The meetings with Massoud were formal and partially scripted. Each spoke for about fifteen minutes, and then there was time for questions and answers.
'We have a common enemy,' the CIA team leader said. 'Let's work together.'
Massoud said he was willing, but he was explicit about his limitations. Bin Laden spent most of his time near Kandahar and in the eastern Afghan mountains, far from where Massoud's forces operated. Occasionally bin Laden visited Jalalabad or Kabul, closer to Massoud's lines. In these areas Massoud's intelligence service had active agents, and perhaps they could develop more sources.
Because he had a few helicopters and many battle-tested commanders the CIA team also hoped to eventually set up a snatch operation in which Massoud would order an airborne assault to take bin Laden alive. But for now the Counterterrorist Center had no legal authority from the White House to promote lethal operations with Massoud. The initial visit was to set up a system for collection and sharing of intelligence about bin Laden, and to establish connections with Massoud for future operations.
The agency men recognized that in their focus on bin Laden they were promoting a narrow "American solution" to an American problem in the midst of Afghanistan's broader, complex war. Still, they hoped Massoud would calculate that if he went along with the CIA's capture operation, it might lead eventually to a deeper political and military alliance with the United States.
Massoud told the CIA delegation that American policy toward bin Laden was myopic and doomed to fail. The Americans put all their effort against bin Laden himself and a handful of his senior aides, but they failed to see the larger context in which al Qaeda thrived. What about the Taliban? What about Pakistani intelligence? What about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates? Even if the CIA succeeded in capturing or killing bin Laden, Massoud argued to his CIA visitors, the United States would still have a huge problem in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was now much bigger than bin Laden or al-Zawahiri alone. Protected by the Taliban, its hundreds and even thousands of international jihadists would carry on bin Laden's war against both the United States
and secular Central Asian governments.
'Even if we succeed in what you are asking for,' Massoud told the CIA delegation, as his aide and translator Abdullah recalled it, 'that will not solve the bigger problem that is growing.' This part of the conversation was tricky for the Americans. The CIA team leader and his colleagues privately agreed with Massoud's criticisms of American policy. The CIA men saw little distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban. They felt frustrated by the State Department diplomats who argued moderate Taliban leadership might eventually expel bin Laden bloodlessly.
The Americans told Massoud they agreed with his critique, but they had their orders. The policy of the United States government now focused on capturing bin Laden and his lieutenants for criminal trial. Yet this policy was not static. Already the CIA was lobbying for a new approach to Massoud in Washington-that was how they had won permission for this mission in the first place. If they worked together now, built up their cooperation on intelligence collection, the CIA—or at least the officers in the Counterterrorist Center—would continue to lobby for the United States to choose sides in the Afghan war and support Massoud. The CIA could not rewrite government policy but it had influence, they explained. The more Massoud cooperated against bin Laden, the more credible the CIA's arguments in Washington would become.
Massoud and his aides agreed they had nothing to lose. 'First of all it was an effort against a common enemy,' recalled Abdullah. 'Second, we had the hope that it would get the U.S. to know better about the situation in Afghanistan.' As the counterterrorism and intelligence work grew, the United States might finally intervene in the Afghan war more forcefully, 'perhaps in the later stages,' Massoud calculated, as Abdullah recalled it.
Meanwhile, if Massoud's men found themselves 'in a position to kill Osama bin Laden, we wouldn't have waited for approval from the United States,' Abdullah recalled. 'We were not doing this just for the U.S. interests. We were doing it for our own interests.'
In the end Massoud's men did not object to the discussions about legal limitations as much as they did to what they saw as the selfish, single-minded focus of American policy. 'What was irritating was that in this whole tragedy, in this whole chaotic situation, at times that a nation was suffering,' recalled one of Massoud's intelligence aides who worked closely with the CIA during this period, 'they were talking about this very small piece of it: bin Laden. And if you were on our side, it would have been difficult for you to accept that this was the problem. For us it was an element of the problem but not the problem.'
The CIA team pledged to push Massoud's arguments in Washington, but they sensed their own isolation in the American bureaucracy. They understood State's objections. They knew that backing Massoud's grinding war against the Taliban carried many risks and costs, not least the certainty of more Afghan civilian deaths. They had to make the case—unpopular and to many American officials still unproven—that the Taliban and al Qaeda posed such a grave risk to the United States that it required an extraordinary change.