March 1989 to December 1997
THERE WERE TWO CIA STATIONS crammed inside the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the late winter of 1989 as the last Soviet soldiers withdrew across the Amu Darya River, out of Afghanistan.
Gary Schroen, newly appointed as Kabul station chief, arrived in Pakistan in temporary exile. Schroen had been away from Islamabad since student rioters sacked the embassy a decade earlier. He had been working in the Persian Gulf and on the CIA’s Iranian operations. He was appointed to Kabul in the late summer of 1988, but he had been forced to wait in Langley as the White House debated whether to close the U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital. When the mission was ordered shut, mainly for security reasons, Schroen flew to Islamabad to wait a little longer. He and several Kabul-bound case officers squeezed themselves into Milton Bearden’s office suite. As soon as Najibullah fell to the mujahedin that winter—in just a matter of weeks, CIA analysts at headquarters felt certain—Schroen and his team would drive up to Kabul from Pakistan, help reopen the embassy, and set up operations in a liberated country.
Weeks passed and then more weeks. Najibullah, his cabinet, and his army held firm. Amid heavy snows the Afghan military pushed out a new defensive ring around the capital, holding the mujahedin farther at bay. Najibullah put twenty thousand mullahs on his payroll to counter the rebels’ religious messages. As March approached, the Afghan regime showed no fissures.
In Islamabad, Schroen told his colleagues that not for the first or last time the CIA’s predictions were proving wrong. He moved out of a cramped dormitory in the walled embassy compound, fixed up a room in an anonymous guest house, requisitioned four-wheel-drive vehicles for his case officers, and told them to settle in for the long haul. They might as well make themselves useful by working from Islamabad.
Bearden agreed that Schroen’s Kabul group should take the lead in running the Afghan rebel commanders on the CIA’s payroll. These numbered about forty by the first months of 1989. There were minor commanders receiving $5,000 monthly stipends, others receiving $50,000. Several of them worked for Hekmatyar. The CIA had also increased its payments to Hekmatyar’s rival, Massoud, who was by now secretly receiving $200,000 a month in cash. Massoud’s stipend had ballooned partly because the CIA knew that Pakistani intelligence shortchanged him routinely. Under pressure from Massoud’s supporters in Congress, and hoping that the Panjshiri leader would pressure the Afghan government’s northern supply lines, the agency had sent through a big raise. The CIA tried to keep all these payments hidden from Pakistani intelligence.1
Massoud and other Afghan commanders in the CIA’s unilateral network had by now received secure radio sets with messaging software that allowed them to transmit coded reports directly to the Islamabad embassy. The message traffic required time and attention from embassy case officers. And there was a steady stream of face-to-face contact meetings to be managed in Peshawar and Quetta. Each contact had to be handled carefully so that neither Pakistani intelligence nor rival mujahedin caught on. The plan was that once Schroen’s group of case officers made it to their new station in Kabul, they would take many of their Afghan agent relationships with them.
All this depended on wresting the Afghan capital from Najibullah’s control, however. For this, too, the CIA had a plan. Bearden and his group collaborated closely with Pakistani intelligence that winter, even as they tried to shield their unilateral agent network from detection.
Hamid Gul, the Pakistani intelligence chief, proposed to rattle Najibullah by launching an ambitious rebel attack against the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, just a few hours’ drive across the Khyber Pass from Peshawar. Once the mujahedin captured Jalalabad, Gul said, they could install a new government on Afghan soil and begin to move on Kabul. The short distance and open roads between Jalalabad and Peshawar would make it easy for ISI and the CIA to truck in supplies.2
Pakistani intelligence had put together a new Islamist-dominated Afghan government that could move to Jalalabad as soon as the city was captured. In February 1989, at a hotel in Rawalpindi, Afghan delegates were summoned to a consultative shura to elect new political leaders. Flush with about $25 million in cash provided by Prince Turki al-Faisal’s Saudi intelligence department, Hamid Gul and colleagues from ISI’s Afghan bureau twisted arms and spread money around until the delegates agreed on a cabinet for a self-declared Afghan interim government. To prevent either Hekmatyar or Massoud from seizing power, the delegates chose weak figurehead leaders and agreed to rotate offices. There was a lot of squabbling, and Hekmatyar, among others, went away angry. But at least a rebel government now existed on paper, Hamid Gul argued to his American counterparts. He felt that military pressure had to be directed quickly at Afghan cities “to make the transfer of power possible” to the rebels. Otherwise, “in the vacuum, there would be a lot of chaos in Afghanistan.”3
For the CIA, Pakistan was becoming a far different place to carry out covert action than it had been during the anti-Soviet jihad. The agency had to reckon now with more than just the views of ISI. Civilians and the army shared power, opportunistic politicians debated every issue, and a free press clamored with dissent. Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister was Benazir Bhutto, at thirty-six a beautiful, charismatic, and self-absorbed politician with no government experience. She was her country’s first democratically elected leader in more than a decade. She had taken office with American support, and she cultivated American connections. Raised in a gilded world of feudal aristocratic entitlements, Bhutto had attended Radcliffe College at Harvard University as an undergraduate and retained many friends in Washington. She saw her American allies as a counterweight to her enemies in the Pakistani army command—an officer corps that had sent her father to the gallows a decade earlier.
She was especially distrustful of Pakistani intelligence. She knew that Hamid Gul’s ISI was already tapping her telephones and fomenting opposition against her in the country’s newly elected parliament. Stunned by Zia’s death, the Pakistani army leadership had endorsed a restoration of democracy in the autumn of 1988, but the generals expected to retain control over national security policy. The chief of army staff, Mirza Aslam Beg, tolerated Bhutto’s role, but others in the army officer corps—especially some of the Islamists who had been close to Zia—saw her as a secularist, a socialist, and an enemy of Islam. This was especially true inside ISI’s Afghan bureau. “I wonder if these people would ever have held elections if they knew that we were going to win,” Bhutto remarked to her foreign policy adviser Iqbal Akhund on a flight to China in 1989. Akhund, cynical about ISI’s competence, told her: “You owe your prime ministership to the intelligence agencies who, as always, gave the government a wishful assessment of how the elections would—or could be made to—turn out.”
The U.S. ambassador Robert Oakley told embassy colleagues to tiptoe delicately. The CIA should continue to collaborate closely with ISI to defeat Najibullah in Afghanistan. At the same time Oakley hoped to shore up Bhutto as best he could against subterranean efforts by Pakistani intelligence to bring her down.4
The unfinished Afghan jihad loomed as Benazir Bhutto’s first foreign policy challenge, her first attempt to establish authority over ISI on a major national security question. On March 6 she called a meeting in Islamabad of the interagency “Afghan cell” to discuss Hamid Gul’s proposal to attack Jalalabad. There were no Afghans in the room. Bhutto was so anxious about ISI that she invited Oakley to attend the meeting. Oakley had no guidance from Washington about how to conduct himself before Pakistan’s national security cabinet, but he went anyway.
They debated several questions. Should Pakistan and perhaps the United States immediately recognize the ISI-arranged Afghan interim government or wait until it captured territory inside Afghanistan? Yaqub Khan, Bhutto’s foreign minister, thought the rebels needed to demonstrate they were “not just some Johnnies riding around Peshawar in Mercedes.” Should they encourage Afghan fighters to hurl themselves at heavily defended Jalalabad or go more slowly? Pakistani intelligence and the CIA had already developed a detailed military plan for attacking Jalalabad, and they wanted to move fast. ISI had assembled five thousand to seven thousand Afghan rebels near the city. They were being equipped for a conventional frontal military assault on its garrisons. This approach was much different from the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the anti-Soviet campaign. Yet Hamid Gul promised Bhutto that Jalalabad would fall to the rebels within a week if she was “prepared to allow for a certain degree of bloodshed.” The ISI chief’s eyes were “blazing with passion,” as Bhutto remembered it, and Gul spoke so forcefully that she thought Jalalabad would “fall in twenty-four hours, let alone in one week.” “There can be no cease-fire in a jihad against the Marxist unbeliever,” Gul declared. “War must go on until Darul Harb [house of war] is cleansed and becomes Darul Amn [house of peace]!” Oakley, too, was optimistic.5
The CIA plunged in to help. Bearden’s case officers, Schroen’s case officers, and military officers from ISI’s Afghan bureau—often led by the committed Islamists Brigadier Janjua and Colonel Imam—met frequently in Rawalpindi and Peshawar. CIA officers unveiled a covert plan to cut off the main supply line between Kabul and Jalalabad. There was only one motor route between the two cities, the Sarobi Road, which ran for miles through a narrow chasm, crisscrossing flimsy bridges. The CIA had imported specially shaped conical explosive charges, designed like very large household flower pots, that could blow huge craters in the road.
Pakistani intelligence summoned about a dozen commanders from the Sarobi area to a meeting at a safehouse in Peshawar. CIA officers spread out satellite photographs of the Sarobi Road on the floor. They all kneeled around the satellite images—bearded Afghans in draping turbans, CIA case officers in blue jeans, Pakistani intelligence officers in civilian salwars. They planned where to place the explosives and where to install machine gun nests for ambush attacks on Najibullah’s convoys.
The Afghans could sense that the CIA’s bank window was open, and suddenly it seemed that every commander within a hundred miles of Jalalabad needed new Toyota double-cab trucks to accomplish his part of the attack. The CIA purchased several hundred trucks in Japan that winter, shipped them to Karachi, and rolled them up to Peshawar to support the Jalalabad assault.6
The rebels had to run through Soviet-laid minefields as they approached fixed positions around Jalalabad. The Afghans were trained to send mules ahead of their soldiers to clear the fields. They would tie long wooden logs on ropes behind the mules and drive them into a minefield to set off the buried charges.
“I know you don’t like this,” an Afghan commander explained to Gary Schroen as the Jalalabad battle began, “but it’s better than using people.”
“Yes, but just don’t take any pictures,” Schroen advised. Nobody back in Washington “wants to see pictures of little donkeys blown up.”7
The pictures they did see were worse. As the spring sun melted the snowy eastern passes, hundreds of Afghan boys and young men recruited from refugee camps for the glorious Jalalabad campaign poured off the rock ridges and fell before fusillades of machine gun fire from terrified government conscripts. Soviet-made bombers flown by the Afghan air force out of Kabul struck the attackers in open plains from high altitude. Dozens of Scud missiles fired by Soviet advisers, who had clandestinely stayed behind after the official Soviet withdrawal, rained in deafening fury onto mujahedin positions. The rebels pushed toward Jalalabad’s outskirts but stalled. Commanders squabbled over whose forces were supposed to be where. ISI officers participated in the assault but failed to unify and organize their Afghan attacking force. A week passed, and Jalalabad did not fall. Then two weeks, then three. “Fall it will,” Hamid Gul assured Bhutto’s civilian aides. Casualties mounted among the mujahedin. Ambulances from the Arab and international charities raced back and forth from Peshawar. By May their hand-scrawled lists of the dead and maimed numbered in the thousands. Still Jalalabad and its airport remained in Najibullah’s hands. Despite all the explosives and trucks shipped in, the CIA plan to shut off the Sarobi Road fizzled.
In Kabul, Najibullah appeared before the international press, defiant and emboldened. His generals and his Soviet sponsors began to take heart: Perhaps a rebel triumph in Kabul was not inevitable after all. Gorbachev authorized massive subsidies to Najibullah that spring. From air bases in Uzbekistan the dying Soviet government ferried as much as $300 million per month in food and ammunition to Kabul on giant transport planes, at least twice the amount of aid being supplied by the CIA and Saudi intelligence to the mujahedin.8 One after another, enormous white Soviet Ilyushin-76 cargo jets, expelling starburst flares to distract heat-seeking Stinger missiles, circled like lumbering pterodactyls above the Kabul Valley, descending to the international airport or Bagram air base to its north. The flour, mortar shells, and Scud missiles they disgorged each day gradually buoyed the morale of Kabul’s conscripts and bolstered the staying power of Najibullah’s new tribal and ethnic militias.
Frustrated, the CIA officers working from Peshawar recruited an Afghan Shiite commander in western Kabul, known for vicious urban guerrilla bombings, to step up sabotage operations in the capital. They supplied his Shiite commandos with Stingers to try to shoot down one of the Ilyushin cargo planes, hoping to send a message to the Soviets that they would pay a price for such extravagant aid to Najibullah. The team infiltrated a Stinger on the outskirts of the Kabul airport and fired at an Ilyushin as it took off, but one of the plane’s hot defensive flares caught the missile’s tracking system, and the shot missed. The rebels sent out a videotape of the failed attack. The CIA also recruited agents to drop boron carbide sludge into the gas tanks or oil casings of transport vehicles to disable them.9 But none of these operations put much of a dent in Najibullah’s supply lines. And still the garrisons at Jalalabad stood.
The ISI bureaus in Peshawar and Quetta expanded propaganda operations against Najibullah. With CIA help they inserted anti-Najibullah commercials into bootleg videotapes of one of the Rambo movies, then greatly popular in Afghanistan, and they shipped the tapes across the border.10 Najibullah stepped up his own propaganda campaign. He filled radio and television airwaves with programs that demonized Hekmatyar and his fellow Islamists as devilish Neanderthals and Pakistani stooges who would tear Afghanistan away from its cultural moorings.
What ordinary Afghans made of all the fear-mongering was difficult to say. Refugees poured out of Nangarhar province to escape the terrible fighting at Jalalabad, but as the stalemate continued that spring, most Afghan civilians and refugees sat still, many of them enduring a long and persistent misery. They waited for one side or the other to prevail so that they might go home.
THE BLOODY DISASTER at Jalalabad only deepened Ed McWilliams’s conviction that the CIA and ISI were careening in the wrong direction. He could not understand why Oakley tolerated Bearden’s collaborations with Pakistani intelligence and its anti-American clients, especially Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. It appalled him that the United States was staking its policy that spring on the Afghan interim government, a feckless fiction, as McWilliams saw it, bought and paid for by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence agents.
In February the incoming Bush administration had renewed the legal authority for CIA covert action in Afghanistan. (Each new president had to reaffirm ongoing covert action programs under a fresh signature.) President Bush adjusted the official goals of U.S. policy. The Reagan-era objective of Soviet withdrawal had been achieved. Under the revised finding, the most important purpose of continuing CIA covert action was to promote “self-determination” by the Afghan people. With its echoes from the American revolution, the phrase had been promoted by congressional conservatives who championed the mujahedin cause.11
McWilliams concluded that achieving true Afghan “self-determination” would now require the CIA to break with Pakistani intelligence. Increasingly, he believed, it was ISI and its Islamist agenda—rather than communism—that posed the greatest obstacle to Afghan independence.
Inside the Islamabad embassy, tensions deepened. The investigations of McWilliams’s drinking and sexual habits stalled—they turned up nothing—but a new inquiry opened about whether he had compromised classified data. With Oakley’s support, Bearden insisted that McWilliams be accompanied by CIA case officers on his diplomatic reporting trips to Peshawar and Quetta. McWilliams chafed; he was insulted, angry, and more determined than before to put his views across.
Each cable to Washington now became a cause for gaming and intrigue in the embassy’s communications suite. Oakley would scribble dissenting comments on McWilliams’s drafts, and McWilliams would erase or ignore them and cable ahead on his own authority. McWilliams believed that Oakley had repressed a memo he wrote reporting the capture of Stinger missiles by Iran. On another occasion when he wandered by the cabling machine, he saw an outgoing high-level message from Oakley to Washington arguing that it was in America’s interest to accept a Pakistani sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Appalled, McWilliams quietly photocopied the cable and slipped it into his private files—more ammunition.12
McWilliams’s criticisms of the CIA now extended beyond his earlier view that Pakistani intelligence and Hekmatyar were dangerous American allies. By endorsing ISI’s puppet Afghan interim government, the United States had become involved in Afghan politics for the first time, and in doing so it had betrayed American principles and self-interest, McWilliams argued.
Earlier, as Soviet troops prepared to leave Afghanistan, the United States had decided not to help Afghans negotiate a peaceful political transition because the CIA believed Najibullah would fall quickly. The CIA also feared that political talks would slow down the Soviet departure. McWilliams believed those arguments had now been overtaken by events. To prevent Pakistan from installing its anti-American clients in Kabul, to prevent further suffering by Afghan civilians, and to rebuild a stable and centrist politics in Afghanistan, the United States now had to ease off on its covert military strategy and begin to sponsor a broader political settlement, he argued.
The Afghan interim government, a paper cabinet formed to occupy cities captured by ISI’s Islamists, “is the wrong vehicle to advance the entirely correct U.S. policy objective of achieving a genuinely representative Afghan government through Afghan self-determination,” McWilliams wrote that spring in a confidential cable sent through the State Department’s dissent channel. (The dissent channel was a special cable routing that permitted diplomats to express their personal views without having them edited by an embassy’s ambassador.) Many Afghans had now “called for an early political settlement to the war,” McWilliams wrote. Only a “relatively stable government will be able to address the massive problems of rehabilitation and refugee return in postwar Afghanistan.” A large pool of Afghan intellectuals living abroad “would be prepared to give their talent and credibility to a neutral administration which could serve as a bridge rising above the current stalemated military situation and the sterile dialogue of propaganda exchanges.” But the United States apparently intended to wait out the summer “fighting season” before considering such political talks. This decision “entails serious risks . . . [and] is not justifiable on either political or humanitarian grounds. We should press ahead now for a political settlement.”13
As McWilliams’s cables circulated in Washington, and as gossip about his tense disagreements with Bearden and Oakley spread, his policy prescriptions attracted new converts. The State Department’s intelligence bureau privately endorsed McWilliams, citing in part the detailed evidence in his cables. British intelligence officers in Islamabad and London also weighed in on his behalf. After earlier backing the anti-Soviet jihad, they now wanted the CIA to move away from Hekmatyar and an ISI-led military solution. Military supplies to the mujahedin should continue, the British argued, and battlefield pressure on Najibullah’s government forces should be maintained, but the time had also come to work with the United Nations to develop a political compromise for Afghanistan. This might involve a neutral transitional government of Afghan intellectuals living in Europe and the United States, Kabul technocrats, Kandahar royalists, and politically astute rebel commanders such as Massoud.14
The CIA remained adamant about its support for Pakistani intelligence, however. Bearden regarded McWilliams as little more than a nuisance. He took himself and his office much too seriously, Bearden felt. The State Department’s real policy on Afghanistan was made by Michael Armacost and others on the seventh floor at headquarters, where the most senior officials worked. Anyway, McWilliams, his midlevel supporters at State, and the British (who had lost two wars in Afghanistan, Bearden noted pointedly) made the mistake of believing that there was such a thing as a political Afghanistan, separate from Pakistan, “just because a few white guys drew a line in the sand” in northwestern British India a century earlier, as Bearden saw it. Still, the more State Department officials mouthed the McWilliams line, the more Langley argued the contrary. Interagency debates grew caustic as the CIA’s forecasts of a lightning rebel victory over Najibullah yielded to a grinding stalemate.15
The agency’s operatives felt they had adjusted their approach in Afghanistan in many ways since the Soviets began to withdraw. They had responded to outside criticism by bypassing ISI and opening secret, direct lines with important Afghan commanders such as Massoud. They had directed CIA funding and logistical support toward massive humanitarian efforts on the Afghan border, to accompany the policy of military pressure. The problem with McWilliams, they told those with the proper clearances, was that he was cut out of the highly classified information channels that showed the full breadth of CIA covert policy. For instance, in May 1989, just as McWilliams was composing his most heated dissents, Gary Schroen had personally delivered a $900,000 lump sum payment to Massoud’s brother, Ahmed Zia, over and above Massoud’s $200,000 monthly stipend, to help fund a humanitarian reconstruction program in northern Afghanistan. Massoud passed through to the CIA photographs of road repair and irrigation projects under way, although the agency’s officers doubted that the projects shown had been directly stimulated by their funding. In any event, the CIA argued, their cash payment represented a fresh political initiative: Massoud would have the resources that summer to win civilian support for his militias and local councils, and to start rebuilding the Panjshir. McWilliams knew nothing of this secret money. Besides, McWilliams seemed reflexively anti-American in his analysis, some of the CIA officers said. They denounced as naïve the prescriptions for a political solution pushed by McWilliams, the British, and the State Department. No stable government could be constructed in Kabul without Pakistani support, they argued. None was likely in any case. Afghan rebels from all parties, whether Islamist or royalist, extremist or moderate, were determined to finish their military jihad. That was what “self-determination” meant to them. Hekmatyar and the Muslim Brotherhood networks could be managed and contained.16
Increasingly, Oakley felt caught in the middle. He tacked carefully between the two sides. The problem with McWilliams, Oakley believed, was that he was trying to reshape White House policy from the middle levels of the bureaucracy. This simply could not be done. The State Department and the CIA clearly disagreed now about Afghanistan, but this disagreement had to be resolved in Washington, by the president and his Cabinet, not inside the Islamabad embassy.
James Baker, the Texas lawyer who had served as White House chief of staff and then treasury secretary during the Reagan administration, was the new secretary of state. He displayed little personal interest in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Oakley could see that Baker was not willing to challenge the CIA over Afghanistan policy. Unless he was willing to do so, all the Islamabad embassy could do was work with the current guidance, which put the CIA in a commanding position and kept the United States locked in its embrace with Pakistani intelligence.17
McWilliams, meanwhile, had to go, Oakley felt. McWilliams had persistently angered the embassy’s three most powerful figures: Oakley, his deputy Beth Jones, and Bearden. An opportunity arrived that spring when members of Congress finally appointed a formal ambassadorial-level special envoy to the Afghan resistance, a pet project of Gordon Humphrey. McWilliams was too junior in the Foreign Service to be elevated to this new post, so the question arose as to whether he should become the new envoy’s deputy. Oakley stepped in and arranged for McWilliams to be transferred abruptly out of the Islamabad embassy and back to Washington. The first McWilliams knew of his transfer was a cable telling him that his “request for curtailment” of his tour of duty in Islamabad had been accepted—a request that McWilliams did not know he had made. Leaving only a few fingerprints, Oakley and Bearden had effectively fired him.
“It is my intention to leave without formally calling on you,” McWilliams wrote Oakley in a farewell letter. “I did not want you to mistake this as an insult, however. I simply do not want to end our relationship with one more quarrel.” Their problems were not personal but substantive, he explained. “I believed and continue to believe that we were wrong to have been so close to some in the alliance; wrong to have given ISI such power and (now) wrong not to be actively seeking a political settlement.” He knew that Oakley had worked hard to try to get the ISI-created Afghan interim government on its feet, but “I just don’t believe that bunch was worthy of your efforts. Afghanistan surely is, but the AIG is incapable of unity or leading.
“I wish you success in a massively difficult posting,” McWilliams concluded. “I am sorry I became for you a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. Perhaps I was in error, but I don’t think so.”18
IN A RIVER VALLEY just eight or ten miles across the Afghan border from Parrot’s Beak, not far from large encampments of Arab volunteer jihadists, CIA officers set up a radio facility for clandestine rebel communications. They also helped build bunkers and rudimentary caves for munitions storage. The “beak” of Pakistani territory that thrust into Afghanistan in this region of Paktia province pointed directly at Kabul, and throughout the war the mujahedin and ISI had found its high, ravine-laced mountains ideal for infiltration and ambushes. A series of heights known as Tora Bora provided commanding access to Jalalabad. From nearby valleys it was also a relatively short walk to the outskirts of Kabul. The region was thick with rebel encampments dominated by commanders loyal to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. Bin Laden’s training camp for Arab volunteers lay only about thirty miles to the south.19
Even though it was strictly prohibited by agency rules, CIA officers continued to travel into Afghanistan occasionally with their Pakistani counterparts and with selected Afghan rebel escorts. Gary Schroen and his team traveled across the border at Parrot’s Beak, and so did Bearden. There was no compelling need for these trips; it was just something the officers wanted to do. If they moved in the company of senior ISI officers and Afghan fighters, there seemed little risk.
Frank Anderson, the director of the Afghan task force at Langley headquarters, flew out to Pakistan to meet with Bearden and survey logistical challenges along the border. Anderson had argued unsuccessfully as the Soviet withdrawal approached that the CIA should end its involvement in Afghanistan altogether. More recently he had spent hours in Washington meetings defending the CIA’s liaison with Pakistani intelligence against attacks from Ed McWilliams’s supporters at the State Department and from critics in Congress, many of them Massoud’s backers. In these Afghan policy wars Anderson and Bearden were close allies. Together in the field, free from their pointy-headed bureaucratic tormentors, the two of them decided to take a joy ride to the site of the new CIA-built radio station, Ali Khel, escorted by several ISI officers. They were on the Afghan border to ensure that a visit by Congressman Charlie Wilson went off without incident. They were in a triumphal mood. They got their hands on an ISI propaganda poster that showed a growling, wounded Soviet bear being stung by a swarm of Stinger missiles. Anderson and Bearden decided that they should tack the poster on the door of the abandoned Soviet garrison at Ali Khel, a symbolic declaration of victory.
They rattled across the border without much incident, found their way to the old Ali Khel garrison, and nailed up their poster in a private ceremony.On the way back they had to cross territory that belonged to Sayyaf, a region rife with Arab jihadist volunteers. They hit a roadblock manned by Arab Islamist radicals.
From the back of the jeep Anderson and Bearden heard their Afghan escort erupt into a screaming match with a Saudi rebel wielding an assault rifle. They were yelling in a patois of Arabic and Pashto. Anderson got out, walked around, and saw immediately that the Arab was threatening to execute them. He spoke to one of the jihadists in Arabic; the man’s accent suggested he was a volunteer from the Persian Gulf. The Arab pointed his gun directly at the two CIA officers. They were infidels and had no business in Afghanistan, he said. Instantly alert, Anderson and Bearden surveyed their environment for weapons and maneuvered themselves so that their jeep blocked the Arab’s line of fire. From this position Anderson began to talk to the Arab through his Afghan escort. Eventually the Saudi decided, reluctantly, that he would not attempt to kill them. The Americans bundled quickly back into the jeep and drove on to Pakistan.20
It was a rare direct encounter between CIA officers and the Arab volunteers their jihad had attracted to the border. It signaled the beginning of a fateful turn in the covert war, but few inside the agency grasped the implications. The CIA did accumulate and transmit to Langley more and more facts about the Arab volunteers and their activities. By the summer of 1989 the agency’s network of Afghan agents described the Arabs operating in Paktia and farther south as a rising force and a rising problem. Algerian fighters marauded Afghan supply convoys, they said. Wahhabi proselytizers continued to desecrate Afghan graves, provoking violent retaliation. Christian charity workers crossing the frontier reported threats and harassment from Arabs as well as from ardent Afghan Islamists working with Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. American and European journalists, too, had dangerous and occasionally fatal encounters with Wahhabi fighters in the region. The CIA’s Islamabad station estimated in a 1989 cable to Langley that there were probably about four thousand Arab volunteers in Afghanistan, mainly organized under Sayyaf’s leadership.21 He was in turn heavily supported by Saudi intelligence and Gulf charities.
Within the Islamabad station there was a growing sense of discomfort about the Arabs, reinforced by Bearden and Anderson’s close encounter. But there was no discussion about any change in U.S. policy, and no effort was made at first to talk directly to the Saudis about their funding of Arab volunteer networks. The CIA station knew that large sums of money flowed from Prince Turki’s General Intelligence Department to Pakistani intelligence, and that some of this money then passed through to Muslim Brotherhood–inspired jihadists. But the transnational Islamist networks still served a larger and more important cause, Bearden and his CIA colleagues believed. The Arabs might be disagreeable, but their Afghan allies, Hekmatyar especially, commanded some of the rebel movement’s most effective fighters, especially in the crucial regions around Kabul and Khost. Throughout 1989 the CIA pumped yet more arms, money, food, and humanitarian supplies into the Paktia border regions where the Arabs were building up their strength. They encouraged Prince Turki to do the same.
At the center of this border nexus stood Jallaladin Haqqanni, the long-bearded, fearless Afghan rebel commander with strong Islamist beliefs who had grown very close to Pakistani and Saudi intelligence during the last years of the anti-Soviet war. Haqqanni operated south of Parrot’s Beak, near bin Laden’s territory. He was seen by CIA officers in Islamabad and others as perhaps the most impressive Pashtun battlefield commander in the war. He sponsored some of the first Arab fighters who faced Soviet forces in 1987. He had been wounded in battle, in one case holding out in a cave under heavy assault for weeks. He later recovered in Saudi Arabia’s best hospitals, and he made many connections among the kingdom’s wealthy sheikhs at the annual hajj pilgrimage, as well as through General Intelligence Department introductions. He was in frequent contact with bin Laden and with ISI’s brigadiers. For their part, Pakistani intelligence and the CIA came to rely on Haqqanni for testing and experimentation with new weapons systems and tactics. Haqqanni was so favored with supplies that he was in a position to broker them and to help equip the Arab volunteers gathering in his region. The CIA officers working from Islamabad regarded him as a proven commander who could put a lot of men under arms at short notice. Haqqanni had the CIA’s full support.22
In Haqqanni’s crude Paktia training camps and inside the Arab jihadist salons in Peshawar, it was a summer of discontent, however. Disputes erupted continually among the Arab volunteers during mid-1989. The Soviets were gone.What would now unite the jihad? Tensions rose between bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, the charismatic Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood preacher.
The rising civil war between Hekmatyar and Massoud drew in the Arab volunteers and divided them. Because he was based in Peshawar, where most of the Arabs stayed, and because he had wide-ranging contacts in the Muslim Brotherhood networks, Hekmatyar was better positioned than Massoud to attract Arab followers. But Massoud also found support from Arab volunteers, including from Abdullah Azzam, whose Algerian son-in-law was Massoud’s chief Arab organizer.
Abdullah Azzam and some of his followers tried to organize an Arab religious group numbering about two hundred whose mission was to travel around Afghanistan, using Islamic principles to mediate a peace between Hekmatyar and Massoud. But neither of them was in a mood for compromise. Hekmatyar continued his assassination and intimidation campaign against moderate and royalist rivals in Peshawar. Inside Afghanistan he attacked Massoud’s forces. On July 9, 1989, Hekmatyar’s men ambushed a party of Massoud’s senior commanders in northern Afghanistan, killing thirty officers, including eight important leaders of Massoud’s elite fighting force. Massoud launched a manhunt for the killers. Open battles erupted with Hekmatyar’s fighters across the north, producing hundreds of casualties.23
From Peshawar, Abdullah Azzam embarked by land for Takhar that summer to meet with Massoud. Azzam flatteringly compared Massoud to Napoleon. He tried to broker a fresh truce. But Hekmatyar continually denounced Massoud in Peshawar before audiences of Arab volunteers, saying (truthfully) that Massoud received aid from French intelligence, and (falsely) that he frolicked with French nurses in swimming pools at luxury compounds in the Panjshir. Increasingly, Osama bin Laden sided with Hekmatyar, alienating his mentor Azzam.24
The Arabs in University Town’s salons argued about theology, too. Hekmatyar and Massoud both agreed that communist and capitalist systems were both corrupt because they were rooted in jahiliyya, the state of primitive barbarism that prevailed before Islam lit the world with truth. In this sense the Soviet Union and the United States were equally evil. Hekmatyar and Massoud also accepted that Islam was not only a personal faith but a body of laws and systems—the proper basis for politics and government. The goal of jihad was to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan in order to implement these laws and ideals. Hekmatyar and Massoud also both endorsed Qutb’s concept of takfir, by which true believers could identify imposter Muslims who had strayed from true Islam, and then proclaim these false Muslims kaffir, or outside of the Islamic community. Such imposters should be overthrown no matter how hard they worked to drape themselves in Islamic trappings. Najibullah was one such false ruler, they agreed.
In the Peshawar salons that year, however, Hekmatyar’s followers began to express extreme views about who was a kaffir and who should therefore be the target of jihad now that the Soviets had left Afghanistan. Exiled Egyptian radicals such as al-Zawahiri proclaimed that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was one such enemy. Benazir Bhutto was declared a kaffir by others. Still others denounced the King of Jordan and the secular thugs who ruled Syria and Iraq. Abdullah Azzam, still Peshawar’s most influential Arab theologian, resisted this fatwa-by-fax-machine approach. He adhered to the more traditional, cautious, evolutionary approach of the old Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Its mainstream leaders were content to build gradually toward the ideal of Islamic government, to create change one convert at a time. Also, Azzam felt that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Arab volunteers’ attention, not faraway countries across the Middle East. Why start issuing calls to war against Egypt or Pakistan when the cause that had attracted them all to Peshawar remained very much unfinished?25
Bin Laden was among those who called for a wider war against impious rulers. “I’m very upset about Osama,” Azzam told his son-in-law. The Saudi was a generous, sweet-tempered benefactor of the jihad, but he was being influenced by Arab radicals who cared little for the Afghan cause. “This heaven-sent man, like an angel,” Azzam said of bin Laden. “I am worried about his future if he stays with these people.”26
But it was Azzam who should have been concerned about the future. At midday on November 24, 1989, as he arrived to lead regular Friday prayers at Peshawar’s Saba-e-Leil mosque, a car bomb detonated near the entrance, killing the Palestinian preacher and two of his sons. The crime was never solved. There were far more suspects with plausible motivations than there were facts. As the founder of Hamas, Azzam was increasingly in the crosshairs of Israel. Afghanistan’s still-active intelligence service had him high on its enemies list. Hekmatyar was in the midst of a killing spree directed at nearly every rival for power he could reach. Azzam’s connections to the Panjshir, including his trip north that summer,may have been enough to activate Hekmatyar’s hit squads. Even bin Laden came under some suspicion, although some Arabs who knew him then discounted that possibility. Bin Laden was not yet much of an operator. He was still more comfortable talking on cushions, having himself filmed and photographed, providing interviews to the Arabic language press, and riding horses in the outback. He had a militant following, but it was not remotely as hardened or violent in 1989 as Hekmatyar’s.
Bin Laden did seize the opportunity created by Azzam’s death, however. He defeated Azzam’s son-in-law, Massoud’s ally, in a bid to take control of Azzam’s jihad recruiting and support network, the Office of Services. Bin Laden and his extremist allies, close to Hekmatyar, folded the office into bin Laden’s nascent al Qaeda, which he had formally established the year before, evoking images of his one grand battle against the Soviets at Jaji.27
Bin Laden continued to look beyond Afghanistan. He decided that the time had come to wage jihad against other corrupt rulers. He flew home to Jedda and resettled his family in Saudi Arabia. He continued to fly back and forth to Pakistan, but he began to spend less time on the Afghan frontier. He had new enemies in mind.