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Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope

Afterward Tenet signed off on a compromise: The CIA would secretly buy its own airworthy Mi-17 helicopter, maintain it properly in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and use CIA pilots to fly clandestine teams into the Panjshir.

But the helicopter issue was a symptom of a larger problem. By the late summer of 2000, the CIA's liaison with Massoud was fraying on both sides.


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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Frustrated by daunting geography and unable to win support for Massoud in Cabinet debates, the CIA's officers felt stifled. For their part, Massoud's aides had hoped their work with the agency would lead to clearer recognition of Afghanistan's plight in Washington and perhaps covert military aid. They could see no evidence that this was happening.

Instead they were badgered repeatedly about mounting a "Hollywood operation," as one of Massoud's intelligence aides put it, to capture bin Laden alive. The aide likened the mission urged on them by the CIA to a game of chess in which they would have to capture the king without touching any other piece on the board.

Massoud's men asked their CIA counterparts, as this intelligence aide recalled it: "Is there any policy in the government of the American states to help Afghanistan if the people of Afghanistan help you get rid of your most wanted man?"

Disappointments for Massoud

After the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, in which 17 sailors were killed at Aden, Yemen, the CIA's Panjshir teams tried to revive their plan to supply Massoud with more extensive and more lethal aid. CIA officers sat down at Langley in November and drew up a specific list of what Massoud needed. In addition to more cash -- to bribe commanders and to counteract a Taliban treasury swollen with Arab money -- Massoud needed trucks, helicopters, light arms, ammunition, uniforms, food and maybe some mortars and artillery. He did not need combat aircraft. Tanks were not a priority.

The list of covert supplies they proposed for Massoud would cost between $50 million and $150 million, depending on how aggressive the White House wanted to be.

Under the plan, the CIA would establish a permanent base with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. Rich, the bin Laden unit chief at the Counterterrorist Center, argued that the agency's officers had to be down around the campfire constantly with Massoud's men.

The CIA wanted to overcome the confusion and mutual mistrust that had developed with Massoud over operations designed to capture or kill bin Laden. The plan envisioned that CIA officers would go directly into action alongside the Northern Alliance if they developed strong intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts. There would be no more embarrassments like the mission against Derunta.

In the late autumn, Clarke sent a memo outlining the CIA's proposal to Berger, Clinton's national security adviser. But they were worse than lame ducks now at the White House. The November presidential election had deadlocked; White House aides were enduring the strangest post-election transition in a century just as the CIA's paper landed on their desks.

The word went back to the Counterterrorist Center: There would be no new covert action program for Massoud.

As the Bush administration took office early in 2001, Massoud retained a Washington lobbyist. He wrote a letter to Vice President Cheney urging the new administration to reexamine its policy toward Afghanistan. He told his advisers he knew he could not defeat the Taliban on the battlefield as long as the ruling militia was funded by bin Laden and reinforced from Pakistan. He sought to build up a new political and military coalition within Afghanistan to squeeze the Taliban and break its grip on ordinary Afghans. For this, sooner or later, he told visitors, he would require the support of the United States.

His CIA liaison had slackened, but his intelligence aides still spoke and exchanged messages frequently with Langley. That spring they passed word that Massoud had been invited to France to address the European Parliament.

Gary Schroen and Rich flew to Paris to meet with Massoud. They wanted to reassure him that even though the pace of their visits had slowed because of the policy gridlock in Washington, the CIA still intended to keep up its regular installment payments of several hundred thousand dollars as part of their intelligence-sharing arrangements. They also wanted to know how Massoud felt about his military position.

Massoud told them that he thought he could defend his lines in the northeast of Afghanistan, but that was about all. The United States had to do something, Massoud told the CIA officers quietly, or eventually he was going to crumble.

"If President Bush doesn't help us," Massoud told reporters in Strasbourg a few days later, "then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon{ndash}and it will be too late."


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