“We stood by while this happened”

Author Steve Coll discusses "Ghost Wars," his new book about how the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, tried to work with the Taliban, and failed to stop Osama bin Laden -- even though terrified CIA agents knew he was about to strike.

Topics: Afghanistan, George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaida, Bill Clinton, Author Interviews, Washington Post, Nonfiction, 9/11, Books,

"We stood by while this happened"

One chapter in Steve Coll’s new book, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” is called, curiously, “The Manson Family.” The chapter takes place in early 1999, a time when, according to Coll, CIA director George Tenet “did not describe bin Laden as the gravest, most important threat faced by the United States.” Within the CIA’s 25-member bin Laden unit, however — nicknamed “the Manson family” — the attitude toward the shady Saudi-born terrorist leader was quite different. So cultish were they about their suspicion of al-Qaida, they were considered “alarmist.” The Manson family made their other CIA colleagues “uncomfortable.”

But as Coll dramatically draws out, two years later, by the summer of 2001, the Manson family enjoyed many more sympathizers within the CIA Counterterrorist Center. By then, “they worked long hours, exchanging Arabic translations across the office partitions, frequently ‘with a panic-stricken look’ in their eyes.” One officer in “Ghost Wars” remembers them telling one another, “We’re going to miss stuff. We are missing stuff. We can’t keep up.”

It’s these kinds of details that make “Ghost Wars” such a terrifying, and substantive, book. Beginning in 1979 and ending just days before Sept. 11, “Ghost Wars” follows various stories — the CIA’s relationship with the Afghans during the Cold War, the slow development of its understanding of bin Laden and al-Qaida, and the U.S. relationship with Ahmed Massoud, the Afghan resistance leader. In the end, Coll offers a surprisingly cohesive narrative of the makings of Sept. 11, 2001. Considering the United States’ long and tangled history with Afghanistan, and more generally, Islamic terrorism, he has no easy answers to the question that still rankles the world: How could Sept. 11 possibly have happened?

Coll, who is now the managing editor of the Washington Post, spoke to Salon by phone from his office in Washington.

Your book details the CIA’s relationship with Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, when the United States was arming the mujahedin against the Soviets. Since Sept. 11, we’ve heard a lot about how our abandonment of Afghanistan led to the rise of the Taliban and the empowerment of Osama bin Laden. What was the U.S. attitude toward Afghanistan during this crucial period in the early 1990s?



It began as a fairly sharp debate between the CIA and the State Department over whether it was worthwhile to hang in there. It sort of ended with a whimper. Initially, it was all very complicated because after the Soviets left they continued to support a communist Afghan government led by President Najibullah. Cold War hard-liners in Washington suspected that the Soviets didn’t really intend to withdraw from Afghanistan, and that they were going to use this government as a proxy.

So in Washington people couldn’t make up their minds about whether it was time to turn to politics or whether to continue to prosecute the war. The Afghan factions that we supported felt strongly that Najibullah had to go. The United Nations, meanwhile, was trying to negotiate a peaceful transition, and the State Department was interested in participating. The CIA thought it was a doomed project — they didn’t see any American interests worth the risks involved in getting involved in Afghan politics.

This begins in 1989 and ends around 1992. Think back to that time. It’s this very fast-moving and epochal moment in American history. The Berlin Wall falls in November of 1989, the coup against Gorbachev occurs in August of 1990, and the Soviet Union collapses altogether in December of 1991. So the reason I say it goes out with a whimper is because, in the end, the events in Europe and the Soviet Union were so momentous and so overwhelming for Washington that there was just no room for an issue like Afghanistan. The whole future of the global balance of power was in motion and Europe was being remade and the nuclear standoff was being torn down and everything was new. The complicated and seemingly intractable violence of Afghanistan’s civil war just fell off everyone’s list.

Right, and was this the same within the CIA. Or was anyone in the agency upset about this?

Most people in the CIA had the view that our work was done in Afghanistan. We went in there to drive the Soviets out, and we succeeded gloriously. We not only drove them out but we contributed to the collapse of Soviet communism, and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we could do anything more in that part of that world. The State Department tended to argue passionately that we did have interests, even in a post-Soviet Afghanistan, that we had interests beyond humanitarian ones, that we needed to manage the political situation there so that it didn’t turn against us. And they basically lost the argument over the years.

At that point there was no American ambassador or CIA chief in Afghanistan, correct? And that was true until …

Until after the fall of the Taliban in November or December of 2001.

That long. And meanwhile — and this is one of the most important parts of your book — we had encouraged the relationship between the Afghans and the Saudis, and the Afghans and the Pakistanis. Were they still supporting different factions within Afghanistan throughout the 1990s?

They were. For Saudi Arabia and Pakistan the conflict continued to be important, even in the years it wasn’t for us. For them it was a regional conflict involving sectarian struggles between orthodox Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government in Iran, between struggles to influence the new Central Asia that had opened up with the collapse of Soviet communism. If you lived in the neighborhood and you looked at Afghanistan, you saw a lot at stake. The Saudis and Pakistanis, and to some extent the Iranians, continued to pour money and weaponry into their favorite factions and that caused the war to intensify and continue.

So at the time Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Afghanistan was a mess.

It was a real crisis. The war was violent and seemingly intractable, the humanitarian situation was terrible, and efforts to intervene through diplomatic negotiations were languishing.

And Clinton did not have great affection for the CIA, right?

He certainly got off to a rough start. What he had in his head when he got into office I wouldn’t presume to say, but, first of all, he had no roots at the agency. He seems to have looked at the place with some suspicion, or at least distance. And then, worst of all, the first director he selected, James Woolsey, was someone Clinton didn’t have a relationship with, and who in turn did not have a relationship with the agency. Woolsey got off to a bad start.

At that point, how did the CIA view Osama bin Laden and the terrorist threat?

They were slow to see what it was made of. They were operating from old ideas and paradigms — that terrorism was linked to state agendas and sponsored by radical governments. To them, terrorists were typically secular nationalists or leftists looking to call attention to some cause rather than, for instance, inflict mass civilian casualties. The whole structure that we now see in the Sunni radical world — stateless networks rooted in theological groups like the Muslim Brotherhood aspiring to wreak havoc on large sections of nonbelieving populations — all that was a completely new idea. It took the CIA three or four years even to articulate a view of it, never mind come to grips with it.

The people who had a sense of what was going on were the governments in North Africa — Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt — that were under assault by some of these groups. But these were undemocratic, despotic, corrupt governments. They would complain, and specifically complain about bin Laden, but the Americans dismissed these complaints as these bad governments crying wolf about their domestic opposition.

Right, but wasn’t that one of the problems with the fight against terrorism — that we didn’t have good relationships or good intelligence in a lot of these key countries?

Yes, we didn’t have an independent agenda. We were dependent on other governments and our intelligence liaisons with them, so our intelligence was shaped by their view of the world. In a case like Pakistan, that turned out to be a pretty unreliable agenda, since Pakistan was busy creating a lot of these Islamist groups for its own purposes. And in the case of Saudi Arabia, it was also unreliable.

To put it in another layer of context, what was happening in the CIA during these years was that the place was shrinking, just like every other place that was part of the Cold War bureaucracy. Budgets were shrinking. People were retiring earlier. There was no new hiring. Someone told me that in 1995, I think, the incoming class of new officers at the CIA was nine people. So they were under intense budgetary pressure and they didn’t know what the new world was going to be about. Terrorism was on the list, but there wasn’t a focus in resources to get after it in the right way.

It seems as though the Clinton administration started paying attention to terrorism, not after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing and the Tokyo subway attack.

That’s a correct reading of it. There was a response to the WTC bombing but it was such an obscure case and it happened within six weeks of the [Clinton] inauguration and it never really galvanized the new administration. But Oklahoma City — that was the one that shook them.

At what point did they make the connection between Osama bin Laden and the 1993 World Trade Center attack?

The problem was that the FBI was in charge of the WTC case. They accumulated a lot of evidence about how the attackers had been supported and who they were connected to — the first outlines of bin Laden’s international organization and ambitions. But they didn’t share this with anybody because the law prohibited them from doing so, but also because their own culture was hermetically sealed.

You had this dysfunctional period lasting right through 1997 and 1998, in which the FBI and the White House were at odds with each other over all kinds of political investigations. Each side looked at each other with intense suspicion. You had the FBI and CIA competing for budgetary resources. There was a rivalry there. You also had the State Department counterterrorism office in total disarray — five leaders in six years or something. Essentially, you had a counterterrorism bureaucracy falling apart and not communicating.

And even when the CIA became aware of Osama and the fact that he was financing terrorists, he didn’t make the list of people to go after. He didn’t make it for quite some time. What made them think he wasn’t so dangerous?

You know, it’s really a mystery, looking back on it. It’s hard to understand, especially toward 1997 — he didn’t even make the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. The explanation you get is that they saw him as a money man and not a killer. They had no evidence that he had ever participated directly in a deadly terrorist operation. One reason why they believed this was that in the years that he lived in Sudan — right through the spring of 1996 — he didn’t live the way a hardcore terrorist would. He lived openly. He commuted to work. He had an office with air conditioning. He had a farm, he had a house, he had a mosque. And he was a wealthy man, he was a sort of soft figure. They looked at this and concluded he wasn’t an operator. Surely, if he was an operator, he’d be hiding.

You say that the CIA could never penetrate al-Qaida, or recruit agents from within. Is that rare?

The CIA had an easier time with leftist terrorist groups like Abu Nidal, but they always had a harder time with religiously motivated groups. For example, they were never able to penetrate Hezbollah during the year that Hezbollah was taking American hostages and wreaking havoc. Al-Qaida is a relatively difficult group to penetrate to the inner circle.

Back to this parallel story of Afghanistan — why did we fail to recognize the Taliban’s threat? Did anyone sound the alarm? Everyone just seemed so relaxed about this bizarre government coming to power, even after they started imposing their oppressive rules.

That’s another one that’s hard to understand. Probably the biggest single factor was indifference. A sense that there was nothing at stake in Afghanistan, a collective unspoken wish for this whole place to go away and not be a problem. The Taliban brought a brutal kind of order to the country and created a totalitarian kind of stability. There were plenty of people whispering into the ears of American officials, assuring them that the Taliban were tolerable. The Pakistanis, who had created them, wanted us to accept them. The Saudis also wanted us to accept them. The Saudis argued again and again, “Look, we started out this way. We had a particularly evangelical, puritanical view of Islam, and look at us, we’ve moderated, we’ve accommodated the world.”

Wow.

Yes, the Saudis said, “If you’re just patient with these guys, they will moderate too.” I don’t know how many Americans believed that, but there was no plausible alternative that anyone could think about. Even those who disdained the Taliban and wanted to do anything possible to promote its decline were not prepared to supply more weapons for the civil war, or claim more innocent Afghan deaths. For what?

How distracted were we by the corporate oil opportunities there? There’s a whole narrative thread about [the U.S.-based oil company] Unocal going through your book. It seems like a sizable part of the story.

I think substantially distracted, especially in the period, crucially, that the Taliban finally took Kabul in the fall of 1996. That was the time when they really established themselves as a national force in Afghanistan and that was also the time when they started to impose their strictures and bizarre rules on large populations in Afghanistan that wanted nothing to do with them. Especially in Kabul, which really was not Taliban country. We stood by while this happened in part because there was a lobbying effort arguing persistently that the stability that the Taliban provided might present an opportunity to complete this oil pipeline. The Pakistanis wanted this to happen too. Our foreign policy at that time, around the 1996 election, emphasized the promotion of American trading interests and corporate interests abroad.

Was there someone specifically interested in this within the Clinton administration?

The policy was left to the middle levels of the bureaucracy because nobody high up really cared enough to have an opinion. It fell to the State Department, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, who was in charge of Afghan policy. In the first term, it was Robin Raphel. She in particular was close to Benazir Bhutto [then the prime minister of Pakistan] and accepted Benazir’s argument about the Taliban — and also wanted to promote this pipeline. She genuinely believed that it could create jobs and make things better there. And she was prepared to work with the Taliban.

Was this also why we didn’t want to support Ahmed Massoud, the head of the Northern Alliance, who was fighting against the Taliban throughout this whole period?

It was a factor, but I think the disdain for Massoud was rooted in the failure of the pre-Taliban governments he’d participated in, and people’s frustration with that history. People just thought this guy was a figure who belonged in the past, who had not been able to deliver the political stability he promised.

Meanwhile, Massoud issued many scary warnings about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

He did, and particularly after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, and after bin Laden established himself, as the Taliban’s shock troops and al-Qaida forces were battling side by side against Massoud. Massoud, as anybody would who’s engaged in a day-to-day life struggle of this sort, had a pretty clear idea of what was going on with these guys. He watched them commit suicide before they would be taken as prisoners, he saw how they were being recruited out of Pakistani madrassas, he saw where the money was coming from. He was looking at it right across the street. He had a sense of the threat that no one else could have had.

Did CIA director George Tenet trust him? I was a little bit surprised by this, but Tenet seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the threat that bin Laden posed.

Yes, he did, but he was less confident on the issues involving Afghanistan itself. Two things constrained his willingness to act boldly in this area. One was that his own bureaucracy was conflicted about Massoud. The officers in his Near East division had a long history with Massoud — they admired him, but felt that he was so independent he wouldn’t be an active partner. And then he had a president who was not inclined to take risks. [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright was openly opposed to working with Massoud. Tenet would have to have been very confident to grab Clinton by the lapels and say, “You have to do this.” He didn’t do that at all.

What was the turning point when Tenet decided they should go get Osama? And why did they want him alive?

It unfolds in stages. The first big turning point is with the African embassy bombings in August of 1998. They had some evidence before that that bin Laden was involved in active operations and was not just a money guy, but it was the embassy bombings that made it clear to everyone that he was both capable and actively intending to hit American targets around the world. The second really scary event that gets everyone’s attention — especially Tenet — was the millennium period. The winter of 2000. You remember, nothing happened. But the near misses, both the ones we knew about at the time and the ones we didn’t know about at the time, scared the hell out of people.

Why did they want to arrest him and not just go shoot him? Despite these alarms, there was still not a sense of urgency, certainly not the degree of urgency within the Cabinet that we’re used to today. People in the Cabinet really believed that law enforcement tools were the best way to attack terrorism. The Justice Department had successfully convicted Ramzi Yousef and a whole series of individuals who had carried out the African embassy bombings. They had confidence this approach could work and was consistent with American values and signaled to the world that we didn’t regard these terrorists as political actors but as common murderers. That was the argument for that approach.

And Clinton — the record shows — was of divided mind. Although he was prepared to shoot bin Laden dead — he proved that with the cruise missile attacks [in 1998].

What about this other attempt on Osama’s life you describe? We had him in our sights, we were going to bomb his camp, but we didn’t because of a certain plane we spotted.

Yes. This is in the first weeks of 1999, I think, and bin Laden is being watched by this group of paid agents. They follow him on this hunting trip into the southern Afghan desert and they start watching him from this overlook above this camp. And it’s a really luxurious camp in the manner of Persian Gulf traveling parties. There are big fancy tents with generators and refrigerators and they’re hunting with falcons for a bird called a bustard, which is apparently a big sport in that part of the world. So these agents report that they followed bin Laden to this camp and the CIA puts a satellite up and takes some pictures. Then they see a C-130 transport plane. They trace the plane to the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich, very close ally to the United States. They’re important to the U.S., not just a moderate friend. This is a country that provides the only port calls for American aircraft carriers in the region, it pumps a lot of oil, it provides facilities for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, which at that time were trying to contain Iraq. So this was a very close friend. When that news came in that this was a UAE plane, the Clinton Cabinet must have blanched.

When you’re reading the chapters describing 2001, after George W. Bush has entered the White House, it seems as though the new administration had a lot of information. How would you characterize how much the CIA knew in 2001 about bin Laden and his intentions? And Bush’s attitude?

The Bush administration was pretty slow off the mark to recognize the threat, but they did recognize, by the summer of 2001, what they had on their hands. Some people have criticized them for wasting six months and I think that’s a legitimate criticism. They did have this threat explicitly called to their attention when they came into office.

By the summer, though, the threat warnings about bin Laden were so severe that everyone from the president on down understood that this was really serious business. The difficulty was, as in the Clinton administration, that you could have a strategic warning in the sense that there is an enemy out there that intends to attack you, but there was no technical warning. They could never be certain when and where. They didn’t have the sources or the informers or the access to al-Qaida to even make a well-educated guess. All they could do was press against every cell and militant that they could find and hope that by doing so they would disrupt some plot.

So you get this feeling going over the material, especially that summer, that they just know something’s coming. It’s not that they’re just hearing this, they’re hearing language and multiple, critical accounts saying, “Something spectacular is coming.” Yet they can’t get a grip on it. You hear the people who participated in this talk about it in very vivid language. Some of them describe the experience as fatalistic. They came to work every morning and thought, “Today something is going to really happen.” They knew.

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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