When the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001 for most Americans it was a bolt out of the blue. Few could have placed Afghanistan on a map or had really heard of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was a shadowy bogeyman and the Taliban destroyed giant Buddha statues. But in his new book, Steve Coll documents how the secret history of Afghanistan all built up directly and indirectly to 9/11. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 won a Pulitzer this year. Steve Coll is the managing editor of Washington Post and was the Post’s South Asia bureau chief between 1989 and 1992. I spoke to him in San Francisco before his book won the Pulitzer.

You write, on Aug. 6 2001 President Bush received his daily briefing at Crawford Ranch and the headline was “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” After 9/11 many people pointed to missed or ignored leads. What was the most specific information about bin Laden and al-Qaeda that was missed or not given enough information?

In the summer of 2001, the intelligence community reported repeatedly that some kind of spectacular plot was underway. And it was designed to take large numbers of casualties. They didn’t know where and when. The problem is, these were strategic warnings. They very loudly said that an enemy is about to strike. But they couldn’t provide tactical warning, they just didn’t know where and when.

Some of the reviews since 9/11 have pointed out opportunities earlier than the summer of 2001 when some of the specific actors in the 9/11 plot surfaced in the investigations and slipped through the screen like when they failed to watch-list a couple of the guys who ended up as pilots. But the broad sense that something was coming was well understood.

The outgoing national security team told Condoleezza Rice, you are going to spend more time on terrorism and specifically bin Laden than any other issue. But the Clinton administration had several opportunities to get bin Laden but pulled back at the last minute.

They were continually discussing how much risk they were willing to take in the hunt for bin Laden. One of the reasons why they struggled so much was they defined the problem very narrowly. And they specifically defined it without reference to Afghanistan as a place, a sanctuary, as part of the context in which he thrived. So the mission the CIA had to kill or capture bin Laden before 9/11 was designed to prevent them from participating in Afghanistan’s conflicts—it was a thread-the-needle operation.

One of their partners in this was Ahmad Shah Massoud (of the Northern Alliance) and one of his intelligence aides told me that what he kept saying to the CIA was that what you are trying to do is pull the king off the chessboard without touching any of the other pieces. We didn’t want to deal with who the Taliban were, we didn’t want to deal with their supporters in Pakistani intelligence and their support networks in the Persian Gulf.

But could you blame them for that? Wouldn’t it have been hard to launch an all-or-nothing attack against terrorists who at that time made few Americans feel directly menaced?

That’s correct. That’s what the Clinton people say. There was no context for a war with the Taliban. They say the Republican-controlled Congress would never have sanctioned such an endeavor.


One of the places bin Laden returned to again and again was called Tarnak farm, a walled compound outside Kandahar airport. He established his own family there in 1997 and used the place as a combination training camp and living quarters. So there were many families there, women, and children. When the CIA took satellite photographs of the farm for targeting information, a swing kept showing up. It symbolized the complexity of what al-Qaeda was—a guerilla movement with women and children in its midst. It also galvanized debate in the Clinton security team about the extent to which they were prepared to take civilian casualties in this attack against bin Laden. There was also the more practical-minded component that if there were women and children killed, al-Qaeda would make great hay out of it before the international media.

When did bin Laden turn from being a patron of fundamentalist Islamic causes to becoming an active player?

I think he began to turn to transnational operations during his exile in Sudan when he met exiled Islamic radicals from Egypt and Algeria. It seems he was involved in an assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. So by 1995-96 he is starting to fund and participate in violent operations. Then he is forced to Afghanistan. In 1998 he meets up again with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative who had participated in assassination plots against Anwar Sadat and had been imprisoned and, by his account, tortured in prison. He was a much harder figure than bin Laden and quite radicalized. When he and bin Laden and the other Egyptians formed an alliance, that’s when the modern version of al-Qaeda was created.

When did the U.S. intelligence agencies set up a bin Laden unit, and you write they were mostly women?

Yes, two-thirds were women. It was established in January 1996 in the counter-terrorist center, the department of the CIA which follows terrorist groups. As this unit got organized, it was staffed predominantly by women. They called themselves the Manson Family because they were so passionate about the threat of bin Laden that their colleagues thought they were crazy. In truth, they were regarded as over-the-top even by senior officers who were alarmed about bin Laden.

A friend of mine, a woman journalist, wondered if the male leadership of the CIA discounted this group’s alarms as female hysteria. I actually think there might be something to that if you look at the language officers used to describe their interactions with them.
The bin Laden unit said that the White House and the CIA had become prisoners of their alliances with Saudi Arabia and Pakistani intelligence. How seriously was that taken?

Not seriously at all. But it was a powerful dissent. In some ways it was their pushing of the question of these poisonous alliances that caused their alienation from the rest of the bureaucracy. They said it relied much too heavily on liaison relationships, which they thought were fundamentally unsound. In the case of Pakistani intelligence there was plenty of evidence that it had been penetrated by al-Qaeda in order to fund guerilla operations in Kashmir.

Has this intelligence relationship changed radically since 9/11?

I don’t think so. It has changed somewhat. The problem is that Pakistani intelligence, on behalf of the Pakistani army, built up al-Qaeda and affiliated groups not because the senior generals themselves were Islamists but because they used these groups as strategic weapons against their main enemy—India. They felt these jihadist groups were how they could equalize their regional contest with a far more prosperous industrialized neighbor. Even today you see the Pakistan army holding some of these groups in reserve to keep their options open and also imagining the day when the U.S. withdraws again from the region, as we have done periodically in the past, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

The U.S. was criticized after 9/11 for withdrawing after the Soviets left. What could it have done?

After the Soviets left, the U.N. was engaged in a specific and energetic mission to construct stable post-war politics in Afghanistan. They were trying to build a center out of the rubble in Afghanistan that would have been a federation of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance, royalist moderate Pashtuns like the Karzai family, and exiled intellectuals. And after the U.S. went in, post-9/11, that’s exactly what they tried to put together.

But before 9/11 the U.S. had no appetite for it though the U.N. and Britain kept arguing to the Americans that we had an interest in sidelining the extremists and doing this work. But the CIA had subcontracted Afghan politics to the Pakistani intelligence. This was a generation of officers scarred by Vietnam who had decided, no more winning hearts and minds. We will let the Pakistanis do that. In addition, Washington was hugely distracted. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union dissolved—all that took precedence over Afghanistan at a cabinet level.

The Pakistanis were funding the Taliban with American money. But the U.S. also had anti-Taliban forces like Ahmad Shad Massoud on a monthly stipend. Were they playing both sides?

They never chose sides till 9/11. In the case of the Taliban, the Saudis and Pakistanis were continually urging them to be patient and allow the Taliban to moderate. The Saudis would say, look, we started out like this, we looked like a crazed militia to the rest of the world and now we have evolved into a nation state, part of the global economy. The Americans wanted to hear these arguments because the alternative course meant more guns and money, more war, partnering with Massoud, and they didn’t see how he could really win. So they never really committed, though Massoud did have an international coalition of support from Iran, India, and Russia.

How tight is the link still between al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

I think they never really understood each other. The Afghans regarded the Arabs with suspicion, if not outright disdain. And the Arabs had a condescending view of the Afghans as noble savages, primitive Islamic warriors. In that sense one of the greatest miscalculations bin Laden made was his assumption that when the Americans came to Afghanistan after 9/11, the Talibans would rally Afghans as they had against the Soviets. In fact, the Talibans were weakening and had a very thin grip on Afghan society because they were a totalitarian and unpopular organization and bin Laden didn’t understand that.

Today I think the Taliban and al-Qaeda aren’t anywhere nearly as intimately connected as they were before 9/11. The connection that was forged was made of two elements that have dissolved. One was bin Laden’s money, which he used to enrich Mullah Omar and build all sorts of things for him in Kandahar. And the second was bin Laden’s shock forces, who participated in the frontlines of the Taliban against Massoud. Both are much reduced but the Taliban maintains links with Pakistan’s army and regional al-Qaeda affiliates such as as Lakshar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Kashmir-oriented guerilla groups.

What about the reports that the Taliban are coming back?

They are a disruptive force in the south and the east. They may have a few cells in Kabul but are not a major force. But in their homeland along the Pakistan border, and around Kandahar, they have certainly not been eradicated. Two things explain their resilience. One is the survival of Mullah Omar and his ability to get on the radio and talk to his supporters. And more importantly, there is plenty of evidence that the Pakistani government continues to provide sanctuary and resources to Taliban’s leaders across the border, especially around Quetta. I think they are doing it deliberately because to challenge the Taliban on Pakistani soil would be very complicated in terms of domestic politics. And I am sure there are elements of the army that think, why not hold the Taliban as a reserve force, we may need them someday.

But we are hearing rumors that the Pakistani army is putting much more pressure on tribes in the autonomous region to deliver Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders?

The Pakistani army has a pattern of cooperation with the Americans that goes back even before 9/11 in which they are often willing to take risks against Chechen and Arab radical groups which are non-Pakistani, non-Afghan, because there is no particular political penalty to go after them. But they are much more reluctant to go after Pashtuns or Pathan figures who are connected to the Pakistani infrastructure and might have fought in Afghanistan or Kashmir. So while there is evidence of increased cooperation against bin Laden and the Arabs, there is much less convincing evidence of the army’s willingness to go after the Taliban.

During the war against the Soviets a lot of the more pro-Western more democracy-minded people were derided as silk-and-cashmere leaders who were golfing in Europe. But now someone like that, Hamid Karzai, has been installed in Afghanistan. Is the U.S. doing enough to support Karzai?

It is a weakness that he is seen as a creature of the Americans. But I think many Afghans appreciate that things are better now. There is not a war going on, there is a lot of trade and prosperity. Karzai is not fundamentally as unpopular as, say, Najibullah, an ex-secret police chief with a lot of scalps on his belt, was. Are the Americans doing enough to support him? That’s the big question. They were slow to recognize the need to build capacity within the Afghan government. At the beginning, American involvement emphasized regional warlords and regional power centers and they starved the center. Now I think they are working much harder to build out a sustainable government.

Is the CIA finally equipped to deal with stateless terror threats like al-Qaeda or what you call the unaffiliated mobile religious violence?

They are certainly moving in that direction and accept the premise that this is the new threat. But it’s a bureaucracy built up over 40 years of the Cold War to worry about states, formal armies, and missile programs. Now they have to not only adjust to parts of the world where they have been weak historically, but also to stateless, mobile, transnational groups.

But the violence is religious, not secular—is that significant?

It makes a difference. The terrorism we were used to in the ’70s and ’80s was in many cases to call attention to national causes, recognizable left and right causes. Here you have groups that are motivated by a millennial view, and regards their enemies as outside of God’s community and legitimate targets of extermination even if they are civilians. It’s more difficult to penetrate these groups because the leaders and inner circle are less susceptible to the blandishments that were used to penetrate secular nationalist groups and maneuver them into peaceful politics, as was done with IRA, or corrupt them and buy them. None of that works for al-Qaeda.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.