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"Boots on the Ground?"

Starting on the day the August 1998 strikes were launched, General Shelton had issued a planning order to prepare follow-on strikes and think beyond just using cruise missiles.137 The initial strikes had been called Operation Infinite Reach. The follow-on plans were given the code name Operation Infinite Resolve.

At the time, any actual military action in Afghanistan would have been carried out by General Zinni's Central Command. This command was therefore the locus for most military planning. Zinni was even less enthusiastic than Cohen and Shelton about follow-on cruise missile strikes. He knew that the Tomahawks did not always hit their targets. After the August 20 strikes, President Clinton had had to call Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif to apologize for a wayward missile that had killed several people in a Pakistani village. Sharif had been understanding, while commenting on American "overkill."138

Zinni feared that Bin Ladin would in the future locate himself in cities, where U.S. missiles could kill thousands of Afghans. He worried also lest Pakistani authorities not get adequate warning, think the missiles came from India, and do something that everyone would later regret. Discussing potential repercussions in the region of his military responsibility, Zinni said, "It was easy to take the shot from Washington and walk away from it. We had to live there."139

Zinni's distinct preference would have been to build up counter-terrorism capabilities in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan. But he told us that he could not drum up much interest in or money for such a purpose from Washington, partly, he thought, because these countries had dictatorial governments.140

After the decision--in which fear of collateral damage was an important factor--not to use cruise missiles against Kandahar in December 1998, Shelton and officers in the Pentagon developed plans for using an AC-130 gunship instead of cruise missile strikes. Designed specifically for the special forces, the version of the AC-130 known as "Spooky" can fly in fast or from high altitude, undetected by radar; guided to its zone by extraordinarily complex electronics, it is capable of rapidly firing precision-guided 25, 40, and 105 mm projectiles. Because this system could target more precisely than a salvo of cruise missiles, it had a much lower risk of causing collateral damage. After giving Clarke a briefing and being encouraged to proceed, Shelton formally directed Zinni and General Peter Schoomaker, who headed the Special Operations Command, to develop plans for an AC-130 mission against Bin Ladin's headquarters and infrastructure in Afghanistan. The Joint Staff prepared a decision paper for deployment of the Special Operations aircraft.141

Though Berger and Clarke continued to indicate interest in this option, the AC-130s were never deployed. Clarke wrote at the time that Zinni opposed their use, and John Maher, the Joint Staff's deputy director of operations, agreed that this was Zinni's position. Zinni himself does not recall blocking the option. He told us that he understood the Special Operations Command had never thought the intelligence good enough to justify actually moving AC-130s into position. Schoomaker says, on the contrary, that he thought the AC-130 option feasible.142

The most likely explanation for the two generals' differing recollections is that both of them thought serious preparation for any such operations would require a long-term redeployment of Special Operations forces to the Middle East or South Asia. The AC-130s would need bases because the aircraft's unrefueled range was only a little over 2, 000 miles. They needed search-and-rescue backup, which would have still less range. Thus an AC-130 deployment had to be embedded in a wider political and military concept involving Pakistan or other neighboring countries to address issues relating to basing and overflight. No one ever put such an initiative on the table. Zinni therefore cautioned about simply ordering up AC-130 deployments for a quick strike; Schoomaker planned for what he saw as a practical strike option; and the underlying issues were not fully engaged. The Joint Staff decision paper was never turned into an interagency policy paper.

The same was true for the option of using ground units from the Special Operations Command. Within the command, some officers--such as Schoomaker--wanted the mission of "putting boots on the ground" to get at Bin Ladin and al Qaeda. At the time, Special Operations was designated as a "supporting command," not a "supported command": that is, it supported a theater commander and did not prepare its own plans for dealing with al Qaeda. Schoomaker proposed to Shelton and Cohen that Special Operations become a supported command, but the proposal was not adopted. Had it been accepted, he says, he would have taken on the al Qaeda mission instead of deferring to Zinni. Lieutenant General William Boykin, the current deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence and a founding member of Delta Force, told us that "opportunities were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding."143

President Clinton relied on the advice of General Shelton, who informed him that without intelligence on Bin Ladin's location, a commando raid's chance of failure was high. Shelton told President Clinton he would go forward with "boots on the ground" if the President ordered him to do so; however, he had to ensure that the President was completely aware of the large logistical problems inherent in a military operation.144

The Special Operations plans were apparently conceived as another quick strike option--an option to insert forces after the United States received actionable intelligence. President Clinton told the Commission that "if we had had really good intelligence about... where [Usama Bin Ladin] was, I would have done it." Zinni and Schoomaker did make preparations for possible very high risk in-and-out operations to capture or kill terrorists. Cohen told the Commission that the notion of putting military personnel on the ground without some reasonable certitude that Bin Ladin was in a particular location would have resulted in the mission's failure and the loss of life in a fruitless effort.145 None of these officials was aware of the ambitious plan developed months earlier by lower-level Defense officials.

In our interviews, some military officers repeatedly invoked the analogy of Desert One and the failed 1980 hostage rescue mission in Iran.146 They were dubious about a quick strike approach to using Special Operations Forces, which they thought complicated and risky. Such efforts would have required bases in the region, but all the options were unappealing. Pro-Taliban elements of Pakistan's military might warn Bin Ladin or his associates of pending operations. With nearby basing options limited, an alternative was to fly from ships in the Arabian Sea or from land bases in the Persian Gulf, as was done after 9/11. Such operations would then have to be supported from long distances, overflying the airspace of nations that might not have been supportive or aware of U.S. efforts.147

However, if these hurdles were addressed, and if the military could then operate regularly in the region for a long period, perhaps clandestinely, it might attempt to gather intelligence and wait for an opportunity. One Special Operations commander said his view of actionable intelligence was that if you "give me the action, I will give you the intelligence."148 But this course would still be risky, in light both of the difficulties already mentioned and of the danger that U.S. operations might fail disastrously. We have found no evidence that such a long-term political-military approach for using Special Operations Forces in the region was proposed to or analyzed by the Small Group, even though such capability had been honed for at least a decade within the Defense Department.

Therefore the debate looked to some like bold proposals from civilians meeting hypercaution from the military. Clarke saw it this way. Of the military, he said to us, "They were very, very, very reluctant."149 But from another perspective, poorly informed proposals for bold action were pitted against experienced professional judgment. That was how Secretary of Defense Cohen viewed it. He said to us: "I would have to place my judgment call in terms of, do I believe that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, former commander of Special Forces command, is in a better position to make a judgment on the feasibility of this than, perhaps, Mr. Clarke?"150

Beyond a large-scale political-military commitment to build up a covert or clandestine capability using American personnel on the ground, either military or CIA, there was a still larger option that could have been considered--invading Afghanistan itself. Every official we questioned about the possibility of an invasion of Afghanistan said that it was almost unthinkable, absent a provocation such as 9/11, because of poor prospects for cooperation from Pakistan and other nations and because they believed the public would not support it. Cruise missiles were and would remain the only military option on the table.

The Desert Camp, February 1999

Early in 1999, the CIA received reporting that Bin Ladin was spending much of his time at one of several camps in the Afghan desert south of Kandahar. At the beginning of February, Bin Ladin was reportedly located in the vicinity of the Sheikh Ali camp, a desert hunting camp being used by visitors from a Gulf state. Public sources have stated that these visitors were from the United Arab Emirates.151

Reporting from the CIA's assets provided a detailed description of the hunting camp, including its size, location, resources, and security, as well as of Bin Ladin's smaller, adjacent camp.152 Because this was not in an urban area, missiles launched against it would have less risk of causing collateral damage. On February 8, the military began to ready itself for a possible strike.153 The next day, national technical intelligence confirmed the location and description of the larger camp and showed the nearby presence of an official aircraft of the United Arab Emirates. But the location of Bin Ladin's quarters could not be pinned down so precisely.154 The CIA did its best to answer a host of questions about the larger camp and its residents and about Bin Ladin's daily schedule and routines to support military contingency planning. According to reporting from the tribals, Bin Ladin regularly went from his adjacent camp to the larger camp where he visited the Emiratis; the tribals expected him to be at the hunting camp for such a visit at least until midmorning on February 11.155 Clarke wrote to Berger's deputy on February 10 that the military was then doing targeting work to hit the main camp with cruise missiles and should be in position to strike the following morning.156 Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert appears to have been briefed on the situation.157

No strike was launched. By February 12 Bin Ladin had apparently moved on, and the immediate strike plans became moot.158 According to CIA and Defense officials, policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with Bin Ladin or close by. Clarke told us the strike was called off after consultations with Director Tenet because the intelligence was dubious, and it seemed to Clarke as if the CIA was presenting an option to attack America's best counter-terrorism ally in the Gulf. The lead CIA official in the field, Gary Schroen, felt that the intelligence reporting in this case was very reliable; the Bin Ladin unit chief, "Mike," agreed. Schroen believes today that this was a lost opportunity to kill Bin Ladin before 9/11.159

Even after Bin Ladin's departure from the area, CIA officers hoped he might return, seeing the camp as a magnet that could draw him for as long as it was still set up. The military maintained readiness for another strike opportunity.160 On March 7, 1999, Clarke called a UAE official to express his concerns about possible associations between Emirati officials and Bin Ladin. Clarke later wrote in a memorandum of this conversation that the call had been approved at an interagency meeting and cleared with the CIA.161 When the former Bin Ladin unit chief found out about Clarke's call, he questioned CIA officials, who denied having given such a clearance.162 Imagery confirmed that less than a week after Clarke's phone call the camp was hurriedly dismantled, and the site was deserted.163 CIA officers, including Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt, were irate."Mike" thought the dismantling of the camp erased a possible site for targeting Bin Ladin.164

The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counter-terrorism ally of the United States and a persistent counter-terrorism problem. From 1999 through early 2001, the United States, and President Clinton personally, pressed the UAE, one of the Taliban's only travel and financial outlets to the outside world, to break off its ties and enforce sanctions, especially those relating to flights to and from Afghanistan.165 These efforts achieved little before 9/11.

In July 1999, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hamdan bin Zayid threatened to break relations with the Taliban over Bin Ladin.166 The Taliban did not take him seriously, however. Bin Zayid later told an American diplomat that the UAE valued its relations with the Taliban because the Afghan radicals offered a counterbalance to "Iranian dangers" in the region, but he also noted that the UAE did not want to upset the United States.167

Looking for New Partners

Although not all CIA officers had lost faith in the tribals' capabilities--many judged them to be good reporters--few believed they would carry out an ambush of Bin Ladin. The chief of the Counter-terrorist Center compared relying on the tribals to playing the lottery.168 He and his associates, supported by Clarke, pressed for developing a partnership with the Northern Alliance, even though doing so might bring the United States squarely behind one side in Afghanistan's long-running civil war.

The Northern Alliance was dominated by Tajiks and drew its strength mainly from the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. In contrast, Taliban members came principally from Afghanistan's most numerous ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who are concentrated in the southern part of the country, extending into the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan.169

Because of the Taliban's behavior and its association with Pakistan, the Northern Alliance had been able at various times to obtain assistance from Russia, Iran, and India. The alliance's leader was Afghanistan's most renowned military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Reflective and charismatic, he had been one of the true heroes of the war against the Soviets. But his bands had been charged with more than one massacre, and the Northern Alliance was widely thought to finance itself in part through trade in heroin. Nor had Massoud shown much aptitude for governing except as a ruthless warlord. Nevertheless, Tenet told us Massoud seemed the most interesting possible new ally against Bin Ladin.170

In February 1999, Tenet sought President Clinton's authorization to enlist Massoud and his forces as partners. In response to this request, the President signed the Memorandum of Notification whose language he personally altered. Tenet says he saw no significance in the President's changes. So far as he was concerned, it was the language of August 1998, expressing a preference for capture but accepting the possibility that Bin Ladin could not be brought out alive. "We were plowing the same ground," Tenet said.171

CIA officers described Massoud's reaction when he heard that the United States wanted him to capture and not kill Bin Ladin. One characterized Massoud's body language as "a wince." Schroen recalled Massoud's response as "You guys are crazy--you haven't changed a bit." In Schroen's opinion, the capture proviso inhibited Massoud and his forces from going after Bin Ladin but did not completely stop them.172 The idea, however, was a long shot. Bin Ladin's usual base of activity was near Kandahar, far from the front lines of Taliban operations against the Northern Alliance.

Kandahar, May 1999

It was in Kandahar that perhaps the last, and most likely the best, opportunity arose for targeting Bin Ladin with cruise missiles before 9/11. In May 1999, CIA assets in Afghanistan reported on Bin Ladin's location in and around Kandahar over the course of five days and nights. The reporting was very detailed and came from several sources. If this intelligence was not "actionable," working-level officials said at the time and today, it was hard for them to imagine how any intelligence on Bin Ladin in Afghanistan would meet the standard. Communications were good, and the cruise missiles were ready. "This was in our strike zone," a senior military officer said. "It was a fat pitch, a home run." He expected the missiles to fly. When the decision came back that they should stand down, not shoot, the officer said, "we all just slumped." He told us he knew of no one at the Pentagon or the CIA who thought it was a bad gamble. Bin Ladin "should have been a dead man" that night, he said.173

Working-level CIA officials agreed. While there was a conflicting intelligence report about Bin Ladin's whereabouts, the experts discounted it. At the time, CIA working-level officials were told by their managers that the strikes were not ordered because the military doubted the intelligence and worried about collateral damage. Replying to a frustrated colleague in the field, the Bin Ladin unit chief wrote: "having a chance to get [Bin Ladin] three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry.... [T]he DCI finds himself alone at the table, with the other princip[als] basically saying 'we'll go along with your decision Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying that the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get Bin Ladin."174 But the military officer quoted earlier recalled that the Pentagon had been willing to act. He told us that Clarke informed him and others that Tenet assessed the chance of the intelligence being accurate as 50-50. This officer believed that Tenet's assessment was the key to the decision.175

Tenet told us he does not remember any details about this episode, except that the intelligence came from a single uncorroborated source and that there was a risk of collateral damage. The story is further complicated by Tenet's absence from the critical principals meeting on this strike (he was apparently out of town); his deputy, John Gordon, was representing the CIA. Gordon recalled having presented the intelligence in a positive light, with appropriate caveats, but stating that this intelligence was about as good as it could get.176

Berger remembered only that in all such cases, the call had been Tenet's. Berger felt sure that Tenet was eager to get Bin Ladin. In his view, Tenet did his job responsibly. "George would call and say,'We just don't have it,'" Berger said.177

The decision not to strike in May 1999 may now seem hard to understand. In fairness, we note two points: First, in December 1998, the principals' wariness about ordering a strike appears to have been vindicated: Bin Ladin left his room unexpectedly, and if a strike had been ordered he would not have been hit. Second, the administration, and the CIA in particular, was in the midst of intense scrutiny and criticism in May 1999 because faulty intelligence had just led the United States to mistakenly bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO war against Serbia. This episode may have made officials more cautious than might otherwise have been the case.178

From May 1999 until September 2001, policymakers did not again actively consider a missile strike against Bin Ladin.179 The principals did give some further consideration in 1999 to more general strikes, reviving Clarke's "Delenda" notion of hitting camps and infrastructure to disrupt al Qaeda's organization. In the first months of 1999, the Joint Staff had developed broader target lists to undertake a "focused campaign" against the infrastructure of Bin Ladin's network and to hit Taliban government sites as well. General Shelton told us that the Taliban targets were "easier" to hit and more substantial.180

Part of the context for considering broader strikes in the summer of 1999 was renewed worry about Bin Ladin's ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In May and June, the U.S. government received a flurry of ominous reports, including more information about chemical weapons training or development at the Derunta camp and possible attempts to amass nuclear material at Herat.181

By late June, U.S. and other intelligence services had concluded that al Qaeda was in pre-attack mode, perhaps again involving Abu Hafs the Mauritanian. On June 25, at Clarke's request, Berger convened the Small Group in his office to discuss the alert, Bin Ladin's WMD programs, and his location. "Should we pre-empt by attacking UBL facilities?" Clarke urged Berger to ask his colleagues.182

In his handwritten notes on the meeting paper, Berger jotted down the presence of 7 to 11 families in the Tarnak Farms facility, which could mean 60-65 casualties. Berger noted the possible "slight impact" on Bin Ladin and added, "if he responds, we're blamed."183 The NSC staff raised the option of waiting until after a terrorist attack, and then retaliating, including possible strikes on the Taliban. But Clarke observed that Bin Ladin would probably empty his camps after an attack.184

The military route seemed to have reached a dead end. In December 1999, Clarke urged Berger to ask the principals to ask themselves: "Why have there been no real options lately for direct US military action?"185 There are no notes recording whether the question was discussed or, if it was, how it was answered.

Reports of possible attacks by Bin Ladin kept coming in throughout 1999. They included a threat to blow up the FBI building in Washington, D.C. In September, the CSG reviewed a possible threat to a flight out of Los Angeles or New York.186 These warnings came amid dozens of others that flooded in.

With military and diplomatic options practically exhausted by the summer of 1999, the U.S. government seemed to be back where it had been in the summer of 1998--relying on the CIA to find some other option. That picture also seemed discouraging. Several disruptions and renditions aimed against the broader al Qaeda network had succeeded.187 But covert action efforts in Afghanistan had not been fruitful.

In mid-1999, new leaders arrived at the Counter-terrorist Center and the Bin Ladin unit. The new director of CTC, replacing "Jeff," was Cofer Black. The new head of the section that included the Bin Ladin unit was "Richard." Black, "Richard," and their colleagues began working on a new operational strategy for attacking al Qaeda; their starting point was to get better intelligence, relying more on the CIA's own sources and less on the tribals.188

In July 1999, President Clinton authorized the CIA to work with several governments to capture Bin Ladin, and extended the scope of efforts to Bin Ladin's principal lieutenants. The President reportedly also authorized a covert action under carefully limited circumstances which, if successful, would have resulted in Bin Ladin's death.189 Attorney General Reno again expressed concerns on policy grounds. She was worried about the danger of retaliation. The CIA also developed the short-lived effort to work with a Pakistani team that we discussed earlier, and an initiative to work with Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks needed basic equipment and training. No action could be expected before March 2000, at the earliest.190

In fall 1999, DCI Tenet unveiled the CIA's new Bin Ladin strategy. It was called, simply,"the Plan. "The Plan proposed continuing disruption and rendition operations worldwide. It announced a program for hiring and training better officers with counter-terrorism skills, recruiting more assets, and trying to penetrate al Qaeda's ranks. The Plan aimed to close gaps in technical intelligence collection (signal and imagery) as well. In addition, the CIA would increase contacts with the Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban.191

With a new operational strategy, the CIA evaluated its capture options. None scored high marks. The CIA had no confidence in the Pakistani effort. In the event that Bin Ladin traveled to the Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan, the tribal network there was unlikely to attack a heavily guarded Bin Ladin; the Counter-terrorist Center rated the chance of success at less than 10 percent. To the northwest, the Uzbeks might be ready for a cross-border sortie in six months; their chance of success was also rated at less than 10 percent.192

In the northeast were Massoud's Northern Alliance forces--perhaps the CIA's best option. In late October, a group of officers from the Counter-terrorist Center flew into the Panjshir Valley to meet up with Massoud, a hazardous journey in rickety helicopters that would be repeated several times in the future. Massoud appeared committed to helping the United States collect intelligence on Bin Ladin's activities and whereabouts and agreed to try to capture him if the opportunity arose. The Bin Ladin unit was satisfied that its reporting on Bin Ladin would now have a second source. But it also knew that Massoud would act against Bin Ladin only if his own interests and those of the United States intersected. By early December, the CIA rated this possibility at less than 15 percent.193

Finally, the CIA considered the possibility of putting U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. The CIA had been discussing this option with Special Operations Command and found enthusiasm on the working level but reluctance at higher levels. CIA saw a 95 percent chance of Special Operations Command forces capturing Bin Ladin if deployed--but less than a 5 percent chance of such a deployment. Sending CIA officers into Afghanistan was to be considered "if the gain clearly outweighs the risk"--but at this time no such gains presented themselves to warrant the risk.194

As mentioned earlier, such a protracted deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces into Afghanistan, perhaps as part of a team joined to a deployment of the CIA's own officers, would have required a major policy initiative (probably combined with efforts to secure the support of at least one or two neighboring countries) to make a long-term commitment, establish a durable presence on the ground, and be prepared to accept the associated risks and costs. Such a military plan was never developed for interagency consideration before 9/11.As 1999 came to a close, the CIA had a new strategic plan in place for capturing Bin Ladin, but no option was rated as having more than a 15 percent chance of achieving that objective.

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© 2004-2012, David A. Desrosiers. unauthorized reproduction of this work is forbidden by law.