Devotion to Duty
National Clandestine Service (NCS)
First on the Ground
Immediately after September 11th, at the direction of the President, the National Clandestine Service—then called the Directorate of Operations—took the lead on a secret plan to assemble small teams and deploy them to Afghanistan to partner with the Northern Alliance, overthrow the Taliban, and deny al-Qa’ida its safe haven. At a White House meeting on September 17th, President Bush gave the Agency its orders: “I want CIA to be first on the ground.” Paramilitary officers, experts at collecting intelligence in hazardous places, were at the vanguard of CIA’s operations.
The seven-man Northern Alliance Liaison Team (NALT) landed on Afghan soil on September 26, 2001, just 15 days after the terrorist attacks. They brought a remarkable range of skills to the mission, including proficiency in Russian, Dari, and Farsi. Building on the Agency’s longstanding relationship with the Northern Alliance, the team collected intelligence on the Taliban, reporting the latest developments back to Headquarters every two hours.
Agency officers slept in small, cramped rooms. The team brought 40 pounds of onions and 40 pounds of potatoes with them, but ate mostly local food. Bathroom facilities were rudimentary. Officers slept in long johns to stay warm. One of them broke a toe when a portable electrical generator fell on his foot. He wore flip flops while it healed, even as temperatures began to drop. CIA officers tried hanging their laundry outside, but wet clothes didn’t dry well in the Afghan winter. The officers started hanging them up indoors.
Small and highly agile paramilitary mobile teams followed the first NALT, spreading out over the countryside during the day to meet with locals and gather information about the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. In the evenings, they slept outside of town. During that time, one of the teams was approached in a village and asked by a young man for help in retrieving his teenage sister. He explained that a senior Taliban official had taken her as a wife and had sharply restricted the time she could spend with her family. The team gave the man a small hand-held tracking device to pass along to his sister, with instructions for her to activate it when the Taliban leader returned home. The team responded to her emergency signal, capturing the senior Taliban official and rescuing the sister. The siblings’ tearful reunion left the team at a loss for words—a rarity for the normally loud warriors of CIA’s Special Activities Division.