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Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope

"What was irritating was that in this whole tragedy, in this whole chaotic situation," recalled one of Massoud's intelligence aides who worked closely with the CIA during this period, "they were talking about this very small piece of it: bin Laden. And if you were on our side, it would have been very difficult for you to accept that this was the problem. For us it was an element of the problem but not the problem."

Still, Massoud and his aides agreed they had nothing to lose by helping the CIA. "First of all, it was an effort against a common enemy," recalled Abdullah. "Second, we had the hope that it would get the U.S. to know better about the situation in 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).
_____Video_____
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
_____More From The Post_____
A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 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_____
Legacy of Slain Afghan Rebel Fuels Rival Agendas (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2003)
For an Austere Afghan Hero, Remembrance Fit for a King (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2002)
Bombing Injures Afghan Guerrilla Leader (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2001)
Terrorism Suspected in Navy Ship Attack (The Washington Post, Oct 13, 2000)
_____News From Afghanistan_____
L.A. Times Wins Pulitzer for Public Service (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Poet Laureate's Prized Words (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Persian New Year Celebrations Unite Afghans (The Washington Post, Apr 4, 2005)
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Cautioned by History

Massoud had a long and checkered history with the CIA. Among those with the proper security clearances, the accusations and stories of perfidy had become legend.

The CIA first sent Massoud aid in 1984. But their relations were undermined by the CIA's heavy dependence on Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. The Pakistani intelligence service despised Massoud because he had waged a long and brutal campaign against Pakistan's main Islamic radical client, the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. As the war against the Soviets ended, Pakistani intelligence sought to exclude Massoud from the victory, and the CIA mainly went along. But under pressure from the State Department and members of Congress, the agency eventually reopened its private channels to Massoud.

In 1990 the CIA's secret relationship with Massoud soured because of a dispute over a $500,000 payment. Gary Schroen, a CIA officer then working from Islamabad, Pakistan, had delivered the cash to Massoud's brother in exchange for assurances that Massoud would attack Afghan communist forces along a key artery, the Salang Highway. But Massoud's forces never moved, so far as the CIA could tell. Schroen and other officers believed they had been ripped off for half a million dollars.

Schroen, who has now agreed to be publicly identified, renewed contact with Massoud during a solo visit to Kabul in September 1996. By then bin Laden had found sanctuary in Afghanistan, and the CIA sought allies to watch and disrupt al Qaeda. Schroen and Massoud settled their old dispute. (Massoud claimed he had never received the $500,000.) The guerrilla leader agreed to cooperate on a secret CIA program to repurchase Stinger antiaircraft missiles. He sold the agency eight missiles he still possessed and began to talk sporadically with Langley about intelligence operations against bin Laden.

Schroen met Massoud again in the spring of 1997 at his new headquarters in Taloqan, in Afghanistan's far north. By then, the Taliban had stormed into Kabul and seized the capital as Massoud withdrew. Looking to win American favor for his prolonged war against the Taliban and its foreign Islamic militant allies, Massoud began to buy up Stingers across the north for the CIA. He also agreed to notify the agency if he got a line on bin Laden's whereabouts.

A series of clandestine CIA teams carrying electronic intercept equipment and relatively small amounts of cash -- up to $250,000 per visit -- began to visit Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. The first formal group, code-named NALT-1, flew on one of Massoud's helicopters from Dushanbe to the Panjshir Valley late in 1997.

Three other teams had gone in by the summer of 1999. The electronic intercept equipment they delivered allowed Massoud to monitor Taliban battlefield radio transmissions. In exchange the CIA officers asked Massoud to let them know immediately if his men ever heard accounts on the Taliban radios indicating that bin Laden or his top lieutenants were on the move in a particular sector.

Given the doubts about Massoud inside the Clinton administration, the CIA's push to deepen its partnership with him faced close scrutiny at the White House. The National Security Council's intelligence policy and legal offices drafted formal, binding guidance.

Massoud was at war with the Taliban. The United States had declared a policy of official neutrality toward that war as a co-sponsor of all-party peace talks, which dragged on inconclusively. Clinton enacted economic sanctions against the Taliban but was unwilling to fund or arm Massoud. The White House sought to ensure that the CIA's counterterrorism mission in the Panjshir Valley concentrated only on bin Laden. The administration did not want the CIA to use its intelligence-collection and counterterrorism partnership with Massoud for a secret, undeclared war against the Taliban.

Clinton told his top national security aides that he was prepared to work with Massoud on intelligence operations, despite what he saw as a record of brutality, but he was not ready to arm the Northern Alliance, participants recalled. The Pentagon and the intelligence community both provided secret analysis to Clinton arguing that Massoud had all the weapons he needed from other suppliers, the president recounted later to colleagues. In any event, Clinton recalled, Massoud would never be able to defeat the Taliban or govern Afghanistan from Kabul.

At the White House, some national security aides briefed on the CIA's missions feared that, as with the Salang Highway operation in 1990, Massoud would just take the CIA's cash and sit on his hands.

In the end, the National Security Council approved written guidance to authorize intelligence cooperation with Massoud. But the highly classified documents made clear that the CIA could provide no equipment or assistance that would, as several officials recalled its thrust, "fundamentally alter the Afghan battlefield."

Afghans Seize the Moment

A few months after the JAWBREAKER-5 team choppered out, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center picked up intelligence that bin Laden had arrived in Derunta Camp, in a jagged valley near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

It was a typical bin Laden facility: crude, mainly dirt and rocks, with a few modest buildings protected by ridges. Massoud's sources reported that no Afghans were permitted in Derunta, only Arabs. Testimony from al Qaeda defectors and interrogation of Arab jihadists showed that Derunta was a graduate school for elite recruits. The Defense Intelligence Agency had relayed reports that bin Laden's aides might be developing chemical weapons or poisons there. The White House's Counterterrorism Security Group, led by Richard Clarke, routed satellites above the camps for surveillance.


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