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Clinton Team's Advised Bush on Fighting the Taliban, But Bush Wasn't Having It

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

In Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance detected a build-up of Taliban forces on September 1, evidently in preparation for an upcoming offensive. The intelligence portended something much larger, but at the time, the CIA failed to see the gathering pieces.

In October 1996, an anti-Taliban alliance formed called the "Supreme Council for the Defense of the Motherland." Uzbek and Tajik tribal factions in the geographical northern third of the country formed the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also called the "Northern Alliance," colloquially known as the umbrella grouping of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan but really only one tribal faction.

Former Defense Minister and the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was the most photogenic and Western-friendly of the warlord chiefs, and he also participated most closely with U.S., French and British intelligence in opposing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. During the Clinton administration, particularly after the 1998 African embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the CIA was authorized to assist and support the North Alliance, but only in providing intelligence or directly being involved in capturing bin Laden. That was affirmed in a Presidential Finding (a "Memorandum of Notification" signed by Clinton in September 1998). It authorized the CIA "to let its tribal assets use force to capture Bin Laden." That MON was broadened in February 1999 to allow the Northern Alliance the same latitude, albeit with the same restrictions, to capture bin Laden, in dealing with other tribal assets.

Ahmed Shah Massoud al qaeda taliban 9/11
April 7, 2019, schoolgirls walk past a barrier wall painted with an image of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late military and political Afghan leader also known as the "Lion of Panjshir", in Kabul. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

CIA operators undertook the Agency's first clandestine trip to Afghanistan to coordinate with the Northern Alliance in their al Qaeda mission in September 1999. A six-man team flew to Dushanbe, Tajikistan where they linked up with Ahmed Shah Massoud's people and then flew an old Soviet Mi-17 helicopter into the Panjshir Valley, where Massoud had his field headquarters. The CIA made it clear to that the CIA's interest was in al Qaeda and that the Alliance should not expect any help in overthrowing the Taliban. According to Hank Crumpton, head of the Afghan operation in the Counterterrorist Center, largely through Massoud, the CTC developed more than a hundred human sources in almost every province and tribe, including penetrations of the Taliban and support networks for al Qaeda prior to 9/11. The CIA also gave technical collection systems to the Alliance and began flying unarmed Predator drones over the country.

In January 2001, just days before the Bush administration took office, strengthened U.N. sanctions against the Taliban went into effect, including an arms embargo. The Northern Alliance was exempted from the restrictions. Veterans of the Clinton administration who had worked on Afghanistan urged the new Bush administration to increase aid the Northern Alliance (and to other northern groups), but in early March, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice postponed any kind of decision, seeking a more wide-ranging examination of policy and a "regional" strategy. The decision was made to draft a presidential national security policy directive (NSPD) on terrorism.

"I'm tired of swatting at flies," President Bush reportedly said. Bush later told the 9/11 Commission that he was briefed on various proposals to roll back al Qaeda but felt that catching terrorists one by one or even cell by cell was not an approach likely to succeed in the long run.

In April 2001, Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, and there was a flurry of Western public interest in Afghanistan. At the end of the month, the White House full Deputies Committee, now with confirmed presidential appointees, formally met to discuss terrorism policy. CIA briefing slides described al Qaeda as the "most dangerous group we face," citing its "leadership, experience, resources, safe haven in Afghanistan, [and] focus on attacking U.S." The slides warned, "There will be more attacks."

The deputies endorsed increased work to fight terrorist financing, increased authorities for the CIA, Pentagon involvement into anti-al Qaeda and Taliban efforts, and covert aid to Uzbekistan to provide support for Afghan operations as well as a permanent base to host Predator operations. But regarding the Northern Alliance, they decided "to make no major commitment at this time." The recommended that the principals approve "a comprehensive review of U.S. policy on Pakistan" and explore policy options on Afghanistan, "including the option of supporting [Taliban] regime change." There was much activity, but it all hinged on the desired "comprehensive" policy and the draft national security presidential directive on terrorism was distributed on August 13.

Through 9/11, there was Pentagon resistance to either an increase in Afghanistan activity or Predator operations. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued that attacks from 1993 to the present couldn't possibly have been undertaken by al Qaeda alone, that a state sponsor like Iraq was likely behind attacks. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also ferociously guarded the use of military forces in covert operations and unconventional tasks. By way of example regarding Rumsfeld's lack of interest, Brian Sheridan—the Clinton administration's outgoing assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC), the key counterterrorism policy office in the Pentagon—never briefed Rumsfeld when he took over the department. And then after Sheridan departed, he was not replaced until after 9/11.

Then on June 28, the State Department's South Asia Bureau also suggested a less confrontational stance toward the Taliban, saying that it opposed a policy to overthrow the Taliban and was cautious about aiding the Northern Alliance.

Follow the Newsweek live tweet of September 11, 2001 (based upon the new book On That Day) starting at 4:45 a.m. EST @Roadto911.

Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.