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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Excerpted from "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll. Copyright © 2005 by Steve Coll. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.