Swift victory, slow success

Afghan: The Taliban have been routed, al-Qaida is on the run and new leaders are in place. Now it gets difficult.

February 17, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

"This was a land of rebellious barons. It was like Europe in the Middle Ages. But what were the Americans doing here?"- Graham Greene in The Quiet American

Graham Greene was writing of Vietnam in the mid-1950s as America was poised for its heartbreaking journey into the jungles. But he could have been referring to Afghanistan, with its own rebellious barons and intrigue and potential to ensnare a great power.

The United States impressively toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan within three months, scattered the al-Qaida terrorist network and helped to install a new interim government. Now it is engaged in a "shadow war," in the words of one Pentagon official.

Chasing the shadows, Americans are now being accused of cozying up to questionable intelligence sources and making deadly mistakes, much like Greene's well-meaning fictional American, Alden Pyle, who was "young and ignorant and silly and he got involved."

In mid-December, U.S. warplanes attacked the northern Afghan town of Pol-e Khomri, killing forces loyal to Gen. Mohammed Fahim, a Northern Alliance commander and now the country's defense minister. A week later, American bombs struck a convoy outside Khost, killing at least 12 people driving to the inaugural of interim leader Hamid Karzai, according to Afghan officials.

And three weeks ago, U.S. special operations forces stormed two suspected al-Qaida compounds in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan. The Pentagon then said they were Taliban, not al-Qaida, and that at least 15 were killed and another 27 were captured. Afghan officials subsequently said the raids were a mistake, that those hit were anti-Taliban forces.

The CIA quietly went to that remote area earlier this month and paid reparations to the families of those killed, according to defense officials. Meanwhile, the U.S. military turned over all 27 detainees, a group that included Abdul Rauf, a local police chief and incoming military commander of Uruzgan province, to the interim government. The government quickly released them.

The Pentagon continues to defend all three attacks, saying they were launched against Taliban or al-Qaida targets. Top officials have decided, however, to investigate only one, last month's raid outside Uruzgan.

A top Afghan government official, who requested anonymity, says the three raids have one thing in common: faulty intelligence supplied by competing warlords.

"That's exactly what happened in all cases," according to the official, who believes American zeal in finding Osama bin Laden and the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, led to these mistakes. "There is a sense of desperation to completely rout the Taliban and the al-Qaida. That sense of desperation [leads] to misinformation and disinformation."

Milt Bearden, a former CIA officer who helped arm Afghanistan's mujahedeen fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s, says the United States must be cautious in its dealings with the factionalized and war-torn country and make sure its information is sound.

"In every valley there are three guys who want to be in charge and one guy's in charge," Bearden says. "If you walk in as a 900-pound gorilla you have to be careful because you can be used."

Careful vetting, or confirming, of information is paramount in intelligence work, explains Bearden, who wonders if that time-honored rule has been relaxed. "Vetting is something that used to take a long time. And now it's morning to afternoon and the guns are firing," he says. "You've got to be more careful before you go out and kill people."

Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret officer and CIA officer with experience in Afghanistan, says the U.S. government doesn't seem to realize the war has entered a new phase. The Taliban are out of power and their remnants, along with al-Qaida members, are in hiding. "It hasn't sunk in that the circumstances are different," Vickers says. "It really underscores the need, when you control the country, for tighter intelligence and tougher rules of engagement."

Pentagon and intelligence officials insist that they are being cautious, carefully filtering the information they receive before mounting a military strike.

"We are working exceptionally hard - I think it's fair to use the big "e" word in that case - to go after multiple ways, to say, `I'm not going to just go off on this one report,'" Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon last week.

One intelligence official dismissed suggestions that the CIA was dealing with only a narrow element of local Afghans or was being duped by warlords. "Obviously we work with local people," the official says. "If we didn't have contacts with local people, the war wouldn't have proceeded as smoothly as it did."

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