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The Rise of bin Laden

Robert Baer, a former CIA official, has written that, in the 1990s, very few people in the entire agency could speak Pashto or Persian—the two main languages in Afghanistan.4 The writer Robin Moore, in his book The Hunt for bin Laden,5 notes that when groups of US Special Forces and CIA agents were secretly airlifted into northern Afghanistan to start mobilizing the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance against the Taliban after September 11, most of them could speak Arabic and Russian, but not any of the languages used in Afghanistan. In my own reporting, I observed that the CIA had no competent interpreters and had to use sign language in their initial contacts with the Northern Alliance as well as in dealing with other groups.

After September 11, I was deluged with dozens of e-mails from US recruiting agencies who asked my help in hiring Dari or Pashto speakers “for government work.” For an outsider like myself, this lack of languages was the most obvious and glaring example of the lack of interest in Afghanistan by the US government and the CIA in particular. The CIA had by then a cell of agents and informants in the region to monitor al-Qaeda, but it suffered from the same ignorance.
For the preceding fifteen years, leading Afghans had been warning US officials of the dangers of ignoring the country. Coll quotes a prophetic statement by President Najibullah, the Communist leader who was ousted by the Mujahideen in 1992. He attempted to convince Washington to help put together a coalition government in Kabul that would keep out the most hard-line Islamic Mujahideen leaders such as Hekmatyar. “We have,” he said,

a common task—Afghanistan, the USA and the civilized world—to launch a joint struggle against fundamentalism. If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.

In 1992, Najibullah took refuge in a UN guest house in Kabul and was then captured and hanged by the advancing Taliban.
In the mid-1990s other leading Afghans, including Ahmed Shah Massoud, Abdul Haq, the Afghan rebel commander, and the current president, Hamid Karzai, criticized US officials for ignoring their country, but they could not get a hearing in Washington. Abdul Haq was wholly ignored by the CIA even after September 11 and he was killed by the Taliban soon after the US-led war began. Karzai, living in Quetta in Pakistan, was given an expulsion order by the ISI to leave the country just a few weeks before September 11, because he was trying to organize Afghan tribal chiefs to oppose the Taliban from Pakistani soil. Indeed, as I have learned, when Karzai went to the US and European embassies to try to get the expulsion order lifted, he received no support.
Coll makes it clear that when these men said they feared that their country was being taken over by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they were considered no more than politicians with personal ambitions. Al-Qaeda took them far more seriously. Massoud, who continued to lead a fighting force against the Taliban, was killed by as- sassins linked to bin Laden just before September 11, and Karzai has survived several assassination attempts. To anyone who closely followed events in the region it was clear that before September 11, the threats posed by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and bin Laden were of low priority for the Clinton and Bush administrations. After September 11, the US was suddenly faced with the problem of how to track down bin Laden and eliminate him, when he had for years successfully created close relations with the Taliban and many other Afghans and Pakistanis.

Coll gives a fresh account of those years. In January 1996, he writes, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, first opened a new office to track bin Laden, which became known as the “bin Laden Issue Station” with the code name “Alex.” At the time the CIA thought bin Laden was merely funding terrorist groups, not directing them. A few months later bin Laden flew on a rented Afghan Airlines plane from Sudan, where he had organized al-Qaeda cells among Muslims in Africa, to Jalalabad in Afghanistan; he needed two other flights to take his wives, children, and bodyguards. The CIA officials were unable to monitor his arrival, Coll writes, because they had no agents in Jalalabad, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and just a few miles from the Pakistan border. Such, Coll found, was the state of knowledge about bin Laden when he arrived in Afghanistan, a country which he was to virtually take under his control within the next four to five years.

Coll outlines the various plans that the CIA’s specialists on bin Laden drew up to try to kidnap him. They wanted to fund a commando swat team from Uzbekistan which had no experience in such matters. They tried to find such a team in Pakistan, whose government had little interest because it was backing the Taliban. The CIA started financing an Afghan squad to try to kidnap him; it restarted a relationship with the anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, paying him a monthly retainer and providing him equipment so his forces could keep track of bin Laden’s movements. As Coll points out, the enthusiasm and dedication of the members of the CIA’s special unit concerned with bin Laden were of no help, since they were supposed to carry out the foolish plans of the CIA management.
One problem was simply that the CIA had few people they could count on—“assets”—in Afghanistan itself. The Clinton administration had no coherent policy toward the three main political forces—the Taliban, the anti-Taliban resistance, and Pakistan. Condoleezza Rice almost inadvertently summed up the dilemma of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations when she testified before the September 11 commission on April 8:

America’s al-Qaeda policy wasn’t working because our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working. And our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working because our Pakistan policy wasn’t working. We recognized that America’s counterterrorism policy had to be connected to our regional strategies and to our overall foreign policy.

But Rice also claimed in her testimony that the Bush administration had been moving toward a decisive new policy in the region that would have increased the chances of catching bin Laden just a week before September 11. In fact, nothing she proposed showed any promise of accomplishing that aim. Once again, it was a case of too little too late.

In fact, as Coll makes clear, since 1996 the CIA and the US government have been working in a region where both governments and inhabitants are largely opposed to the US catching bin Laden. The US made no serious attempt to change this situation. Yet nowhere in the testimony and documents made public so far does George Tenet even acknowledge these obvious contradictions. Nor did he push for the strategic shift in regional policy—particularly toward Pakistan—that should have been dictated to the US by the threat that al-Qaeda posed.

In his testimony to the September 11 commission on April 14, Tenet admitted that the CIA made mistakes and he concentrated on the technical failings, lack of manpower, and coordination with the FBI and other agencies that hampered the CIA before September 11. He stated that “between 1999 and 2001, our human agent base against the terrorist target grew by over 50 percent. We ran over seventy sources and sub-sources, twenty-five of whom operated inside Afghanistan.” Even for those who know little about intelligence matters, it should be clear that this very small number of sources inside Afghanistan was insufficient. And Tenet gave us no idea of the quality of these sources—were they cooks and drivers or commanders and mullahs?


Coll’s book is deeply satisfying because it is much more than a treatise on the CIA’s performance. It covers the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan; shows where al-Qaeda and bin Laden were getting support, discussing in detail bin Laden’s complicated relationship with the Saudis, who had expelled him in 1991 but remained ambivalent about bringing him to justice; and it clarifies the battles over policy among the CIA, the White House, and the US’s principal allies. It’s an inside account written by an outsider, the most objective history I have read of the many failures of the CIA and the US government in the region.
Two minor criticisms can be made. First, the CIA’s relationships with China and Iran could have had considerably greater emphasis. In the 1980s China had developed a close relationship with the CIA by providing the Mujahideen with weapons during their war with the Soviets. In the 1990s with the advent of the Taliban, China became increasingly concerned that some militant Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province were joining the Tal- iban and al-Qaeda. Although China was Pakistan’s closest ally, Beijing was never in favor of Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. But China disappears from Coll’s account after the 1980s.

Similarly, Iran was vehemently opposed to the Taliban and nearly went to war with it in 1998 when Iranian diplomats were killed in the Afghanistan town of Mazar-e-Sharif, near the Uzbekistan border. Here the lack of official contacts between the US and Iran was a disadvantage for the US. But it is still unclear to what extent the CIA tried to take advantage of Iran’s anti-Taliban sentiments. If they did not, they surely should have done so through British or German or other intelligence agencies. What we know is that Iran quietly acquiesced to the American war in Afghanistan and that a low-level dialogue between the two countries finally began, which culminated in Iran giving the US and the UN its full support at the Bonn peace talks in December 2001, when the new Afghan government was formed. This could have led to an opening with Iran, but within weeks Bush had foreclosed that possibility by including the country in “the axis of evil.”

Meanwhile what of bin Laden himself? There can be no doubt that he is alive and active. On April 15, he issued a new tape recording, which was interpreted by analysts as suggesting that al-Qaeda was taking a new strategic direction by trying to exploit the differences between the US and Europe. He offered European nations “a truce” if they would pull out their forces from Muslim countries. “The door to a truce is open for three months…. The truce will begin when the last soldier leaves our countries,” bin Laden said. “Stop spilling our blood so we can stop spilling your blood…this is a difficult but easy equation,” he added. Previous tapes issued by bin Laden have almost invariably been followed by further terrorist attacks. His reference to the March 11 attacks in Madrid as “your goods delivered back to you” intensified fears that an al-Qaeda cell may be organizing another major terrorist attack in Europe.

The next day almost every European leader replied to the tape saying they would not negotiate with terrorists, showing that bin Laden can now expect comment on his proposals from heads of government. The tape is also a major embarrassment to US and Pakistani forces, who since February have assigned thousands of soldiers to renewed offensive sweeps in the Afghanistan–Pakistan border region in order to hunt down bin Laden. It is no secret that the Bush administration is desperately anxious to catch him before the November elections, a goal that has become all the more urgent in view of the difficulties facing the US forces in Iraq.

Ultimately, it has been the war in Iraq that has been mainly responsible for the failure of US attempts to capture bin Laden. Despite the horrific killings in New York and Washington on September 11, there is now (especially in view of the information in Woodward’s recent Plan of Attack) more than enough evidence to prove that the Bush administration began planning the invasion of Iraq even before the war in Afghanistan ended in December 2001. Afghanistan badly needed peacekeeping troops, adequate security for both leaders and local populations, and funding for rebuilding the country. All were neglected by the US. Similarly neglected was the hunt for bin Laden. That many of his top leaders were arrested created the false impression that he and the cells of jihadists linked to him have fatally lost power. As events in Madrid and in Iraq have shown, this was an illusion.

The good will for the US and its allies arising from the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 should have been followed up by extensive local recon- struction projects, providing not only schools but, among much else, security forces, a basic welfare system, and jobs. If this had been done, local sources of reliable intelligence would also have been found. Instead, small US army garrisons were scattered along the border hundreds of miles apart. They were never provided with the funds, equipment, personnel, and other support they would have needed to gather information, follow up leads, concentrate on suspicious groups and activities, and take the other measures that are necessary if bin Laden is to be caught.

The hearings on September 11 have so far barely touched on the fact that the moment the Afghan war was over the US started moving much of its counterterrorism resources and activities from Afghanistan to Iraq—including soldiers, civilian experts, intelligence units, satellite surveillance, drones, and other high-tech devices. The hunt for Saddam Hussein took on more importance than the hunt for bin Laden, even though there is still no conclusive evidence that Hussein supported al-Qaeda or needed its backing.

Now the US military and the CIA, in a great hurry to catch bin Laden, are trying to make up for lost time in Afghanistan, sending in some two thousand Marines and moving large numbers of troops from Kabul and Kan- dahar to the border. But additional US troops will not make up for months that were lost both in gathering intelligence and gaining local tribal support as Washington pursued the war in Iraq.
Hiding out in the rugged and mountainous terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan where some Pashtun tribesmen have proved to be excellent hosts, generously financed by cash from al-Qaeda, bin Laden seems far from being caught. The lack of attention from the US during 2002 and 2003 has probably allowed him to establish even closer links to the local population and to find more hiding places if he is threatened.

Some 70 percent of the original al-Qaeda leadership is now captured or dead, and bin Laden, unable to use the electronic communications that would reveal his location, is in no position to run day-to-day operations or direct the many organizations linked to al-Qaeda throughout the world—in sixty-eight countries, according to Tenet’s testimony to the September 11 commission. However, bin Laden remains the spiritual guru and strategic guide for many thousands of Muslim militants around the world; every time he demonstrates that he is alive and can still make a forceful presentation on tape, he can be assured of more recruits to his cause of global jihad.
In hindsight, September 11 was the result both of a chronic failure of intelligence gathering and coordination among agencies working in Washington and of a failure to conceive of a strategy for the region including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and neighboring countries. But since September 11 there has been a far bigger blunder by the Bush administration: its failure to sustain momentum in the efforts to make Afghanistan more secure and more stable and to catch bin Laden. No hindsight is required in order to make this judgment. What needed to be done after the defeat of the Taliban should have been obvious. What successive US administrations could have done to prevent September 11 will always be debatable; perhaps the failure of intelligence to anticipate it is ultimately understandable, in view of the ponderous workings of bureaucracies. What is unforgivable is the failure of the current US administration to maintain the resources and manpower needed to rebuild Afghanistan and to arrest bin Laden after September 11, and its decision to go to war in Iraq instead.

—April 28, 2004

  1. 4

    See Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (Crown, 2002).

  2. 5

    Random House, 2003.

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