Afghan war closet: 'US had decided to overthrow Taliban regime a month before 9/11'

Published June 22, 2021
As Afghanistan is reaching an end game, secrets are tumbling out of the closely guarded closets. — Reuters/ File
As Afghanistan is reaching an end game, secrets are tumbling out of the closely guarded closets. — Reuters/ File

Even a month before the 9/11 attacks, the US administration under President George Bush had finalised a strategy to overthrow the Taliban regime by using direct action.

Referring to a meeting of top national security officials in August 2001, Steve Coll, an American journalist and author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, wrote that the US had effectively decided to provide covert military aid to anti-Taliban groups, more particularly to the group in Northern Alliance affiliated with Ahmed Shah Massoud.

“The meeting decided to present an ultimatum to Taliban to hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives. If the Taliban refused, the US would provide covert military aid to anti-Taliban groups. If both those options failed, the officials agreed to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action,” Coll wrote.

This was in marked contrast to Bill Clinton's administration’s policy, which had tended to believe that the Taliban will be able to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

In her book, Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader, author, and translator Marcela Grad mentioned that in 1997, Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel had advised Massoud to surrender to the Taliban to bring peace to the country.

But Massoud had responded that “as long as he controlled an area the size of his hat, he would continue to defend it from the Taliban”.

Former diplomats believe that Massoud’s confidence stemmed from the fact that till then, the major regional power, India, had agreed to support him. India had established bases at Farkhor and Ayni in Tajikistan housing a military hospital and other assets.

Indian diplomat recalls support to Massoud

Indian Ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, who served in Dushanbe from 1996-2000, coordinated military and medical assistance to Massoud and his forces.

Quoting Kumar, a senior Indian journalist V. Sudarshan writes in prominent Indian daily The Hindu, that the contact with Massoud was established just a week after the Taliban took over Kabul in September 1996.

Amrullah Saleh, currently first vice president of Afghanistan, who was then posted in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe on behalf of the deposed Kabul administration, rang up the Indian ambassador and sought a meeting for “commander”. He had used the word commander for Massoud, who had arrived in Dushanbe early morning after dodging the Taliban.

Kumar, after taking permission from his higher-ups in New Delhi walked to Massoud’s home in Dushanbe, where he was hosted with tea and dry fruit. Political leadership in New Delhi had advised the envoy to “listen carefully, report back faithfully, and play it by ear.”

Sipping a cup of tea, Massoud asked for India’s help to unseat the Taliban and defeat al-Qaeda.

Kumar said short of sending heavy equipment, India provided extensive assistance to the anti-Taliban alliance, which included uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food and medicines via Tajikistan. The funds, however, were routed through Massoud’s brother, Wali Massoud, who was stationed in London.

India also helped to maintain 10 helicopters owned by Northern Alliance with spares and service and also gifted two Mi-8 helicopters. It also spent $7.5 million to set up a medical facility at Farkhor, 130 kilometers (81 miles) southeast of the capital Dushanbe, where Massoud breathed his last when he was brought after an assassination attempt on him on Sept. 9, 2001, at Khoja Bahauddin, in the Takhar Province of Afghanistan.

Five months before he died, Massoud was in New Delhi on a four-day visit. India’s former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh in his book, titled A Call to Honour, wrote: “This had to be a closely guarded visit, as any number of terrorist groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan were vying to take his life."

He noted that “India’s co-operation with the Northern Alliance is still largely an untold account. A more complete narration of it has to wait.”

More US secrets coming out

As Afghanistan is reaching an end game, more secrets are tumbling out of the closely guarded closets. In hundreds of confidential interviews that constitute a secret history of the war, US and allied officials have admitted that their fatally flawed warfighting strategies had veered off in directions that had little to do with Al-Qaeda or 9/11.

After interviewing more than 600 diplomats and military commanders, the Washington-based Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its seven declassified reports, struggled to answer whom they considered enemy and allies in Afghanistan.

The study — entitled Lessons Learned — highlights the US government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption and failure to build a competent Afghan army and police force, and also to put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

Bob Crowley, an army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency advisor to US military commanders in 2013- 2014, told SIGAR that surveys were conducted to reinforce that everything was going right.

In an interview to The Washington Post, John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, the agency which conducted the interviews, acknowledged that “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

According to an estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, various arms of the US administration have spent $934 billion-$978 billion in Afghanistan since 2001.

In public, US officials insisted they had no tolerance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned interviews, they admitted the US looked the other way while Afghan power brokers plundered with impunity.

“I like to use a cancer analogy. Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal,” Christopher Kolenda, an army colonel who had been deployed to Afghanistan several times, told SIGAR researchers.

US officials told interviewers that by allowing corruption to fester, the US and allies helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce the order.

Mission to eradicate opium failed

One unidentified US soldier said Special Forces teams “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, calling them "awful".

“Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed senior USAID official told government interviewers.

The report further mentions that the US has spent about $9 billion to fight the problem of opium cultivation over the past 18 years. But Afghan farmers are cultivating more opium poppies than ever. Former officials said almost everything they did to constrain opium farming backfired.

At first, Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British to destroy their crops – which only encouraged them to grow more the next season. Later, when the US government eradicated poppy fields without compensation, it infuriated farmers and encouraged them to side with the Taliban.

Back in June 2006, Barry McCaffrey, a retired army general, who was on a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan had reported the Taliban had made an impressive comeback and predicted unpleasant surprises in the coming 24 months.

“The Afghan national leadership is collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years — leaving NATO holding the bag — and the whole thing will collapse again into mayhem,” McCaffrey wrote.

A 40-page classified report drafted by Marin Strmecki, a civilian advisor to then-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, said “enormous popular discontent is building” against the Afghan government because of its corruption and incompetence. It also said that the Taliban was growing stronger.

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