In the tattered, cargo-strewn cabin of an Ariana Afghan Airlines passenger jet streaking above Punjab toward Kabul sat a stocky, broad-faced American with short graying hair. He was a friendly man in his early fifties who spoke in a flat midwestern accent. He looked as if he might be a dentist, an acquaintance once remarked. Gary Schroen had served for twenty-six years as an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine services. He was now, in September 1996, chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan. He spoke Persian and its cousin, Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two main languages. In spy terminology, Schroen was an operator. He recruited and managed paid intelligence agents, conducted espionage operations, and supervised covert actions against foreign governments and terrorist groups. A few weeks before, with approval from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he had made contact through intermediaries with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the celebrated anti-Soviet guerrilla commander, now defense minister in a war-battered Afghan government crumbling from within. Schroen had requested a meeting, and Massoud had accepted.
They had not spoken in five years. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as allies battling Soviet occupation forces and their Afghan communist proxies, the CIA had pumped cash stipends as high as $200,000 a month to Massoud and his Islamic guerrilla organization, along with weapons and other supplies. Between 1989 and 1991, Schroen had personally delivered some of the cash. But the aid stopped in December 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. The United States government decided it had no further interests in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the country had collapsed. Kabul, once an elegant city of broad streets and walled gardens tucked spectacularly amid barren crags, had been pummelled by its warlords into a state of physical ruin and human misery that compared unfavorably to the very worst places on Earth. Armed factions within armed factions erupted seasonally in vicious urban battles, blasting down mud-brick block after mud-brick block in search of tactical advantages usually apparent only to them. Militias led by Islamic scholars who disagreed profoundly over religious minutia baked prisoners of war to death by the hundreds in discarded metal shipping containers. The city had been without electricity since 1993. Hundreds of thousands of Kabulis relied for daily bread and tea on the courageous but limited efforts of international charities. In some sections of the countryside thousands of displaced refugees died of malnutrition and preventable disease because they could not reach clinics and feeding stations. And all the while neighboring countries-Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia-delivered pallets of guns and money to their preferred Afghan proxies. The governments of these countries sought territorial advantage over their neighbors. Money and weapons also arrived from individuals or Islamic charities seeking to extend their spiritual and political influence by proselytizing to the destitute.
Ahmed Shah Massoud remained Afghanistan’s most formidable military leader. A sinewy man with a wispy beard and penetrating dark eyes, he had be come a charismatic popular leader, especially in northeastern Afghanistan. There he had fought and negotiated with equal imagination during the 1980s, punishing and frustrating Soviet generals. Massoud saw politics and war as intertwined. He was an attentive student of Mao and other successful guerrilla leaders. Some wondered as time passed if he could imagine a life without guerrilla conflict. Yet through various councils and coalitions, he had also proven able to acquire power by sharing it. During the long horror of the Soviet occupation, Massoud had symbolized for many Afghans-especially his own Tajik people-the spirit and potential of their brave resistance. He was above all an independent man. He surrounded himself with books. He prayed piously, read Persian poetry, studied Islamic theology, and immersed himself in the history of guerrilla warfare. He was drawn to the doctrines of revolutionary and political Islam, but he had also established himself as a broad-minded, tolerant Afghan nationalist.
That September 1996, Massoud’s reputation had fallen to a low ebb, however. His passage from rebellion during the 1980s to governance in the 1990s had evolved disastrously. After the collapse of Afghan communism he had joined Kabul’s newly triumphant but unsettled Islamic coalition as its defense minister. Attacked by rivals armed in Pakistan, Massoud counterattacked, and as he did, he became the bloodstained power behind a failed, self-immolating government. His allies to the north smuggled heroin. He was unable to unify or pacify the country. His troops showed poor discipline. Some of them mercilessly massacred rivals while battling for control of Kabul neighborhoods.
Promising to cleanse the nation of its warlords, including Massoud, a new militia movement swept from Afghanistan’s south beginning in 1994. Its turbaned, eye-shadowed leaders declared that the Koran would slay the Lion of Panjshir, as Massoud was known, where other means had failed.
They traveled behind white banners raised in the name of an unusually severe school of Islam that promoted lengthy and bizarre rules of personal conduct. These Taliban, or students, as they called themselves, now controlled vast areas of southern and western Afghanistan. Their rising strength shook Massoud. The Taliban traveled in shiny new Toyota double-cab pickup trucks. They carried fresh weapons and ample ammunition. Mysteriously, they repaired and flew former Soviet fighter aircraft, despite only rudimentary military experience among their leaders.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul had been shut for security reasons since late 1988, so there was no CIA station in Afghanistan from which to collect intelligence about the Taliban or the sources of their newfound strength. The nearest station, in Pakistan, no longer had Afghanistan on its Operating Directive, the official list of intelligence-gathering priorities transmitted from Washington each year to CIA stations worldwide. Without the formal blessing of the O.D., as it was called, a station chief like Gary Schroen lacked the budgetary resources needed to recruit agents, supply them with communications gear, manage them in the field, and process their intelligence reports.
The CIA maintained a handful of paid agents in Afghanistan, but these were dedicated to tracking down Mir Amal Kasi, a young and angry Pakistani who on January 25, 1993, had opened fire on CIA employees arriving at the agency’s Langley headquarters. Kasi had killed two and wounded three, and then fled to Pakistan. By 1996 he was believed to be moving back and forth to Afghanistan, taking refuge in tribal areas where American police and spies could not operate easily.
The CIA’s Kasi-hunting agents did not report on the Taliban’s developing war against Ahmed Shah Massoud except in passing. The job of collecting intelligence about political and military developments in Afghanistan had been assigned to CIA headquarters in faraway Virginia, lumped in with the general responsibilities of the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations.
This was hardly an unusual development among U.S. government agencies. The U.S. Agency for International Development had shut down its Afghan humanitarian assistance program in 1994. The Pentagon had no relationships there. The National Security Council at the White House had no Afghan policy beyond a vague wish for peace and prosperity. The State Department was more involved in Afghan affairs, but only at the middle levels of its bureaucracy. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had barely commented about Afghanistan during his four years in office.
Massoud sent a close adviser named Massoud Khalili to escort Gary Schroen into Kabul. To make room for cargo desperately needed in the land locked capital, Ariana Afghan had ripped most of the passenger seats out of their airplanes to stack the aisles with loose boxes and crates, none of them strapped down or secured. “It’s never crashed before,” Khalili assured Schroen.
Their jet swept above barren russet ridges folded one upon the other as it crossed into Afghanistan. The treeless land below lay mottled in palettes of sand brown and clay red. To the north, ink black rivers cut plunging gorges through the Hindu Kush Mountains. To the south, eleven-thousand-foot peaks rose in a ring above the Kabul valley, itself more than a mile high. The plane banked toward Bagram, a military air base north of Kabul. Along the surrounding roads lay rusting carcasses of tanks and armored personnel carriers, burned and abandoned. Fractured shells of fighter aircraft and transport planes lined the runway.
Officers in Massoud’s intelligence service met the plane with four-wheel-drive vehicles, packed their American visitor inside, and began the bone-jarring drive across the Shomali Plain to Kabul. It amazed some of them that Schroen had turned up with just a small bag tossed over his shoulder-no communications gear, no personal security His relaxed demeanor, ability to speak Dari, and detailed knowledge of Afghanistan impressed them.
Then, too, Schroen had been known to turn up in the past with bags full of American dollars. In that respect he and his CIA colleagues could be easy men for Afghan fighters to like. For sixteen years now the CIA had routinely pursued its objectives in Afghanistan with large boxes of cash. It frustrated some of Massoud’s intelligence officers that the CIA always seemed to think Massoud and his men were motivated by money.
Their civil war might be complex and vicious, but they saw themselves as fighters for a national cause, bleeding and dying by the day, risking what little they had. Enough untraceable bills had flowed to Massoud’s organization over the years to assure their comfortable retirements if they wished. Yet many of them were still here in Kabul still at Massoud’s side, despite the severe risks and deprivations. Some of them wondered resentfully why the CIA often seemed to treat them as if money mattered more than kin and country. Of course, they had not been known to refuse the cash, either.
They delivered Gary Schroen to one of the half-dozen unmarked safehouses Massoud maintained in Kabul. They waited for the commander’s summons, which came about an hour before midnight. They met in a house that had once been the residence of Austria’s ambassador, before rocketing and gun battles had driven most of Europe’s diplomats away.
Massoud wore a white Afghan robe and a round, soft, wool Panjshiri cap. He was a tall man, but not physically imposing. He was quiet and formal, yet he radiated intensity. His attendant poured tea. They sat in dim light around a makeshift conference table. Massoud chatted in Dari with Khalili about their visitor, his back ground, what Khalili knew of him.
Massoud sounded skeptical about the CIA’s request for this meeting. The agency had ignored what Massoud and his men saw as the rising threat posed by the radical Taliban. There were some in Massoud’s circle who suspected that the CIA had secretly passed money and guns to the Taliban. America had been a friend to Massoud over the years, but a fickle friend. What did the agency want now?
“You and I have a history, although we never met face to face,” Schroen began. He was not going to make accusations, but in truth, it was not an altogether happy history.
In the winter of 1990, Schroen reminded Massoud, the CIA had been working closely with the commander. Massoud operated then in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. Kabul was controlled by President Najibullah, a beefy, mustached former secret police chief and communist who clung to power despite the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Moscow backed Najibullah; U.S. policy sought his defeat by military force. The Soviets supplied vast amounts of military and economic aid to their client by road and air. Working with Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the CIA had come up with a plan that winter to launch simultaneous attacks on key supply lines around Afghanistan. CIA officers had mapped a crucial role for Massoud because his forces were positioned near the Salang Highway, the main north-south road leading from the Soviet Union to Kabul.
In January of 1990, Gary Schroen had traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan. One of Massoud’s brothers, Ahmed Zia, maintained a compound there with a radio connection to Massoud’s northeastern headquarters. Schroen spoke on the radio with Massoud about the CIA’S attack plan. The agency wanted Massoud to drive west and shut down the Salang Highway for the winter.
Massoud agreed but said he needed financial help. He would have to purchase fresh ammunition and winter clothing for his troops. He needed to move villagers away from the area of the attacks so they would not be vulnerable to retaliation from government forces. To pay for all this, Massoud wanted a large payment over and above his monthly CIA stipend. Schroen and the commander agreed on a one-time lump sum of $500,000 in cash. Schroen soon delivered the money by hand to Massoud’s brother in Peshawar.
Weeks passed. There were a few minor skirmishes, and the Salang Highway closed for a few days, but it promptly reopened. As far as the CIA could determine, Massoud had not put any of his main forces into action as they had agreed he would. CIA officers involved suspected they had been ripped off for half a million dollars. The Salang was a vital source of commerce and revenue for civilians in northern Afghanistan, and Massoud in the past had been reluctant to close the road down, fearing he would alienate his local followers. Massoud’s forces also earned taxes along the road.
In later exchanges with CIA officers, Massoud defended himself, saying his subcommanders had initiated the planned attacks as agreed that winter, but they had been stalled by weather and other problems. The CIA could find no evidence to support Massoud’s account. As far as they could tell, Massoud’s commanders had simply not participated in the battles along the Salang.
Schroen now reminded Massoud about their agreement six years earlier, and he mentioned that he had personally handed over $500,000 to Massoud’s brother.
“How much?” Massoud asked.
“Five hundred thousand,” Schroen replied.
Massoud and his aides began to talk among themselves. One of them quietly said in Dari, “We didn’t get $500,000.”
Massoud repeated his earlier defense to Schroen. The weather in that winter of 1990 had been awful. He couldn’t move his troops as successfully as he had hoped. He lacked adequate ammunition, despite the big payment.
“That’s all history,” Schroen finally said.
Massoud voiced his own complaints. He was a deliberate, cogent speaker, clear and forceful, never loud or demonstrative. The CIA and the United States had walked away from Afghanistan, leaving its people bereft, he said.