At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2001, a husky, 59-year-old man with a round, cheerful face and glasses was huddled in the back of a Russian-made, CIA-owned Mi-17 helicopter that was going to have to strain to climb to 15,000 feet to clear the Anjoman Pass into the Panjshir Valley of northeastern Afghanistan.

Gary, an undercover CIA officer whose last name is not being used, was leading the first critical wave of President Bush's war against terrorism. With him was a team of CIA covert paramilitary officers with communications gear that would allow them to set up direct, classified links with headquarters in Langley, Va. Between his legs was a large strapped metal suitcase that contained $3 million in U.S. currency, non-sequential $100 bills. He always laughed when he saw a television show or movie in which someone passed $1 million in a small attache case. It just wouldn't fit.

Several times in his career, Gary had stuffed $1 million into his backpack so he could move around and pass it to people on other operations. He had signed for the $3 million as usual. What was different this time was that he could dole it out pretty much at his discretion.

Gary had been an officer in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA for 32 years, the type of CIA clandestine operative who many thought no longer existed. In the 1970s, he had been an undercover case officer in Tehran and then Islamabad. He had recruited, developed, paid and run agents who reported from within the host governments. In the 1980s, he served as chief of the CIA base in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and later as chief of station for Kabul. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was closed due to the Soviet invasion, so he operated out of Islamabad.

In the 1990s, he served as deputy chief of station in Saudi Arabia, then chief of a secret overseas station that operated against Iran. From 1996 to 1999, he had been chief of station in Islamabad, and then deputy chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asian operations division at Langley.

On Sept. 11, Gary had been almost out the door, weeks from retirement. Four days later, he received a call from Cofer Black, the head of the agency's counterterrorism center, asking him to come to headquarters. "I know you're ready to retire," Black told him. "But we want to send a team in right away. You're the logical person to go in." Not only did Gary have the experience, but he spoke Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan's two main languages.

A team would be a small group of CIA operatives and paramilitary officers working out of the super-secret Special Activities Division of the Directorate of Operations.

"Yeah, I'll go," Gary said. When he was Islamabad station chief, he had made several covert trips into Afghanistan, meeting with leaders of the Northern Alliance, the loose confederation of warlords and tribes that opposed the Taliban, and bringing in cash, normally $200,000 -- a bag of money on the table.

Go in, Black told Gary, persuade the Northern Alliance to work with us and prepare the ground in Afghanistan to receive U.S. forces, to give them a place to come in and stage operations. There would be no backup. There would be few search-and-rescue teams available to get them out if something went wrong.

Four days later, on Sept. 19, Black called Gary back to his office. The team, formally called the Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team (NALT), was given the code word "Jawbreaker." They were to deploy the next day, proceed to Europe and then into the region and into Afghanistan as fast as possible.

Jawbreaker had another assignment. The president had signed a new intelligence order; the gloves were off. "You have one mission," Black instructed. "Go find the al Qaeda and kill them. We're going to eliminate them. Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box. . . . I want to take it down and show the president."

"Well, that couldn't be any clearer," Gary replied.

Gary left Washington the next day, and the team hooked up in Asia. There was a maddening wait for visas and clearances to get into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Now in the helicopter, he had to worry through the 21/2-hour overflight into Afghanistan. A CIA man in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was in regular radio contact with the Northern Alliance and had radioed that the team was heading in. But the radio link was not secure, and though the territory they were flying over was supposed to be controlled by the Northern Alliance, any Taliban or al Qaeda soldier with a Stinger missile or a Z-23 antiaircraft gun on a hilltop could have shot the Mi-17 out of the air.

Jawbreaker touched down in a landing field about 70 miles north of Kabul, in the heart of Northern Alliance territory, at about 3 p.m. local time. The team comprised 10 men -- Gary, a senior deputy, a young Directorate of Operations case officer who had four years in Pakistan and spoke excellent Farsi and Dari, an experienced field communications officer who had worked in tough places, a former Navy SEAL, another paramilitary operative, a longtime agency medic, two pilots and a helicopter mechanic. The men spanned nearly 30 years in age and were of different shapes and sizes. They wore camping clothes and baseball caps.

Two Northern Alliance officers and about 10 others greeted them. They loaded the gear on a big truck and drove about a mile to a guesthouse in a tiny village. The village had been cordoned off with a checkpoint at each end. The Alliance officers were nervous and wanted the team out of sight.

By about 6 p.m., they had their secure communications up. Gary sent a classified cable asking for some additional supplies. In the exuberance of the safe arrival and mindful of Black's request for bin Laden's head, he added a line to the cable requesting some heavy-duty cardboard boxes, dry ice and, if possible, some pikes.

Million-Dollar Impressions

Gary's first meeting that evening was with engineer Muhammed Arif Sawari, who headed the Alliance's intelligence and security service. Arif recognized Gary from the previous December, when, as deputy division chief, he had met in Paris with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader assassinated on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks. Arif seemed to relax when he recognized him.

Gary placed a bundle of cash on the table: $500,000 in 10 stacks of $100 bills. He believed it would be more impressive than the usual $200,000, the best way to say: We're here, we're serious, here's money, we know you need it.

"What we want you to do is use it," he said. "Buy food, weapons, whatever you need to build your forces up." It was also for intelligence operations and to pay sources and agents. There was more money available -- much more. Gary would soon ask CIA headquarters for and receive $10 million in cash.

The Northern Alliance welcomes you, Arif said.

The plan, Gary said, was to prepare the way for the U.S. military forces. "We don't know how they're coming or how many, but we're looking at Special Forces, you know, small units, guys coming in to do operations and help you and help your army and coordinate between your forces and the U.S. forces that are going to come and attack the Taliban army. We need to coordinate this."

Great, Arif said.

The next day, Sept. 27, about noon local time in the Panjshir Valley, Gary sat down with Gen. Mohammed Fahim, commander of the Northern Alliance forces, and Abdullah, the Alliance foreign minister. He put $1 million on the table, explaining that they could use it as they saw fit. Fahim said he had about 10,000 fighters, though many were poorly equipped.

"The president is interested in our mission," Gary said. "He wants you to know the U.S. forces are coming and we want your cooperation and he's taking a personal interest in this." He had secure communications set up with Washington, and, exaggerating, he said, "Everything that I write back home [the president] sees. So this is important." Without exaggerating, he added, "This is the world stage."

"We welcome you guys," Fahim said. "We'll do whatever we can." But he had questions. "When does the war start? When do you guys come? When is the U.S. really going to start to attack?"

"I don't know," Gary said. "But it will be soon. We have to be ready. Forces have to be deployed. We have to get things together. You're going to be impressed. You have never seen anything like what we're going to deliver onto the enemy."

What Works -- and What Doesn't

Gary dispatched several of his men to the Takar region, the front between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban forces. They went north, a good 60 miles to the east of Kunduz. They found the Northern Alliance forces disciplined, their clothing and weapons clean. But the rifles' safeties were on, a signal that this was not a hot combat zone. The troops lined up in formations and conducted drills. There was a command structure. But there were not enough troops or heavy weapons to move against the Taliban, who were dug in on the other side.

Gary knew that CIA headquarters believed that the Taliban would be a tenacious enemy in a fight and that any U.S. strike would bring out its sympathizers in Afghanistan and in the region, especially Pakistan. They would rally around Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader.

Gary saw it differently. He believed that massive, heavy bombing of the Taliban front lines -- "really good stuff," as he called it -- would cause the Taliban to break and change the picture. On Oct. 1, he sent a secret appraisal to headquarters. "In this case," he wrote, "a Taliban collapse could be rapid, with the enemy shrinking to a small number of hard-core Mullah Omar supporters in the early days or weeks of a military campaign." The report was received with vocal skepticism at the Directorate of Operations, as the old hands and experts openly disparaged the appraisal. But CIA Director George J. Tenet took the cable to President Bush.

"I want more of this," said the president.

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Gary went in search of an airfield to bring supplies into Northern Alliance territory. The team found one airfield in an area called Golbahar that had been used by the British in 1919. He asked Arif, the Alliance's intelligence chief, to grade out an area and turn it into an airstrip, and he handed out another $200,000. He bought three Jeeps for $19,000 and forked over an additional $22,000 for a tanker truck and helicopter fuel. Arif promised they would buy the truck in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and drive it over the mountains to the CIA team, but it never arrived.

That day, the CIA's counterterrorism special operations chief, Hank, whose last name is being withheld, met in Tampa with Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, who would be in charge of the war. Using maps of Afghanistan, Hank laid out how CIA paramilitary teams working with the various opposition forces could get them moving. The opposition forces, chiefly the Northern Alliance, would do most of the ground fighting. If the United States repeated the mistakes of the Soviets by invading with a large land force, they would be doomed.

Franks's Special Forces teams would be used to pinpoint targets that could be hit hard in U.S. bombing runs. On-the-ground human intelligence designating targets would allow extraordinarily specific and exact information for the precision bombs.

Hank, under instructions from Tenet, made clear that the paramilitary teams would be working for Franks, and in that spirit and somewhat contrary to recent practice, the CIA would give Franks and his Special Forces commanders the identities of all CIA assets in Afghanistan, their capabilities, their locations and the CIA's assessment of them. The military and the CIA were to work as partners.

Franks basically agreed with the plan. He disclosed that the bombing campaign was scheduled to begin any time from Oct. 6 on -- three days away.

Money talked in Afghanistan, Hank said, and they had millions in covert action money. On one level, the CIA could supply money to buy food, blankets, cold-weather gear and medicine that could be airdropped. Warlords or sub-commanders with dozens or hundreds of fighters could be bought off for as little as $50,000 in cash, Hank said. If we do this right, we can buy off a lot more of the Taliban than we have to kill. Good, the general said.

Through the middle of October, Jawbreaker was still the only American on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan. They were trying to find bombing targets.

"Just hit the front lines for me," Fahim told Gary. Bomb the Taliban and al Qaeda on the other side. "I can take Kabul, I can take Kunduz if you break the line for me. My guys are ready." Fahim was short and stocky, looked like a thug, and appeared to have had his nose broken about three times. His forces were decked out in new uniforms, supposedly waiting for the carpet bombing to begin so they could attack.

Gary visited Fahim's general who was in charge on the Shomali Plain, the area just north of Kabul where Alliance and Taliban troops were dug in. The general was even more bullish, saying the Alliance could take Kabul in a day if the front lines were broken with U.S. bombing. The bombing around the country wasn't accomplishing anything, the general said. His men were intercepting some Taliban radio communications showing that the Taliban were unimpressed. The general was disappointed. He pointed at the Taliban lines: Look, that is where the enemy is. Blowing up some depot in Kandahar wasn't doing anything for them.

Gary concluded that the bombing might be making the chain of command back in Washington feel good, but it wasn't working.

At 10:20 p.m. on Oct. 19, the Jawbreaker team marked a landing zone on the Shomali Plain. The first U.S. Special Forces A-team, Team 555, "Triple Nickel," was finally on its way after numerous weather delays. Two MH-53J Pave Low helicopters, the Air Force's largest, missed the target zone and landed far apart from each other. Army Chief Warrant Officer David Diaz and his 12-member A-team hopped out of the copter.

They were the essential eyes-on-target that the American pilots needed to bomb front lines. Each man was responsible for about 300 pounds of gear and supplies, including equipment needed to laser-designate targets.

For the next week, the Special Forces teams used laser target designators to direct U.S. bombing runs. Though the A-team had some initial successes, Gary could see they were getting leftovers -- U.S. bombers who had been assigned to other fixed targets. If these bombers didn't find their target or for some reason did not expend their munitions, they were available to come to the front lines and attack Taliban fighters there. But Gary had witnessed too many occasions when the A-team would spot a convoy of Taliban or al Qaeda trucks -- once, there were 20 trucks -- and would call and call to get a bomber but couldn't get one. The planes were still focused on predesignated fixed targets.

Gary sat down at one of the 10 computers his team had in their dusty quarters and wrote a cable to CIA headquarters. If we don't change the pattern, we're going to lose this thing, he wrote. The Taliban had never been bombed hard. They think they can survive this. The Northern Alliance is ready. They want to go, and they are as ready as they ever will be, but they're losing confidence. They think what they are seeing is all we can do. If we hit these Taliban with sustained bombing for three or four days, the young Taliban are going to break.

Gary sent the cable, which was only two pages long. Tenet decided to take it to the White House the next day.

'That's One Bargain'

Hank went to Afghanistan to assess the front lines with some of the agency's paramilitary teams. The millions of dollars in covert money that the teams were spreading around was working wonders. He calculated that thousands of Taliban members had been bought off. The Northern Alliance was trying to induce defections from the Taliban itself, but the CIA could come in and offer cash. The agency's hand would often be hidden as the negotiations began -- $10,000 for this sub-commander and his dozens of fighters, $50,000 for this bigger commander and his hundreds of fighters.

In one case, $50,000 was offered to a commander to defect. Let me think about it, the commander said. So the Special Forces A-team directed a J-DAM precision bomb right outside the commander's headquarters. The next day, they called the commander back. How about $40,000? He accepted.

The CIA and Special Forces teams were concentrated around Mazar-e Sharif, the city of 200,000 on a dusty plain 35 miles from the Uzbek border. A week earlier, a Special Forces lieutenant colonel had been infiltrated into the area with five other men to coordinate the work of the A-teams. The teams were directing devastating fire from the air at the Taliban's two rings of defensive trenches around the ancient city.

One team had split into four close air support units, spread out over 50 miles of rugged mountain terrain. The absence of fixed targets had freed up the U.S. bombers for directed attacks by the separate units, which were able to use bombs as if they were artillery. The big difference was the precision and the size of the munitions. These were 500-pound bombs. Taliban supply lines and communications had been severed in the carpet bombing. Hundreds of their vehicles and bunkers were destroyed, and thousands of Taliban fighters were killed, captured or had fled.

The massive violence the United States could bring was finally being coordinated.

On Nov. 9, Mazar fell. Three days later, the White House learned that Kabul had been abandoned. And on Dec. 7, the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar fell, effectively leaving the Northern Alliance, its Pashtun allies and the United States in charge of the country.

In all, the U.S. commitment to overthrow the Taliban had been about 110 CIA officers and 316 Special Forces personnel, plus massive air power.

Tenet, the CIA director, was extremely proud of what the agency had accomplished. The money it had been able to distribute without traditional cost controls had mobilized the tribals. In some cases, performance standards had been set: Move from point A to point B, and you get several hundred thousand dollars. A stack of money on the table was still the universal language. His paramilitary and case officers in and around Afghanistan had made it possible -- a giant return on years of investment in human intelligence.

The CIA calculated that they had spent only $70 million in direct cash outlays on the ground in Afghanistan, and some of that had been to pay for field hospitals. In an interview, Bush said, "That's one bargain," and he wondered aloud what the Soviets had spent in their disastrous war in Afghanistan that had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

Mohammed Fahim, left, commander of the Northern Alliance, welcomed CIA assistance but wondered when U.S. attacks were "really going to start."Cofer Black, head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, told an operative that he wanted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's "head in a box."Abdurrashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance cavalry commander, had U.S. officials hopeful because of his aggressiveness. He eventually led troops to the center of Mazar-e Sharif.