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Ghost Wars: The CIA and Osama bin Laden, 1999-2001

Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope

Afghan Guerrilla, U.S. Shared Enemy

By Steve Coll
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2004; Page A01

Second of two articles.

A team of CIA operators from the agency's Counterterrorist Center flew to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in October 1999. Code-named JAWBREAKER-5, the group was led by the chief of the center's Osama bin Laden unit, known to his colleagues as Rich, a veteran of CIA postings in Algiers and elsewhere in the developing world.

They went to a secluded airfield, boarded an old Soviet-made Mi-17 transport helicopter, and swooped toward the jagged, snow-draped peaks of northern Afghanistan.

Massoud, at far right in foreground, inspects artillery with others in the Northern Alliance in 1988. The group sought to oust the ruling Taliban. (File Photo)

_____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).
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
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Their aim was to revive secret intelligence and combat operations against bin Laden in partnership with guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, a ragged coalition of Afghan fighters, many of them veterans of the war against the Soviets. Massoud's hardened militiamen clung to their positions in the stark Panjshir Valley.

"We have a common enemy," the CIA team leader told Massoud, according to participants, referring to bin Laden. "Let's work together."

Massoud remained Afghanistan's most formidable military commander. A sinewy man with penetrating dark eyes, he had become a charismatic, popular leader, especially in northeastern Afghanistan. There he had fought and negotiated with equal imagination during the 1980s, punishing and frustrating Soviet occupation forces. He was an impressive tactician, an attentive student of Mao and other guerrilla leaders.

He was above all an independent man. He surrounded himself with books. He prayed piously, read Persian poetry and studied Islamic theology. During the mid-1990s his militia forces had at times engaged in horrendous massacres, however. American and British drug enforcement officials continued to accuse his men of opium and heroin smuggling.

By 1999, Massoud was seen by some at the Pentagon and inside the Clinton Cabinet as a spent force commanding bands of thugs. An inner circle of the Cabinet with access to the most closely guarded secrets was sharply divided over whether the United States should deepen its partnership with him. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Henry H. "Hugh" Shelton -- reflecting the views of professional analysts in their departments -- argued that Massoud's alliance was tainted and in decline.

But at the CIA, especially inside the Counterterrorist Center, career officers passionately described Massoud by 1999 as the United States' last, best hope to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan before his al Qaeda network claimed more American lives. Massoud might be a flawed ally, they declared, but bin Laden was by far the greater danger.

This article, detailing the CIA's pursuit of bin Laden from 1999 to 2001, is based on several dozen interviews with participants and officials in the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as documents, private records and memoirs about the CIA covert action program in Afghanistan.

A Deal Is Made

Frightened by swelling intelligence reports warning that al Qaeda planned new terrorist strikes, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, and his counterterrorism director, Richard Clarke, approved the JAWBREAKER-5 mission. They were uneasy about Massoud but said they were ready to try anything within reason that might lead to bin Laden's capture or death.

Massoud was at war across northern Afghanistan against the Taliban, whose puritan mullahs had allied themselves with bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters in a drive to control all Afghan territory and destroy Massoud's coalition. Massoud's men often maneuvered in battle against bin Laden's brigade of Arab volunteers, as well as al Qaeda-sponsored Pakistani volunteers and Chechen fighters. Ultimately, Cofer Black, then director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, hoped Massoud would capture bin Laden during one of these engagements and either kill him or hand him over for trial.

In dimly lit Panjshir Valley safe houses in October 1999, Massoud told the JAWBREAKER-5 team that he was willing to deepen his partnership with the CIA, but he was explicit about his limitations. Bin Laden spent most of his time near the southern city of Kandahar, in the eastern Afghan mountains, far from where Massoud's forces operated. Occasionally bin Laden visited Jalalabad or Kabul, closer to the Northern Alliance's lines. In these areas Massoud's intelligence service had active agents, and perhaps they could develop more sources.

Massoud also told the CIA delegation that U.S. policy toward bin Laden and Afghanistan was doomed to fail. The Americans directed all of their efforts against bin Laden and a handful of his senior aides, but they failed to see the larger context in which al Qaeda thrived. What about the Taliban? What about the Taliban's supporters in Pakistani intelligence? What about its financiers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?

"Even if we succeed in what you are asking for," Massoud told the CIA delegation, his aide and interpreter Abdullah recalled, "that will not solve the bigger problem that is growing."

The CIA officers told Massoud they agreed with his critique, but they had their orders. The U.S. government rejected a military confrontation with the Taliban or direct support for any armed factions in the broader Afghan war. Instead, U.S. policy focused on capturing bin Laden and his lieutenants for criminal trial or killing them in the course of an arrest attempt. If Massoud helped with this narrow mission, the CIA officers argued, perhaps it would lead to wider political support or development aid in the future.

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