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Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope

A Fatal Blow

Early in September 2001, Massoud's intelligence service transmitted a routine classified report to the CIA's Counterterrorist Center about two Arab television journalists who had crossed Northern Alliance lines from Kabul.

The intelligence-sharing between Massoud and the CIA concentrated mainly on Arabs and foreigners in Afghanistan. In this case officers in the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center took note of the movement of the two Arab journalists. It did not seem of exceptional interest.

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
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Members of the Bush Cabinet met at the White House on Sept. 4. Before them was a draft copy of a National Security Presidential Directive, a classified memo outlining a new U.S. policy toward al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Massoud.

It had been many months in the drafting. The Bush administration's senior national security team had not begun to focus on al Qaeda until April, about three months after taking office. They did not forge a policy approach until July. Then they took still more weeks to schedule a meeting to ratify their plans.

Among other things, the draft document revived almost in its entirety the CIA plan to aid Massoud that had been forwarded to the lame-duck Clinton White House -- and rejected -- nine months earlier. The stated goal of the draft was to eliminate bin Laden and his organization. The plan called for the CIA to supply Massoud with a large but undetermined sum for covert action to support his war against the Taliban, as well as trucks, uniforms, ammunition, mortars, helicopters and other equipment. The Bush Cabinet approved this part of the draft document.

Other aspects of the Bush administration's al Qaeda policy, such as its approach to the use of armed Predator surveillance drones for the hunt, remained unresolved after the Sept. 4 debate. But on Massoud, the CIA was told that it could at least start the paperwork for a new covert policy -- the first in a decade that sought to influence the course of the Afghan war.

In the Panjshir Valley, unaware of these developments, Massoud read Persian poetry in his bungalow in the early hours of Sept. 9. Later that morning he finally decided to grant an interview to the two Arab journalists visiting from Kabul.

As one of them set up a television camera, the other read aloud a list of questions he intended to ask. About half of them concerned bin Laden.

A bomb secretly packed in the television equipment ripped the cameraman's body apart. It shattered the room's windows, seared the walls in flame and tore Massoud's chest with shrapnel.

Hours later, after Massoud had been evacuated to Tajikistan, his intelligence aide Amrullah Saleh called the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. He spoke to Rich, the bin Laden unit chief. Saleh was sobbing and heaving between sentences as he explained what had happened.

"Where's Massoud?" the CIA officer asked.

"He's in the refrigerator," said Saleh, searching for the English word for morgue.

Massoud was dead, but members of his inner circle had barely absorbed the news. They were all in shock. They were also trying to strategize in a hurry. They had already put out a false story claiming that Massoud had only been wounded. Meanwhile, Saleh told the Counterterrorist Center, the suddenly leaderless Northern Alliance needed the CIA's help as it prepared to confront al Qaeda and the Taliban.

On the morning of Sept. 10, the CIA's daily classified briefings to Bush, his Cabinet and other policymakers reported on Massoud's death and analyzed the consequences for the United States' covert war against al Qaeda.

Officers in the Counterterrorist Center, still hopeful that they could maintain a foothold in northern Afghanistan to attack bin Laden, called frantically around Washington to find a way to aid the rump Northern Alliance before it was eliminated.

Massoud's advisers and lobbyists, playing for time, tried to promote speculation that Massoud might still be alive. But privately, as Sept. 10 wore on, phone call by phone call, many of the Afghans closest to the commander began to learn that he was gone.

Karzai, who was in Pakistan when his brother reached him, had spoken to Massoud a few days earlier. He was considering a plan to fly into Massoud's territory, work his way south and open an armed rebellion against the Taliban -- with or without U.S. support.

Karzai's brother said it was confirmed: Ahmed Shah Massoud was dead.

Karzai reacted in a single, brief sentence, as his brother recalled it: "What an unlucky country."

Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.

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