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The Rise of bin Laden


As millions of people around the world gathered in front of their TV sets in March and April to observe the public hearings held by the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks, the one name that seemed to hover over the room was Osama bin Laden. While they watched, one senior official after another from the Clinton or Bush administrations spoke of the numerous attempts by the CIA before September 11 to capture or kill him.

Some of the stories of their efforts to capture bin Laden had already been told. Those who had followed recent accounts of the work of US intelligence knew that the Clinton administration would not give an order to kill him in February 1999, when he was at a hunting camp in southern Afghanistan with a group of Arab princes. They also knew that the CIA hired both an Afghan mercenary group to kidnap him from an al-Qaeda farm in Kandahar in Afghanistan and a group of Pakistani commandos to do the same. Some of the listening public probably knew as much as the members of the commission.

Among the best informed were those who had read Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, a remarkable book published a few weeks before the public hearings began, which got much attention among people who follow intelligence matters, although nothing like the publicity given shortly afterward to Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies.1 Clarke, after all, was one of the most powerful experts on terrorism in the White House. That he would openly say that the administration he once worked for was fighting the wrong war was wholly unexpected. Steve Coll’s background is quite different. He was a reporter in Afghanistan, and he has been the managing editor of The Washington Post since 1998.

Ghost Wars, which has taken him twelve years to write, spells out the CIA’s covert work in Afghanistan ever since the Soviet Union invaded that blighted country in 1979. Coll recounts in detail the CIA’s encouragement and support of the Islamic jihad against the Soviets, and the consequences of this support for the rise of radical Islamists like bin Laden. Not surprisingly, the book gives particular emphasis to the critical period during the late 1990s after bin Laden established himself in Afghanistan and then, with the help of the Taliban regime, began his global jihad against the US and the West.
Coll was able to secure secret documents about the CIA’s operations. He talked not just with its officials, but with spymasters and spies in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries. No one else I know of has been able to bring such a broad perspective to bear on the rise of bin Laden; the CIA itself would be hard put to beat his grasp of global events. Rarely hasa book been able to anticipate, as Coll’s has, the revelations of government bureaucrats, such as Richard Clarke, about intelligence. It does so, moreover, in a more comprehensive way than the recent testimony of US officials has done.

Coll has avoided a pitfall facing any reporter who is given access to secret government files. The CIA has a long record of manipulating the press and television and putting out its own interpretation of events. And its chief, George Tenet, the only high-level official who has served both Clinton and Bush, is a master of political survival and spin. Some writers given access to the innermost corridors of power appear mesmerized by their proximity to the real players, and it shows. It does not show in Coll’s book.

Bob Woodward’s Bush at War2 got more attention than any of the other post–September 11 books. Woodward was given access to the decision-making process in the White House in the days following September 11, which led to the US attack on Afghanistan.3 From Woodward’s account, George Tenet and the CIA come out smelling like roses; clearly, they were prime sources of his book. Woodward would have us believe that the CIA had “assets”—informants and agents—on the ground in Afghanistan; that it was fully in command of the facts about bin Laden; and that it was raring to start covert operations in that country before the war in Afghanistan began. The CIA thus wanted to put to shame Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because they did not appear to have the resources that Tenet claimed to have. Coll shows that the reality was entirely different—very few CIA agents, for example, spoke any one of the languages of Afghanistan.
Woodward’s book made some of his fellow journalists cringe with embarrassment. In uncritically reporting Tenet’s views to his readers, he wrote as though he was the court note-taker for a medieval king. He rarely questioned what he was told, he seldom offered a nonofficial point of view, and he accepted Tenet’s self-serving version of events.

We can be thankful that Coll is not mesmerized by access to the powerful and does not feel obliged to defend the CIA. Instead, he offers us a much more balanced account, blaming the CIA for not having had an adequate presence in Afghanistan and for not knowing much about the country. He also blames the Clinton and Bush administrations for having prevented the CIA from taking action against al-Qaeda. In contrast to Woodward, Coll draws on a variety of different sources and shows how there was conflict within both administrations over the seriousness of the threat of terrorism. Particularly striking is the portrait he gives of Clarke as the tough-minded expert on terrorism who fought for stronger measures against al-Qaeda.

At least some of the facts are simple enough. During the 1980s, the CIA paid hundreds of millions of dollars in covert aid to the Afghan Mujahideen, an Islamist force that opposed the Soviet domination of Afghanistan and was also backed by Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence (ISI). Following the initial success of the anti-Soviet campaign, CIA director William Casey persuaded the Reagan administration in 1985 to increase this support dramatically. The CIA particularly encouraged the recruitment of radical Islamist fighters—many of whom were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood—believing them to be more dedicated to the defeat of the Soviet occupying forces than secular or royalist Afghani groups. As Coll writes, the United States adopted a policy that

looked forward to a new era of direct infusions of advanced US military technology into Afghanistan, intensified training of Islamist guerrillas in explosives and sabotage techniques, and targeted attacks on Soviet military officers designed to demoralize the Soviet high command. Among other consequences these changes pushed the CIA, along with its clients in the Afghan resistance and in Pakistani intelligence, closer to the gray fields of assassination and terrorism.

When the US walked away from Afghanistan in 1989, it left behind a seasoned group of jihadists, whose brand of radical Islam had found an enormously rich supporter in Osama bin Laden. The son of a Saudi billionaire, bin Laden had joined the jihad shortly after the Soviet invasion, using his financial resources to build military facilities and training camps for volunteer fighters. Bin Laden first began to turn his radical energies against the United States in 1990, when the Saudi royal family agreed to invite American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of its alliance against Iraq. Coll quotes Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief, suggesting that this was the moment when bin Laden’s extremism and hatred for American infidels began to assert itself: “He changed from a calm, peaceful, and gentle man interested in helping Muslims into a person who believed that he would be able to amass and command an army….”

After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from that country, so did the CIA—not just from Afghanistan, but from virtually all of South and Central Asia, a region that had less and less importance for the post–cold war foreign policy of the two Clinton administrations. In 1996 the CIA was taken completely by surprise when the ragtag Taliban captured Kabul and put the famous Tajik-speaking resistance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud to flight. In 1998, the CIA failed to predict that India would explode a nuclear device or that Pakistan would launch a military offensive in the Kargil district of Indian Kashmir the following year. And these are just some of the more publicly known failures of the agency that Coll has pointed out.

Coll writes that although the CIA had passed, through Pakistan, billions of dollars in military aid to the Afghan Mujahideen, it was not much interested in who was getting the weapons, nor was it concerned with what a post-Soviet Afghanistan would look like. In choosing the leaders and organization that would get arms and money, the CIA was dependent on the ISI and the Saudi Arabia General Intelligence Department (GID). Coll writes of the period, “There was no American policy on Afghan politics at the time, only the de facto promotion of Pakistani goals as carried out by Pakistani intelligence.” Huge deliveries of arms and money intended for the Mujahideen passed first through the hands of the ISI, which predictably took a considerable cut for itself before allowing deliveries to the Mujahideen groups they had selected.

Pakistan’s and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services first backed the Islamic extremist group Hezb-e-Islami—led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—and then, finding Hekmatyar greedy and unpopular, they backed another group, the Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. Both men are now on the US most-wanted list. When the Pakistanis were supporting Hekmatyar, the Saudis were channeling their money to a motley collection of Afghan Wahhabis tutored or educated in Saudi Arabia, in part with the help of the Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden. In the mid-1990s the CIA allowed the ISI and the GID to dictate much of the course of the Afghan civil war, including the rise of the Taliban when the Mujahideen were weakened by incessant fighting with one another and by loss of public support. Coll writes that the Saudis, preferring to work from a distance, funded ISI activities in Afghanistan and even paid cash “bonuses” to the ISI officers who promoted Saudi interests.
Coll also found that by 1998, when the Taliban ruled over two thirds of the country, the ISI maintained eight stations in Afghanistan, staffed by officers who gave assistance to the Taliban and helped train militants for the war in Kashmir. He repeatedly accuses former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of “lying” when she told visiting US officials that Pakistan had nothing to do with the Taliban. He also debunks the widely held theory among conspiracy theorists that the CIA was directly supporting the Taliban. It did so essentially through its support of the ISI.


I spent the 1990s trying to decipher the failure of the US to have a clear policy toward Afghanistan. I worked largely from Islamabad, where the US embassy had a single mid-level State Department official monitoring events in Afghanistan and a consulate with a small staff in Peshawar, near the border. No doubt there were CIA agents in touch with them, if they were not agents themselves, but their sources of information were largely Afghan exiles living in Pakistan and newspaper reports from journalists who ventured inside the country. In short, however energetically and enthusiastically, they collected much the same information that a competent journalist would have at the time. This left the US largely ignorant about the inner workings of the Taliban organization and its connections with bin Laden. Coll makes it clear that the CIA had no serious presence in Afghanistan or the capacity to monitor events there, let alone the ability to develop useful sources and allies inside the country.

  1. 1

    Free Press, 2004. See Brian Urquhart’s review, “A Matter of Truth,” The New York Review, May 13, 2004.

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster, 2003.

  3. 3

    Woodward’s new book, Plan of Attack (Simon and Schuster), will be reviewed in a coming issue.

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