Devotion to Duty
A Foreboding Land for Outsiders
Afghanistan is a rugged, beautiful country, from the snow-capped Hindu Kush and the green mountain valleys to the stark landscape of the northern and southern plains. It is home to a tapestry of peoples and cultures, whose histories are those of the ancient powers of the East, from the Median, Persian, Gupta, and Mongol empires. Trade routes from across the ancient world traversed its passes, giving rise to trading centers such as Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul. Historically, though Middle Eastern and Eurasian languages had terms for Afghanistan, its own people had little sense of nationhood. Political identity tended to rest at much lower levels, such as the tribe, region, or village. Real power in Afghanistan extended as far as a ruler could reach to tax or enforce his will; boundaries set by empires or dynasties meant relatively little. Rebellion, warfare, and defiance of authority proved more enduring than any sense of national cohesion.
CIA & Afghanistan
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, President Carter directed CIA to assist the Afghan mujahidin. CIA came to see that the indigenous Afghan opposition to the Soviets was less an organized movement than widespread opposition by villages and tribes.
Through Pakistan, CIA provided the mujahidin with money, weapons, medical supplies, and communications equipment. Initially the goal was to drain Soviet resources by keeping their forces bogged down. In 1985, CIA shifted from a plan of attrition to one that would help the rebels win. One of the pivotal moments came in September 1986, when the mujahidin used CIA-provided Stinger missiles to shoot down three Soviet Mi-24D helicopter gunships. As part of this escalation of financial and materiel support, President Reagan issued new guidance that put CIA into more direct contact with rebel commanders, beginning an era of CIA interaction with tribal and local leaders that continues through the post-9/11 era.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 eliminated the key interest that the United States had shared with the mujahidin. The foreign fighters who had joined the Afghan resistance dispersed to other parts of the world, and the local commanders undertook a violent and difficult struggle for control of the country’s resources and government, which culminated in Taliban rule.
Al-Qa’ida & theTaliban
In 1996, Usama bin Ladin and other senior leaders of al-Qa’ida moved from Sudan to Afghanistan and began strengthening ties to the Taliban—the brutal government that gave them safe haven. By then, the CIA was tracking al-Qa’ida as a growing threat to US security. After al-Qa’ida bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, CIA intensified its operations against the terrorist group, in part by reconnecting with Afghan allies from the war against the Soviets. Now known as the Northern Alliance, these Afghans were resisting Taliban rule.
In late 2000, US policymakers asked CIA what additional resources and authorities it would need to pursue al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. The Agency recommended stronger support for the Northern Alliance and others opposed to the Taliban governance, as well as assistance to those who might capture al-Qa’ida leaders.
This planning laid the groundwork for CIA’s aggressive response to the attacks of September 11th. Its experience with rebel commanders and established relationship with the Northern Alliance proved vital to the Agency’s post-9/11 operations. On September 12th, CIA briefed the President on a plan to overthrow the Taliban, including a pledge that Agency officers could be posted with Northern Alliance commanders within two weeks.
A week after the attack, Director George Tenet told senior Agency managers, “There can be no bureaucratic impediments to success. All the rules have changed…We do not have time to hold meetings to fix problems—fix them—quickly and smartly. Each person must assume an un-precedented degree of personal responsibility.” The first CIA contingent entered Afghanistan on 26 September 2001 and met up with Northern Alliance forces in the Panjshir Valley. In mid-October, another CIA team arrived south of Mazar-e Sharif. By the beginning of November, roughly 100 CIA officers and 300 US Special Forces were in Afghanistan.
For more pictures of Afghanistan, click here.