CIA operatives and military and CIA officials discuss the mixed success of the Afghanistan campaign, why the military didn't send in more troops and why bin Laden escaped.
- Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with
- Gary Berntsen
- John Brennan
- Richard Clarke
- Steve Coll
- Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong
- Tyler Drumheller
- Michael Scheuer
- Gary Schroen
...The [CIA's] Afghanistan plan is to immediately collaborate with the only armed group in the country, the Northern Alliance, which is itself a coalition of militias that has been at war with the Taliban steadily since about 1996. The plan is that the CIA in the lead, but the Pentagon as well, will go into northern Afghanistan, connect with the leaders of the Northern Alliance, offer them money, equipment, political support, and with them drive against the Taliban in Kabul and in some other cities that they control in the north.
And who do they bring to the table to execute the plan?
Well, the man that they chose to lead the first trip into northern Afghanistan is a guy named Gary Schroen who was a career CIA officer in the Directorate of Operations who had developed an expertise on Afghanistan and in particular had gotten to know the Northern Alliance leaders quite well from previous trips into Afghanistan and from his work during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s.
How big a risk was what they were trying to do, and how great a success was it really?
... There were considerable risks. ... They were cut off, isolated. They had no reliable transportation once they got into the country. They were basically going to be on their own until they either fought their way into Kabul or somebody came in and extracted them. There was some uncertainty also about the reception they were going to receive, because the Northern Alliance had just had its own leadership decapitated two days before Sept. 11, when Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda. So they were coming in to meet a group that was itself in some disarray and that, as it turned out, was going to require a little bit of persuasion to operate the way the CIA and the Bush administration wanted them to operate.
Was the outcome ever in doubt?
Of course it was. ... The CIA and the Pentagon didn't have any reason to be confident that the Taliban would melt away in the face of American military action. To the contrary, the Taliban represented tribes and militias in Afghanistan that historically had sliced and diced every foreign invading army that had ever come their way; the British twice, the Russians. So the United States went into this campaign concerned that they could get bogged down. ... The whole idea of working with the Northern Alliance was rooted in a desire to avoid putting American combat troops into a position analogous to that which had destroyed two British armies and decimated the 40th [Army] of the Soviet Union.
What's the assessment at the time, and even now, about how successful we really were in Afghanistan?
Well, there are two objectives in the war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. One is to defeat the Taliban, which is the government of Afghanistan, and to take power in Afghanistan, to control the cities, the mechanisms of government. That campaign was extraordinarily successful. It happened very quickly. It happened with very few casualties among the Americans; it happened with relatively few casualties even among our Afghan allies. The Taliban melted away and retreated to Kandahar, which was their heartland, and then were fairly quickly rooted out of Kandahar as well and forced to flee across to Pakistan and into the hills of south central Afghanistan.
So two objectives: First, defeat the Taliban -- that's enormously successful; second, to defeat Al Qaeda and to deprive it of a physical sanctuary that it had been using prior to Sept. 11 to carry out attacks. The campaign against Al Qaeda has a more mixed success. The movement does lose access to Afghanistan as a source of training camps, as a source of meetings, as a source of planning, as a source of recruits, but its leadership escapes more or less intact. Only one significant leader of Al Qaeda we now understand was killed in the war of late 2001, and Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as dozens of senior volunteers in the organization, managed to get away.
The full history of how Al Qaeda's leaders got away in the fall of 2001 isn't available to us yet because none of them have talked about it, but from what we know, it seems that in the late stages of the war, bin Laden and a lot of his senior Arab and Chechen and Uzbek and Southeast Asian volunteers had gathered in a mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan well known to them from their involvement in the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s. They were under attack from the air by American forces, and they were under attack on the ground from Afghan allies of the United States. They decided to retreat into Pakistan, and they succeeded into escaping, essentially, over the hills into Pakistan.
Why? There was no blocking force on the Pak-Afghan border large and effective enough to stop them as they retreated, and it may have been impossible to establish a large and effective enough blocking of a force to stop such a retreat. These are remote mountains, very underpopulated. To the extent there is a local population, it's all hostile to the United States. The Pakistan paramilitary forces that are the main guards of the borders are themselves tribal levies from the same groups that are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. The Pakistan regular army, which might have been more reliable than some of these tribal levies, was in December of 2001 being drawn away from that border to face India because of a war scare with India at that time.
So the conditions for Al Qaeda's retreat were quite favorable, and the United States did not do the one thing that the Pentagon had within its power to do, which was to move regular U.S. troops into a blocking position behind these mountains. And of course, the commander of this operation, [Gen.] Tommy Franks, was later criticized for not ordering, in particular, the 10th Mountain Division, which was then largely at a base in Uzbekistan and which was trained to fight in conditions such as it would have encountered on these hills, down into a position to block the Al Qaeda retreat.
It's interesting: In his memoir and in interviews, Franks has been asked, "Why didn't you put American troops into position to block this Al Qaeda retreat?" What he said is that he was afraid of the very thing we talked about a few minutes ago: He was afraid that he would inflame local Afghan opinion by putting a big, heavy, occupying American footprint in the heartland of Taliban country and that he was afraid he was just going to make everything worse at that stage. ...BACK TO TOP »
National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, National Security Council, 1998-2001
... The president and Gen. Franks have been very sensitive about this criticism that they let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora. Sometimes they've said, "We don't really know if he was there or not," and "We did all the right things, and this is Monday morning quarterbacking."
That's all wrong. We knew from day one the likely places that bin Laden would flee to. There had been lots of work done before 9/11 on where did he hang out, statistical analysis even. We knew Tora Bora was the place where he would be likely to go. People in CIA knew that; people in the counterterrorism community knew about it. We knew that what you should have done was to insert special forces -- Rangers, that sort of thing -- up into that area as soon as possible.
And yes, we know he absolutely was there. He may have been wounded by a fragment of an American bomb that was dropped up there. And yes, he did escape. And Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but they made a mistake. They did let him go away.
They let him go? They blew it?
They ignored the advice of the experts in CIA, both in CIA headquarters and on the ground. They didn't allow anyone into the decision-making chamber other than the president and vice president, secretary of defense, and Gen. Franks.
... How much of this is just plain old-fashioned bureaucratic firefighting?
Part of it is that Gen. Franks and his command never wanted to go into Afghanistan, and it wasn't just under Gen. Franks, but under his predecessors as well. Bill Clinton had taken the previous chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Hugh Shelton, aside and said to him, in my earshot, "I think we ought to have U.S. commandos go into Afghanistan, U.S. military units, black ninjas jumping out of helicopters, and go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan." And Shelton said: "Whoa! I don't think we can do that. I'll talk to Central Command." And of course Central Command came back and said, "Oh no, that's too difficult."
So there was no plan in the safe drawer at Central Command, no plan that they could pull out and say, "Well, just do this; we've planned it; let's go into Afghanistan."...BACK TO TOP »
... This [CIA] plan was drawn up years before and was in place because of the relationship with the Northern Alliance. Tenet was able to put it on the desk at the White House [four days after 9/11]. I think the military never got over that.
It was a unique situation that we had a longtime relationship with ... the Northern Alliance and people that served in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the years. That plan was there because they were anticipating not attacking Al Qaeda, because Al Qaeda is relatively new, but dealing with the rise of the Taliban and eventual chaos in Afghanistan.
But no, I mean, the military didn't arrive for, like, six weeks or five weeks. The problem was that they had battle groups in the Persian Gulf and all the support -- that's the way they operate. They have to look at it for huge numbers of troops. ...
But it worked. It worked because some guys took some horrendous risks, and it worked because we had B-52s that could come in and bomb the Taliban into spaghetti. So the military played a role in it, but it was the Air Force. Then when they came in, special forces joined up with the paramilitary, and they worked together. They all know each other; it's that special forces world. So it's also wrong for them to say, "The military's here." It's all mixed up together. ...BACK TO TOP »
CIA 1982-2005; Berntsen coordinated Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan and conducted the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
... There was a meeting in Kabul ... where you were asking for the troops [to come in at Tora Bora]. What happened?
... I had meetings with the military on the ground there. First we drafted a document which indicated what sort of offensive operations we were taking, where we were going to conduct in Tora Bora. I presented those to the senior officer in the country, who had no interest in looking at it, which sort of surprised me. Finally another very, very senior officer from the CIA ... said to me: "Gary, he didn't look at it because he doesn't want his fingerprints on it. Things go badly, it's all on you." I said, "Well, that's fine; it's on me."And then, of course, I specifically requested to him that we needed to put [in] ground forces. More than once I stated that, and I wrote it, and I documented my requests back to my organization. History will vindicate me if anyone says I'm not telling the truth. Eventually these things will be declassified. They can see the nature of my requests and the dates on those requests, so I'm confident.
[But couldn't the president have ordered the troops in?]
... Of course. During the 2004 campaign, when you had the Kerry/Bush discussion on this, and John Kerry says, "The president contracted this all out to the Afghans to do this," well, that's not exactly true. ... It was mostly us. We had our teams out there calling in air strikes. We did use Afghans as blocking forces, and Delta Force would go in. ... The Afghans didn't want to fight. ... We had to pay them, had to yell at them, had to threaten them, had to do all sorts of things to get them to get into combat.
There was truly a fog over what occurred, and it doesn't surprise me, because there is often lots of bureaucracy between that man in the field, whether he's a CIA officer or a military commander, and the commander in chief back there. ... And the president, of course, relied on the people around him. I don't think the president was served well. ... I know the president would have done anything possible to kill bin Laden at that point, but I'm certain my requests never got to him.
You blaming Tenet?
... It was CENTCOM's decision. ... I think Tenet stepped up on that.
So with [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld?
There's a book written by [CENTCOM deputy commander] Mike DeLong [with Noah Lukeman] called [Inside] CENTCOM: [The Unvarnished Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq]. In that book, DeLong talks about a conversation that he has with Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld calls CENTCOM and says, "Send in troops," and CENTCOM's response is: "The altitude's too high. It's too cold." It's this, it's that -- makes up a lot of reasons. And Rumsfeld says, ... "I ski at 14,000 feet, and I'm 70," and the response is, "You don't have to carry a pack." And he says, "OK, do what you think is right." So the secretary of defense wanted them in there, but he left the final decision to the commanders on the ground, and they didn't want to do it, based on the reading of Mike DeLong's book.
... When do you come back? And does it feel like the crowning achievement of the CIA?
No. I'm told in early December: "You're being replaced. We're going to bring somebody in who is going to be the chief of this whole thing now. You can go back to Latin America." ... I was surprised that I was pulled out at that point, but I understood how the politics works in all of this. But I was not celebrating. ... It was bittersweet, because I didn't know if [bin Laden] was dead. I didn't know if I'd finished it. ... As I've stated in other places, it was a flawed masterpiece, ... that we were able to have an equation where U.S. forces and CIA officers working in tandem with [Afghan] insurgent forces could defeat a much larger group. But at that final moment when we closed with bin Laden, at that point they failed to recognize that we needed our own men to do that final bit of fighting. ...
They hadn't planned for it. The U.S. military, I'm sure it has a battle plan for almost every place in the world: landing on the shores of this place, doing an airdrop on this field. [They] probably didn't even have maps of Tora Bora. ...
Had it been done all over again, the military should have inserted an intelligence officer with Gary Schroen when he went in. ... Or they would have had someone attached to me 24 hours a day. ... I didn't see a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan until two days before I left. ... They had just showed up.
What does that tell you? ...
... Lack of flexibility, lack of creativeness, a reliance on bureaucracy and doctrine. That's what it was. ...BACK TO TOP »
CIA, 1970-2002; just days after 9/11, Schroen led the first CIA team into Afghanistan.
... I was a little surprised that there wasn't some sort of a plan for a [military] contingency: What happens if we have to go in to Afghanistan? I would have assumed that somebody at the Pentagon, some group of guys would have put a plan together.
My surprise came more in as of the first day we started, on the 14th, one of my points to the young guy who was my deputy, who had all kinds of contacts within the special operations community, ... I said: "Reach out to these guys. Let's talk to the SEALs. Let's talk to Delta. Let's talk to SOCOM [Special Operations] Command. Let's talk to CENTCOM. Anybody you know, let's invite. We need to have a military officer, a special operations guy, come along with us." Everybody that he talked to said: "God, I want to go. I'd go myself, but we can't get the bosses to agree to even which special operations group is going to take the lead in this."
It just seemed like total confusion there, and so we packed up and got ready to go. ... It took several weeks before that sorted itself out.
They were behind the eight ball from the get-go.
Yeah, I think they were. We traveled so light and so small that we didn't need a whole lot of infrastructure. But these guys, once they started to deploy into Uzbekistan, they took over an airfield there, at Karshi Khanabad, "K2," and turned it into just this giant U.S. military facility, with tons and tons of equipment and miles of tents. And we went in with seven officers and three guys flying the helicopter. ...
But once they got on the ground, the relationship between CIA and those special forces A-teams was superb; it was seamless. It was the way it really should have worked. But it was clear to us that the U.S. military really struggled to come up with a plan as to how to deal with this one. I think that's one reason why the Iraq plan didn't include as much of the CIA involvement and was much more a conventional war, "big army" versus the special operators.
You can imagine how Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney felt, that George Tenet, friend, or ally at least, of [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell, arrives with a fast, efficient, cool idea, right? To take down something the Russians couldn't do and the British couldn't do -- Rumsfeld, a bureaucratic knife fighter of the first magnitude, sitting there saying, "Tenet wins today"?
We got that impression. It was very clear, in the to and fro once we were in Afghanistan, that there was a great deal of resentment coming out of the military over this, and they were very, very anxious to put boots on the ground. I think that the choice of ... the Green Berets was a very good one, because they are capable of moving a lot of people. ... It [took] a couple of weeks for them to deploy and then another couple before they were actually able to insert troops.
And what were you doing during that month, treading water?
Oh, no. God, we were busy. My role primarily was to interface with the leadership of the Northern Alliance, the general, now Marshal [Mohammed Qasim] Fahim, who had taken over command of the Northern Alliance; with their intelligence chief; with their foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah -- trying to convince them that we were deadly serious about coming in and really providing them with assistance. I was passing out large sums of money for specific purposes to generate the impression that we weren't going to talk; we were going to actually help them get ready to fight. ... And when I began to distribute money -- $200,000 here, $250,000 for this -- I think that they were convinced that we were sincere. ...
At the same time, my team conducted front-line surveys with GPS coordinates to delineate where the friendly guys were at and where the bad guys were. ... We were very, very busy with all of that. ...
When you're headed there, on the flight over, is it a foregone conclusion, Gary, that we're going to kick ass there?
My first evening, when I actually sat down with the head of the intelligence service, I said: "What you guys have never had is the kind of tactical support that the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy is going to be able to put on the ground. The Taliban have never experienced -- and no matter how fierce the battles you fought with them -- have never experienced 1 percent of the terror that they're going to feel when we start dropping bombs on them."
I said, "What our job is here is to get Americans on the ground that can help bring those bombs right on top of the Taliban." And I was absolutely convinced that that would happen, and that the Taliban would break quickly. Once we did it, by the beginning of November, when we really finally got our bombing strategy in order and we started concentrating on the front lines, they broke and melted away.
So you are there, you've got a plan, you've got an idea, you know what needs to be done, and once again political issues enter in. ...
The initial bombing strategy employed by CENTCOM was to attack what they considered to be strategic targets behind the lines. Again, my advice from the field was, "Bomb the front-line troops here in Kabul and in other places around where the Northern Alliance forces can then take advantage of that and move forward." What I didn't realize until a week after my first cable saying that was that the Pakistani government was putting a great deal of pressure on the administration to hold the Northern Alliance in check. ...
The Pakistanis kept saying: "Please work in the south. ... Get the Pashtuns organized, and once they're ready to go, then we'll turn everybody loose." Well, that was a formula for disaster. We needed time to get the Northern Alliance ready, but once we had special forces teams in the Panjshir Valley with me, ... it was clear that if we concentrated our bombing up there, we could have a breakthrough.
Part of my job was to convince Washington that the [Northern Alliance] Tajiks weren't going to have a bloodbath in Kabul, ... and if we depended on the Pashtuns, we'd be months, because the Pashtuns that had really opposed the Taliban had been disarmed, and a majority of them backed the Taliban. ...
And finally, the bombing started, I think, around the 7th of November on the Takhar front, where [Northern Alliance commander Marshal] Fahim's soldiers were facing to the west, and to the north of Kabul. ... Finally, around the 9th or 10th of November, bombing started on the Kabul front, and Fahim's forces walked into Kabul city on the morning of the 14th. Unopposed. I mean, they had some hard fighting, but within three days, the lines had melted away and they were in charge of the city. That could have happened -- that could have happened in October. Early in October.
Who in the administration, or where in the administration, would the decision to listen to the Pakistanis and go their way on this have resided?
I think there would have been a lot of support for that idea from the Department of State. This was the same group of people that were running those areas of State, the South Asian bureaus and all, that had opposed support to Massoud. They really favored a Pashtun government; Pashtuns have traditionally been the leadership of Afghanistan, and it's a traditional role that they assume is their right. ... The Pakistanis had been the most supportive government supporting the Taliban, ... and so the Pakistanis were playing [the] "If we can't have the Taliban, we want the Pashtuns" card. It didn't hinder the long-term effect of what we could have done; we just simply could have defeated the Taliban probably a month to three weeks sooner than we did. ...BACK TO TOP »
... Let's go for a moment to Tora Bora: ... Were you privy to Gary [Schroen's] wires and phone calls and entreaties to go get Osama bin Laden up in the mountains?
I wasn't privy to phone calls and a lot of the back-channel stuff. I was aware of the debate that was going on. Whether it was a CIA officer or whether it's a U.S. military officer, they will each come at the issue with their own perspective based on what knowledge they have, and frequently, that's incomplete knowledge on both sides.
I would just caution that each side only had a certain amount of perspective. And CIA, God love it, is always saying: "We can take that hill. We can do it, we can do it, we can do it." Sometimes it's not as easy as some within CIA believe. At the same time, I think the military comes at some of these issues in saying: "We need more. We need to make sure that we have a program or a capability that will ensure success." There is sometimes a caution on the part of the military and a sense within the agency that we need to move faster and in a much more aggressive way.
My perspective is that the truth is somewhere in between, that we probably could have moved with greater alacrity and with greater force, and possibly intercepted and taken care of some problems, but there were so many unknowns at that time and so many dynamics under way that, again, the CIA perspective was one; military's was another. ...BACK TO TOP »
... We've spent a lot of time talking to CIA agents, many of whom say we had Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. ... Did they have him?
Not to the best of our knowledge, no. What we thought was at that time, bin Laden was like Elvis: He was everywhere. He was over here; he was over here; he was over here. Was it most likely that after we had done what we had done in Kandahar and Kabul that he had probably gone up into the mountains? That's what we thought. We believed the agency, that we thought he was up there somewhere -- didn't know where, because there's maybe 200 caves up there that cross from Afghanistan to Pakistan. You can't watch them. ...
Never knew for sure. We had word from the agency that he may have been wounded, but we never knew.
Tora Bora is up on the Afghan-Pakistan border somewhere between about 6,000 to 13,000 feet. It's sort of a mountain range, really a tough area. The villagers up there don't claim either Afghanistan or Pakistan as their country. They are loyal to their village chief, and that's it. They don't like anybody else -- don't like the Pakistanis, don't like the Afghanis [sic], and for heaven's sakes, they don't like wide-eyed coalition forces, especially Americans. We knew if we had gone up there with U.S. forces that we would have been fighting villagers who really were doing nothing else other than protecting their village.
If we had done that -- and this is prior to the election of Karzai, just prior, by the way -- that we could have destroyed all the good humanitarian work we had done trying to build this country together. That's in the back of our mind also. Two, we sure as hell would like to get Osama bin Laden. So how do we combine all that together? Well, what we did was bring in Dell Daley, head of our special forces, two-star general. He's there. ... We got with him, and we said: "We're going to do something like we did with the Northern Alliance, embed these forces with you. But this time, Dell Daley's going to call the shots, not necessarily this other Afghan general that was going up in the mountains." But we also knew this was the right way to go, because the people he used were people from the area, and it would work well. And it did work well. ...
Were you in meetings about this? How were these decisions made?
They were always made the same [way], with the secretary, Franks, Tenet. The agency wasn't crazy about this, to be fair. The service chiefs wanted U.S. forces up there. ... But at the end of the day, Franks and I had this discussion. ... For the good of Afghanistan, if we did wound Osama bin Laden, great. We could have put the best forces in the entire world up there; anybody could have gotten through to the other side. It's the way it was. So for the good of the country, two weeks later Karzai was elected interim president, and we killed hundreds and hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda up there in Tora Bora with the weapons we used, and didn't kill any villagers. ...
Where was Rumsfeld on the debate about this from the beginning? Did he want them to go up there?
No, he agreed with us. These were all collegial discussions all the time, and not [just] what's going to happen today, [but] how is this going to affect tomorrow? And of course, we all wanted bin Laden, but we couldn't focus on bin Laden. If you kill his leadership, he by himself, a CEO with no managers, can't run a company. We were already seeing that the Al Qaeda were starting to splinter, because we were, quite frankly, getting rid of his senior leadership. It was disappearing. ...
Was George Tenet representing [the CIA on the ground], their positions, firmly and strongly?
He was representing their positions, but George Tenet, like us, [was] also looking at tomorrow and the next day and the next day. So he said, "Here's what my guys want to do, and here's why." Great -- we had some military leaders who wanted to do the same thing, but we knew this was probably the best call. ...
... He understood why we made the decision we made, and he never asked to review it after it was made. It was made, done. But he also knew that people he has in some of these countries, they've been there; they've been living with these people. Some of these agents are tough guys, and they want to do things their way. They've always done things their way, and they were not used to working closely with the military, definitely not working with a plan that we had put in place ... to use the agency with the special forces embedded with this Afghan eastern alliance -- what they called their forces -- to go up and try to root Al Qaeda, Taliban out of the Tora Bora caves, using airpower where we needed it. ...BACK TO TOP »
... I think the Afghanistan plan is the perfect example of the president being subject to an ignorant analyst. Mr. Tenet's plan, as best I recall from Mr. Woodward's book was a few CIA officers, a few Special Forces people and bags and boxes of money. And he sold that to the president of the United States and to Secretary Powell and to Mr. Rumsfeld.
And he only sold that because he didn't consult with anybody within his own Agency. I, for all of my sins, have spent the better part of 15 years working in the Afghan [venue], at a time when there were billions of dollars available to use with the Afghans to get them to do what we wanted them to do. And not once in that period can I recall an Afghan doing anything we ever asked them to do. They'll take your money, they'll say they're going to do it, but they're extremely independent people, and unwilling to have you believe that they're doing your bidding. If you wanted something done, and an Afghan was going to do it in any way, and you paid him, he might do something else just so you don't think he's your operative.
We had 15 years experience of that. And everyone who was cognizant of how Afghan operations worked would have told Mr. Tenet that he was nuts. And as it turned out, he was. ... The people we bought, the people Mr. Tenet said we would own, let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan. ...
And how would things have been different, like if Plan B would have been followed?
... The bottom line here is that money is important. But, what you're really going to have to make is a heavy commitment of American resources and risk American lives. Those were A and B. [Plan A's advantage] was it made sense: Americans understand the use of money; they like to believe that Third World people will, you know, sell their mothers for 15 bucks. And it was attractive because the casualties would be over. Plan B, which I think is more in touch with reality, is expensive, bloody, time consuming, something that probably no president wants to hear. ...BACK TO TOP »