The Taliban Story: Ghost Wars: CIA, Taliban and Bin Laden (Part 11)
Photo Source: Wikimedia Foundation

By Arun Anand-

The Taliban Story:  Ghost Wars: CIA, Taliban and Bin Laden (Part 11)
Photo Source: Wikimedia Foundation

This is the 11th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban Story’ that we bring to our readers. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 11th part:

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary military leader of anti-Taliban Northern alliance also known as ‘Lion of Panjshir was known as a brilliant strategist and an inspiring military commander. That was arguably one of the reasons that he was appointed Defence Minister in the Mujahideen government that lasted from 1992 to 1996 in Kabul.

Massoud had met at Kabul Gary Schroen, the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency’s) Islamabad station chief in September 1996 less than a week week before he suffered the worst military defeat of his career. Schroen had come to meet Massoud with an offer. He wanted Masud to help the CIA to buy back stringer missiles from various Afghan warlords. The largesse of not less than such 2000 missiles was distributed by the US in its anti-Soviet campaign where these missiles which could be fore from shoulder created havoc for the Russian troops causing irreparable damage. Incidentally Massoud’s faction-Northern Alliance’ had received only 8 of these missiles! This was because it was Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) was entrusted with the task of distributing the war material to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan and ISI distrusted Massoud who was seen as closer to Iran and India. ISI backed the anti-Massoud force, Taliban to the hilt.

Massoud was one of CIA’s favourite commanders in Afghanistan during the war against Soviet Russia. He appeared to be more balanced and less fanatic than many other commanders or war lords. He was a Tajik who was fond of Persian poetry. He read a lot and the books ranged from poetry to political Islam. He was a keen reader of the books on history and tactics of guerrilla warfare. Just before he was killed in a suicide attack, he was last seen as reading poetry aloud in the wee hours of morning with a colleague. Incidentally, he was killed on September 9, 2001 in a joint operation by the ISI backed Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Two days after that the attack on world trade towers and pentagon happened in the US. This attack was also perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, which was protected, promoted and encouraged by the Taliban and the ISI.

Considered to be invincible till September, 1996, Masud suffered the worst defeat of his military career less than a week after Schroen’s departure. Taliban forces approached from Jalalabad, apparently rich with cash from (Osama) bin Laden or elsewhere. On September 25 the key forward post of Sarobi fell to white-turbaned mascara painted Taliban who sped and zigzagged in new four wheel-drive pickup trucks equipped with machine guns and rockets. At 3 P.M. on September 26, at a meeting with senior commanders at his armoured division headquarters on Kabul’s northern outskirts, Massoud concluded that his forces had been encircled and that he had to withdraw to avoid destruction.1

His government forces retreated to the north in a rush, dragging along as much salvageable military equipment as they could. By nightfall the Taliban had conquered Kabul. A militia whose one-eyed emir believed that he had been selected by God to prepare pious Muslims for glory in the afterlife now controlled most of Afghanistan’s territory, most of its key cities, and its seat of government. 2

Shockingly, the US welcomed this development as Glyn Davies, a spokesperson for the State Department, announced in In Washington on September 27, 1996 a day after its favoured military Commander was defeated: “We hope this presents an opportunity for a process of national reconciliation to begin…..We hope very much and expect that the Taliban will respect the rights of all Afghans and that the new authorities will move quickly to restore order and security and to form a representative government on the way to some form of national reconciliation.”

When asked about the Taliban’s imposition of strict Islamic law in other areas under their control, Davies responded, “We’ve seen some of the reports that they’ve moved to impose Islamic law in the areas that they control. But at this stage, we’re not reading anything into that. I mean, there’s—on the face of it, nothing objectionable at this stage…. Remember, we don’t have any American officials in Kabul. We haven’t had them since the Soviets left because we’ve judged it too dangerous to maintain a mission there. So, what we’re reacting to for the most part is press reports, reports from others who, in fact, have sources there—in other words, second-, third-hand reports.” Asked if the United States might open diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, Davies replied, “I’m not going to prejudge where we’re going to go with Afghanistan.”3

Pulitzer winner US journalist Steve Coll gave a riveting account (in hi seminal work Ghost Wars) of the developments that followed on Afghanistan after this briefing: “It was the sort of pablum routinely pronounced by State Department spokesmen when they had no real policy to describe. Outside a few small pockets of Afghan watchers in government and out, there was barely a ripple about the fall of Kabul in Washington. Bill Clinton had just begun campaigning in earnest for re-election, coasting against the overmatched Republican nominee, Bob Dole. The Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 5,872, up nearly 80 percent in four years. Unemployment was falling. American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, which had once threatened the world with doomsday, were being steadily dismantled. The nation believed it was at peace. In Afghanistan and neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Davies’s words and similar remarks by other State Department officials that week were interpreted as an American endorsement of Taliban rule. The CIA had not predicted the fall of Kabul that September.”

Coll has quoted the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad at that time, Tom Simons, from his interview, conducted on August 19, 2002 at Washington where Simons said that the embassy (US embassy in Pakistan) did not forecast the fall of Kabul (to Taliban) in any of its reporting to Washington.

He goes on to say, “To the contrary, a station chief (Gary Schroen) had been permitted to fly solo into the capital several days before it was about to collapse, risking entrapment. Few CIA officers in the field or at Langley understood Massoud’s weakening position or the Taliban’s strength. Just a few years before, Afghanistan had been the nexus of what most CIA officers regarded as one of the proudest achievements in the agency’s history: the repulsion of invading Soviet forces by covert action. Now, not only in literal terms but in a far larger sense, Afghanistan was not part of the agency’s Operating Directive.

The downward spiral following the Cold War’s end was no less steep in, say, Congo or Rwanda than it was in Afghanistan. Yet for Americans on the morning of September 11, 2001 it was Afghanistan’s storm that struck. A war they hardly knew and an enemy they had barely met crossed oceans never traversed by the German Luftwaffe or the Soviet Rocket Forces to claim several thousand civilian lives in two mainland cities. How had this happened?”

‘ In history’s long inventory of surprise attacks, September 11 is distinguished in part by the role played by intelligence agencies and informal secret networks in the preceding events. As bin Laden and his aides endorsed the September 11 attacks from their Afghan sanctuary, they were pursued secretly by salaried officers from the CIA. At the same time, bin Laden and his closest allies received protection, via the Taliban, from salaried officers in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. This was a pattern for two decades. Strand after strand of official covert action, unofficial covert action, clandestine terrorism, and clandestine counterterrorism wove one upon the other to create the matrix of undeclared war that burst into plain sight in 2001.

America’s primary actor in this subterranean narrative was the CIA, which shaped the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s and then waged a secret campaign to disrupt, capture, or kill Osama bin Laden after he returned to Afghanistan during the late 1990s.

In the two years prior to September 11, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center worked closely with Ahmed Shah Massoud and other Afghans against bin Laden. But the agency was unable to persuade most of the rest of the U.S. government to go as far as Massoud and some CIA officers wanted. In these struggles over how best to confront bin Laden—as in previous turning points in the CIA’s involvement with Afghanistan—the agency struggled to control its mutually mistrustful and at times toxic alliances with the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The self-perpetuating secret routines of these official liaisons, and their unexamined assumptions, helped create the Afghanistan that became Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary. They also stoked the rise of a radical Islam in Afghanistan that exuded violent global ambitions. The CIA’s central place in the story is unusual, compared to other cataclysmic episodes in American history. The stories of the agency’s officers and leaders, their conflicts, their successes, and their failures, help describe and explain the secret wars preceding September 11 the way stories of generals and dog-faced GIs have described conventional wars in the past.

Of course other Americans shaped this struggle as well: presidents, diplomats, military officers, national security advisers, and, later, dispersed specialists in the new art termed “counterterrorism.” Pakistani and Saudi spies, and the sheikhs and politicians who gave them their orders or tried in vain to control them, joined Afghan commanders such as Ahmed Shah Massoud in a regional war that shifted so often, it existed in a permanent shroud. Some of these local powers and spies were partners of the CIA. Some pursued competing agendas. Many did both at once.

The story of September 11’s antecedents is their story as well. Among them swirled the fluid networks of stateless Islamic radicals whose global revival after 1979 eventually birthed bin Laden’s al Qaeda, among many other groups. As the years passed, these radical Islamic networks adopted some of the secret deception-laden tradecraft of the formal intelligence services, methods they sometimes acquired through direct training. During the 1980s, Soviet conscripts besieged by CIA-supplied Afghan rebels called them dukhi, or ghosts. The Soviets could never quite grasp and hold their enemy. It remained that way in Afghanistan long after they had gone. From its first days before the Soviet invasion until its last hours in the late summer of 2001, this was a struggle among ghosts.’4

(To be continued)


  1. Anthony Davis, “How the Taliban Became a Military Force,” in William Maley, ed., Fundamentalism Reborn, p. 68
  2. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll, Penguin (prologue)
  3. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll, Penguin (notes on prologue)
  4. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll, Penguin (notes on prologue)