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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001by Steve Coll
The CIA struggled to maintain its liaison with Ahmed Shah Massoud during 2000. It was difficult and risky for the agency's officers to reach the Panjshir Valley. The only practical way in was through Dushanbe, in Tajikistan. From there the CIA teams usually flew on one of the few rusting, patched-together Mi-17 transport helicopters the Northern Alliance managed to keep in the air. CIA officers alarmed Langley with the cables describing their travel. On one trip the Taliban scrambled Mig-21 jets in an effort to shoot Massoud?s helicopter down. If they had succeeded, they 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 to see Massoud were no better: miles and miles of bone-jarring Afghan mountain ruts snaking along sheer cliffsides. When a Near East Division team drove in from Dushanbe one of its vehicles flipped over and a CIA officer seriously dislocated his shoulder.
These reports accumulated in Langley on the desk of the deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, who had overall responsibility for the management of CIA espionage. Pavitt was a white-haired, blue-eyed former case officer and station chief who had done most of his cold war-era service in Europe, including tours in East and West Berlin. Like George 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. Was it likely that Massoud would help capture or kill bin Laden or were they taking unnecessary chances?
Pavitt?s questions provoked heated replies from officers in the counterterrorist center. The bin Laden unit chief?who had flown in Massoud?s helicopters?and the center?s operations chief, known to his colleagues as Hank, passionately argued that the Panjshir liaison had to continue.
The agency sent out a team of mechanics knowledgeable about Russian helicopters to try to resolve the issue. Massoud?s men took them to their Dushanbe airfield and opened up one of the Mi-17s. The CIA mechanics were stunned: Massoud had managed to install an engine originally made for a Hind attack helicopter in the bay of the Mi-17 transport. It was a mismatched gum-and-baling-wire machine, a flying miracle. The CIA mechanics were so appalled that they did not even want Massoud?s pilots to fire up the helicopter?s rotors. They were afraid the whole thing would come apart at any moment and send shrapnel flying.
At Langley?s counterterrorist center, Cofer Black worried about the safety question but argued that the Agency had to maintain contact with Massoud to prepare for the day when Al Qaeda pulled off a major attack against the United States. Then the White House would change its policies toward the Taliban, and it would need Massoud. Black was not much for understatement. He told his colleagues that the Panjshir mission was really about "preparing the battlefield for World War Three."
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.
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.
On the American side, the most passionate believers in Massoud were in the counterterrorist center, especially in the bin Laden unit. But they struggled to build a larger constituency for their cause. They were prohibited from supporting any aspect of Massoud?s political or military strategy against the Taliban. They could focus only on their narrow counterterrorism mission. Massoud cooperated on intelligence collection but it became increasingly clear that he did not intend to launch a snatch raid against bin Laden.
The CIA?s counternarcotics center reported that Massoud?s men continued to smuggle large amounts of opium and heroin into Europe. They could all readily imagine the headlines if their operation was exposed: CIA SUPPORTS AFGHAN DRUG LORD.
For their part, Massoud?s aides had hoped their work with the CIA would lead to wider political support in Washington and perhaps military aid. They could see no evidence that this was developing. Instead, they were badgered repeatedly about an attack on bin Laden. Their few shaky helicopters could barely clear the mountain passes. They had no air cover. Their forces were not very mobile on the ground. Bin Laden usually was surrounded not only by his own Arab bodyguard but also by hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban soldiers. One of Massoud?s aides likened the mission urged on them by the White House and 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 and his men respected many of the individual CIA officers they dealt with but increasingly felt frustrated by American policies and tactics. When the CIA promoted a bin Laden operation they "were speaking of cash money," recalled a Massoud intelligence aide. "But we were not fighting in Afghanistan to earn cash."
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?" America?s decision to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal was never far from their minds.
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