. They would drive to a secondary rallying point a few miles from Tarnak.

The main raiding party would walk across the desert at about 2 a.m. They had scouted a path that avoided minefields and had deep gullies to mask their approach. They would breach the outer wall by crawling through a drainage ditch on the airport side.

A second group planned to roll quietly toward the front gate in two vehicles. They would carry silenced pistols to take out two guards at the entrance. Meanwhile the other attackers would have burst into the several small huts where bin Laden's wives slept. When they found the tall, bearded Saudi, they would cuff him, drag him toward the gate, and load him into a Land Cruiser. Other vehicles back at the rally point would approach in sequence and they would all drive together to the provisioned cave about 30 miles away.

Satellite photography and reports from the ground indicated that there were dozens of women and children living at Tarnak. Langley asked for detailed explanations from members of the tribal team about how they planned to minimize harm to bystanders during their assault.

The CIA officers involved thought their agents were serious, semiprofessional fighters who were trying to cooperate as best they could. Yet "if you understood the Afghan mind-set and the context," recalled an officer involved, it was clear that in any raid the Afghans would probably fire indiscriminately at some point.

In Washington, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator, drove out to Langley late in the spring of 1998 to meet with his CIA counterpart, O'Connell, who briefed him on the details of the Tarnak attack plan and how much it would cost. O'Connell also outlined the political risks, including the potential problem of civilian casualties.

Members of the White House counterterrorism team reacted skeptically. Their sense was that the TRODPINT agents were old anti-Soviet mujaheddin who had long since passed their peak fighting years and were probably milking the CIA for money while minimizing the risks they took on the ground. If they did go through with a Tarnak raid, some White House officials feared, women and children would die and bin Laden would probably escape. Such a massacre would undermine U.S. interests in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

The CIA's top leaders reviewed the proposed raid in June 1998. The discussion revealed similar doubts among senior officers in the Directorate of Operations. In the end, as CIA Director George J. Tenet described it to colleagues years later, the CIA's relevant chain of command -- Jack Downing, then chief of the Directorate of Operations, his deputy James Pavitt, O'Connell and Pillar -- all recommended against going forward with the Tarnak raid.

By then there was no enthusiasm for the plan in the Clinton White House, either. "Am I missing something? Aren't these people going to be mowed down on their way to the wall?" Clarke asked his White House and CIA colleagues sarcastically, one official recalled.

Tenet never formally presented the raid plan for Clinton's approval, according to several officials involved.

The decision was cabled to Islamabad. The tribal team's plans should be set aside, perhaps to be revived later. Meanwhile, the agents were encouraged to continue to look for opportunities to catch bin Laden away from Tarnak, where, among other things, an ambush attempt would carry relatively little risk of civilian deaths.


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