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A Hero's Tale

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Gary C. Schroen.
First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan.
presidio press. 379 pages. $24.95

One definition of a hero is someone who races into a burning building to save the lives of others when everyone else is racing to get out to save their own. The New York City firefighters climbing the stairways in the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks come to mind.

That definition also describes Gary Schroen, but on a larger scale. In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, most Americans were still learning how to pronounce “al Qaeda” and media pundits were contemplating the new Age of Vulnerability. Schroen, on the other hand, was gathering his team, arranging his gear, and making a last-minute stop at the druggist to buy some Advil. He then said good-by to his wife, got in a plane, and flew halfway around the world to hunt down those who had planned the attacks and topple the government that had given them safe haven.

Schroen and jawbreaker, the cia team that landed in northern Afghanistan just 15 days after the terrorist attacks, linked up with the Shura Nazar, the anti-Taliban resistance group better known as the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance, comprised of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, had for five years been fighting the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement comprised mainly of Pashtuns, the dominant tribe in the Afghan ethnic patchwork.

This — plus a few million dollars to rent the allegiance of local warlords — was the key to the U.S. success in Afghanistan. The United States had the right man with the right contacts at the right time. Schroen had spent three decades operating in southwest Asia and meeting with Afghan expatriates in the United States. He had the knowledge and the personal relations that made the operation possible.

As a cia operator funneling aid to the mujahedin during their war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Schroen had cultivated a respectful relationship with Ahmed Shah Masood, the charismatic Tajik leader of the Shura Nazar. Masood was too independent for the Pakistanis, who shipped most of the weapons supplied by the cia into neighboring Afghanistan. But Schroen bypassed the Pakistanis, established his own connection to Masood and his entourage, and kept up these contacts through the 1990s, even as the Soviet-backed Afghan regime collapsed and the country descended into civil war.

 

The Northern Alliance was on its last legs when Schroen arrived. The Taliban controlled about nine-tenths of Afghanistan’s territory. Masood himself had been assassinated by two Taliban agents posing as journalists a few days before 9/11.

Within weeks of arriving, Schroen and his team hammered out a concord among the various opponents of the Taliban — a significant task in itself, considering their own tribal rivalries and suspicions. Once he negotiated the agreement, Schroen was able to establish bases for American special operations forces. The U.S. military operators targeted Taliban positions with laser range finders, and this combination of a better-funded, better-organized resistance and U.S. precision bombing defeated the Taliban in a few weeks.

First In is one of the best of the several cia memoirs to appear in recent years. Schroen writes with an honest, direct style that gives his reader an appreciation for how hard these kinds of operations are to pull off. His book offers a nuts-and-bolts description of running a paramilitary action, and he captures the confusion, disconnects, and even occasional humor that are inevitable in wartime. Schroen rarely tries to portray himself as an action hero. To the contrary, aside from constant headaches from the 6,000-foot mountain altitudes, his main concern often seemed to be how to handle chronic diarrhea from alien food and suspect water while at the same time having to deal with wary local tribal leaders and recalcitrant officials back home — and, of course, preparing for a war.

Part of Schroen’s diplomatic challenge was to quell the worry of many U.S. officials that the Tajik-led Northern Alliance would advance too fast, capture Kabul, and squeeze the rival Pashtuns out of a post-war government. Schroen had to convince officials back in Washington that the Northern Alliance would take in the other tribes once they controlled the capital, and at the same time he had to explain to the Tajiks how it was that the Americans wanted them to win, but not too quickly and not too decisively.

Four years later, we know the outcome: The Taliban crumbled, but Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahari, and other al Qaeda leaders escaped. Most experts seem to think they slipped into the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (fata) across the Pakistani border. This region is only a few hundred kilometers from Islamabad, but it is exceptionally rugged, and the local Waziris are fiercely independent. So it is an ideal hideout for a terrorist on the run.

Schroen writes that as late as March 2002, cia and U.S. special operations forces had set themselves up in the region as small, mobile units integrated into the local population and were having some success tracking down the terrorists. But then these units were pulled out to prepare for what became Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their replacements, conventional military units, were less mobile, he says, and less well prepared to work with the local people; and that is the situation that persists to this day.

Schroen also believes the Pakistanis are not doing as much as they could to seal the border with Afghanistan and hunt down the terrorists in the fata. But he understands why. The tribes in the fata are fierce fighters who enjoy advantageous terrain; that’s how they have maintained their autonomy from the central Pakistani government for so long. Any Pakistani leader would be loath to pressure them into surrendering al Qaeda leaders, especially since most of them sympathize with bin Laden’s fundamentalist message.

While he feels U.S. leaders could make the Pakistanis cooperate better through financial aid, debt forgiveness, and military equipment, Schroen understands their problem, too. U.S.-Pakistani relations have long been complex and problematic. Even while assisting the United States in operations against the Soviets in the 1980s and against al Qaeda today, Pakistan may also be among the most profligate proliferators of nuclear weapons technology, and it has allowed Islamic extremists to teach their ideology in madrassas throughout the countryside. Bin Laden himself could not have designed a more elegant arrangement of geographic, political, economic, and military forces to ensure his safety (at least so far).

If parts of this book ring familiar, they should. Schroen’s experiences as a cia operator have been written about twice before. He was the “Gary” whose exploits in the weeks after 9/11 were portrayed by Bob Woodward in Bush at War, and he was a key figure in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, a history of cia operations in Southwest Asia and against al Qaeda. I spoke with Schroen in preparation for this review. He told me that after he returned from Afghanistan, cia officials asked him to speak with Woodward, saying, “This is a good story, cooperate.” He spent three hours with Woodward, who first described jawbreaker’s operations in an excerpt published in a Washington Post article, “cia Led Way With Cash Handouts” (November 18, 2002), tied to the release of the reporter’s new book. Schroen recalls that he also had eight meetings with Coll. It was Woodward who later suggested to Schroen that he write his own book.

 

Although bin laden eventually escaped, Schroen’s mission was, on the whole, remarkably successful. At least four factors seem to have been important to this success.

The first was his own experience. Schroen had lived and worked in the region for decades. If he hadn’t spent years getting to know the terrain, the people, and the key tribal leaders, the United States would have been blind and lost. One can think of several regions today — East Africa, West Africa, Southern Asia, and parts of the Middle East — where we would do better if we had more people with such experience. Schroen was a cia operator, but his kind can also be found in the military, the State Department, journalism, and nongovernmental organizations.

Second, there was individual initiative. Recall that it was Schroen who took it upon himself to maintain relations with supporters of Masood after the U.S. government wound down its efforts in Afghanistan. The relationship was unofficial; he simply had an inquisitive mind and sympathized with the people of the region. If he had not preserved these relationships, we might not have had the personal contacts that later proved so valuable. It’s easy for an intelligence organization (or any other bureaucracy) to snuff out curiosity or starve initiative. All a manager has to do is cite insufficient funding, warn about the security risk of nonofficial foreign contacts, or say that any given activity is “not in our job jar.” Or, to put it another way, if we try to run an intelligence organization by just checking off formal requirements and meeting regulations, the result will be an intelligence service that is free of flaps and scandals — and also moribund, ossified, and ineffective.

Third, there was organizational agility. The urgency of responding to 9/11 compelled officials who would otherwise have obstructed or delayed decisive action to stand aside. It cleared the way for officials with initiative to move out smartly and assemble the capabilities they needed. (Even so, as we have seen, Washington politics occasionally interjected itself.)

And, fourth, there was a lot of luck. One irony in Schroen’s great adventure was that, at the time he was tapped to lead jawbreaker, he was 11 days into the cia’s “transition program” — that is, he was getting ready for retirement. In effect, the cia had run out of opportunities to offer him and he had run out of challenges within the agency. Schroen — 59 at the time — writes that he really didn’t know what else he wanted to do, but given the situation and the fact that he qualified for his pension, the normal course of events was to retire. cia retirees have options if they want to stay in the game — they can work as annuitants, contractors, or consultants — but it’s not the same as being on the inside. If 9/11 had occurred three months later, Schroen would have been out of the government.

The success of jawbreaker offers lessons for U.S. intelligence, but it would be hard to codify them with regulations or formal procedures. Rather, it requires officials who can balance competing goals.

For example, intelligence organizations need to reward initiative and innovation by individuals, but they also need to ensure that the organizations do not lapse into confusion. They need to turn over staff so the young, the eager, and the ambitious can find opportunities, but they must also avoid simply forcing good people out. Organizations need to be efficient, but they must also tolerate seemingly unproductive supporting activities that might provide big payoffs in the future.

In short, taking advantage of these lessons requires that hard-to-quantify trait called leadership — the ability to identify clear strategic goals, articulate a vision to the troops, and then make the day-to-day decisions to strike a balance between competing objectives. No set of rules and procedures can guarantee success, but one can craft rules that give officials the authority and the responsibility they need to strike this balance and then hold them accountable for their decisions.

Left to themselves, bureaucracies reward people who master the established process — that is, good bureaucrats. The challenge for intelligence organizations is to do the routine stuff while also stirring up the pot enough for innovators and risk-takers to have a chance to do their magic. This depends as much on leadership and imagination as it does on regulation and statute. Without them, there will be fewer Gary Schroens in service of their country, and the country will be poorer for it.