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Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope

The CIA recruited Afghan agents who traveled or lived in the region, an area of heavy smuggling and trade and relatively weak Taliban control. Through their liaison in the Panjshir, CIA officers pushed intelligence-collection equipment to Massoud's southern lines, near Jalalabad. Besides radio intercepts, the technology included an optical device, derived from technology used by offshore spy planes, that could produce photographic images from a distance of more than 10 miles. Massoud's men, with help from CIA officers, set up an overlook above Derunta and tried to watch the place.

The Counterterrorist Center's bin Laden unit relayed a report to Massoud that bin Laden had arrived in Derunta. Massoud ordered a mission. He rounded up "a bunch of mules," as a U.S. official who was involved later put it, and loaded them up with Soviet-designed Katyusha rockets. He dispatched this small commando team toward the hills above Derunta.


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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After the team was on its way, Massoud reported his plan to Langley: He was going to batter bin Laden's camp with rocket fire.

The CIA's lawyers convulsed in alarm. The White House legal rules for liaison with Massoud had not addressed such pure military operations against bin Laden. The Massoud partnership was supposed to be about intelligence collection. Now the CIA had, in effect, provided intelligence for a rocket attack on Derunta. The CIA was legally complicit in Massoud's operation, the lawyers feared, and the agency had no authority to be involved.

The bin Laden unit shot a message to the Panjshir: You've got to recall the mission.

Massoud's aides replied, in effect, as a U.S. official involved recalled it: "What do you think this is, the 82nd Airborne? We're on mules. They're gone." Massoud's team had no radios. They were walking to the launch site. They would fire their rockets, turn around and walk back.

Langley's officers waited nervously. Some of them muttered sarcastically about the absurd intersections of U.S. law and secret war they were expected to manage. Massoud's aides eventually reported back that they had, in fact, shelled Derunta. But the CIA could pick up no independent confirmation of the attack or its consequences. The lawyers relaxed and the incident passed, unpublicized.

Taking On the Taliban

During 2000 Massoud planned an expanding military campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda. His strategy was to recruit allies such as the guerrilla leaders Ismail Khan and Abdurrashid Dostum and seed them as pockets of rebellion against Taliban rule in northern and western Afghanistan, where the Taliban was weakest. As these rebel pockets emerged and stabilized, Massoud explained, he would drive toward them with his more formal armored militia, trying to link up on roadways, choking off Taliban-ruled cities and towns.

Once he had more solid footing in the north, Massoud planned to pursue the same strategy in the Taliban heartland in the south. He hoped to aid ethnic Pashtun rebels such as Hamid Karzai, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister from a prominent royal tribal family who had been forced into exile in Pakistan. By 1999 Karzai had turned against the Taliban and wanted to lead a rebellion against the militia in its southern homeland around Kandahar. Massoud dispatched aides to meet with Karzai and develop these ideas.

In private talks in person and by satellite telephone, Karzai told Massoud he was ready to slip inside Afghanistan and fight. "Don't move into Kandahar," Massoud told him, Karzai later recalled. "You must go to a place where you can hold your base." Massoud invited Karzai to the north. "He was very wise," Karzai recalled. "I was sort of pushy and reckless."

A Flying Miracle

To pursue his plans in a serious way, Massoud needed helicopters, trucks and other vehicles. Some CIA officers working with Massoud wanted to help him by supplying the mobile equipment, cash, training and weapons he would need to expand his war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Yet as 2000 passed, the CIA struggled to maintain the basics of its intelligence liaison with Massoud.

It was difficult and risky for the agency's officers to reach the Panjshir Valley. The only practical route was through Tajikistan. From there CIA teams usually took one of the few rusting, patched-together Mi-17 transport helicopters the Northern Alliance managed to keep in the air. On one trip, the Taliban scrambled MiG-21 jets in an effort to shoot down Massoud's helicopter. If successful, the militia would have discovered American corpses in the wreckage.

Even on the best days, the choppers would shake and rattle and the cabin would fill with the smell of fuel. The overland routes were no better. When a CIA team drove in from Dushanbe, one of its vehicles flipped over and a veteran officer dislocated his shoulder.

These reports accumulated on the desk of Deputy Director of Operations James Pavitt, who had overall responsibility for CIA espionage. Pavitt was a blue-eyed, white-haired former case officer and station chief who had served in Europe during the Cold War. Like Director George J. Tenet, who had appointed him, he was a spy manager with a feel for politics. Pavitt began to ask why CIA officers were taking such huge physical risks to work with Massoud. Were they getting enough to justify the possibility of death or injury?

Those opposed to the Panjshir missions argued, as one official recalled it, "You're sending people to their deaths."

The agency sent out a team of mechanics knowledgeable about Russian helicopters. When Massoud's men opened up one of the Mi-17s, the mechanics were stunned: They had patched an engine originally made for a Hind attack helicopter into the bay of the Mi-17 transport. It was a flying miracle.


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