FOR TWO DECADES, the United States has been engaged in a seemingly endless—and eventually largely forgotten—war in Afghanistan. During this time America and NATO troops suffered over 3,500 fatalities. After the first casualty in 2001, the CIA sustained at least another 18, more than in any other war during the Agency’s seventy-three-year history. American deaths reduced to a trickle after 2015, but since then over 10,000 Afghan civilians are have died each year.

The Taliban now controls most of the country and has never cut its ties to Al-Qaeda. Its leaders believe, with justification, that they defeated American forces. With the US withdrawal due to be completed by September 11, 2021, the Taliban is poised to seize power, and a bloody civil war seems inevitable—leaving the few Americans still paying attention to wonder what the war was for.

It was not always like this. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives turned four hijacked planes into missiles aimed at symbols of American power. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania on 9/11, eclipsing the death toll at Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. All nineteen of the suicide hijackers had been trained in or had visited Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, given sanctuary by the Taliban government, had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
With images of planes hitting the twin towers playing in loops on every TV network, America was united. Mass murder had come to American shores. The perpetrators of 9/11 had to be brought to justice and prevented from launching further attacks. Groups harboring terrorists, including the Taliban, would be swept away. There was anger, certainly, and a desire for vengeance. But the abiding sentiment was one of “Never again.” Playing defense was no longer an option. Now Americans were determined to hunt down the enemy on the other side of the world.

In the days after 9/11, Americans embraced the reality that survival meant risk, and more death. The post-Vietnam aversion to casualties was in the past. Within the US government, only the CIA knew Afghanistan. America had abandoned Afghanistan after the Cold War, but a small band within the CIA had vigilantly observed the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists. For more than two years, it had sent small teams into the country to assist leaders of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s foes and Afghanistan’s resistance. The Pentagon had no military plan for Afghanistan, and so it was that in the country’s hour of need the Agency was called upon to lead America’s response.

First Casualty is the story of Team Alpha, a group of eight Americans who were at the forefront of that response and became the first to fight behind enemy lines after 9/11. It is a rousing tale of the remarkable success they achieved when, for perhaps six weeks, the CIA ran the war. These men brought regional expertise, language skills, and a focus on tribal dynamics and human psychology—as well as a warrior ethos and elite military skills. The power delegated to them took their breath away. This was a war directed on the battlefield, not from 20,000 feet above or 7,000 miles away.

Each day, Team Alpha members lived on a knife-edge and made decisions of strategic consequence. Knowing the axiom that in war the first casualty is the plan, they embraced flexibility and improvisation, drawing on the legacy of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Along with the Green Berets, Team Alpha’s officers were insurgents engaging in unconventional warfare “by, with, and through” indigenous allies—a concept that later became part of US military doctrine. They helped the resistance overthrow Afghanistan’s oppressors. It was a formula that worked, in a place where historically almost nothing had.

By December 2001, ten CIA teams—including Team Alpha and totalling a few dozen CIA officers—had secured victory across Afghanistan. Fighting alongside them were Special Forces troops operating symbiotically with US air power. Among those troops was a unit from Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS), operating in the tradition of their country’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), which inspired the OSS. Jettisoning a directive that restricted their ability to fight, the SBS headed toward the sound of gunfire.

The complexity of Afghanistan was apparent to Team Alpha. False surrenders, switching sides, warlord machinations, prisoner abuse, suicide attacks, and ethnic ferment were facts of life. This was a country—if it was a country at all—that could not be controlled. After the surviving members of Team Alpha left Afghanistan, the US military took over and American forces became occupiers rather than insurgents. Conventional troops poured into the country, and fortified bases were established. The United States sought to impose democracy and a central government in Kabul. Rather than allowing warlord rivalries to play out in a deeply traditional society of ethnic and regional patchworks, the US excluded leaders it found unpalatable. Western standards of morality and fair play were applied, even retrospectively, as the US tried to create a nation in its own image. Early success became a long-drawn-out failure.

First Casualty tells the story of the opening chapter in a new era of history when a resolute America was confident in what could be done, and the CIA seized the opportunity to do it. It is an inspiring story of what was achieved then, and a plaintive one of what might have been since.



4:35 p.m. (GMT +5), September 11, 2001; Tashkent International Airport, Uzbekistan

SETTLING IN FOR the journey from Tashkent to Heathrow, the burly, broad-shouldered man traveling alone blended in among the passengers on board Uzbekistan Airways Flight 201. His thick, graying hair framed a friendly, open face with rough-hewn features. He was six feet two and looked like he worked in perhaps engineering or agriculture—hands on rather than in an office. A plaid shirt hung loosely over canvas pants. David Tyson was certainly not one of the sharp-suited businessmen flying from the former Soviet republic in the hope of closing a deal in London.

The Boeing 757, painted in the powder blue, yellow, and green of the national airline, took off on schedule for a flight of seven hours. At precisely the same moment some 6,000 miles and nine time zones away, Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian national, was about to board American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston Logan Airport with four subordinates. There it was 7:35 a.m. and the azure sky was cloudless. Atta was the leader of nineteen hijackers from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda on four planes who were about to launch the most devastating attack on the United States in history. An Al-Qaeda commander had referred to the day of the coordinated terrorist strikes as “zero hour.”

To anyone on Flight 201 giving David a second thought, it might have been a surprise to learn that he was an American—especially given his ease with the vernacular of various dialects of the Uzbek language. David spoke fluent Russian, Turkish, and Turkmen, and could converse in Kazakh, Tatar, and Azerbaijani. But it was his Uzbek, honed during four years of living in Uzbekistan as a student, that could pass as native. Never seen in a tie, David, as a graduate student in Tashkent, had at one time possessed no shoes. His friends would quip that he had been an Uzbek peasant in another life. By David’s own admission, he had once teetered on the verge of going native. The business cards now in his wallet, however, identified him as not just an American but a diplomat, a second secretary serving with the Department of State in the Political-Military section of the US Embassy in Tashkent.

In truth, David was a spy. Aged forty and under diplomatic cover, he was a clandestine operative working at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Tashkent station, housed inside the embassy. More specifically, he was a case officer, a member of the CIA’s Central Eurasian Division, within its Directorate of Operations. The DO, as it was known, was the CIA’s elite clandestine arm. The CIA’s analysts, technicians, and support staff were housed in separate directorates and worked overtly. In the DO, by contrast, CIA officers worked undercover, the majority as State Department employees, using aliases in all communications. Their true affiliation was classified and kept secret, often even from their families. Though booked on the flight in his true name, in all diplomatic and intelligence traffic he was referred to by an operational pseudonym. Monitoring bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had been one of David’s principal responsibilities since being stationed in Uzbekistan in 1998. He was traveling to London to discuss his efforts to keep armaments in Afghanistan from falling into terrorist hands.

David was not a typical CIA officer. Agency colleagues may have viewed Uzbekistan as the ass-end of nowhere, but David loved the place. He had joined the CIA in 1996—Tashkent was his first posting—at the age of thirty-five, from graduate school at Indiana University, where he had been lecturing and working toward a PhD. There, he had gained a master’s degree with a thesis on “Literacy in Turkistan Prior to Soviet Rule” and become an expert on shrine pilgrimage among the Turkmens.

CIA colleagues had nicknamed him “the Professor.” When leaving academia, however, he had known that he was crossing over to what many regarded as the dark side. For well over a year, he had been talking to a middle-aged CIA officer who had identified herself as Sandy Baker—not her real name—about what he had gleaned from his travels in the former Soviet Union. Latterly, she had broached whether he might become a spy. The turning point had been in a freezing parking lot in Bloomington with his wife, Rosann. She hailed from the same small town in Pennsylvania, and they had met when they were undergraduates. The couple had two young children and were struggling to make ends meet. David told her that he had received a job offer from the CIA and they wanted an answer. “Do we leave this life here behind?” he asked. “We need to make a decision.” He was entrenched in the small world of Central Asian studies and considered part of his department’s family. They had stood looking at each other in the snow and then agreed that he should make the leap. David had strong bonds with his professors, and he knew that joining the CIA would cause some of his colleagues to cut him off. There would be no going back. It had been a close call, with government health insurance tipping the balance.

So far, life as a spy seemed like an endless adventure. David had been on missions in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, often operating alone, armed, using his languages, and employing his newly learned intelligence tradecraft. He had become part of a close-knit band of CIA officers on the edge of what was for most Americans a forgotten Cold War frontier. Though it was a time of peace for the United States, the region where David lived was wracked by war. David had been pushing the CIA for more money and more weapons for US allies, and to take more risks. It was a time before he had a surfeit of all three. It was a time when he had not killed a man, or kicked a bloodied body to check if a friend was still alive. It was a time when he had not run, and shot, and fought for his life. It was a time when he had not lain in the dust beside the staring eyes of a corpse. It was a time when he had no nightmares of being chased by men determined to kill him. It was a time when he could not conceive of any of those things happening.

At age seventeen, David’s wanderlust was such that he had written a letter to the French Foreign Legion—he found the address in a school library book—asking if he could join. To his surprise, he received a reply suggesting he report to a recruiting depot outside Marseilles; alas, he had no means of raising the airfare. Instead, David enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school, without telling his parents, rather than take a job in the paper or steel mills surrounding his home in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. After two uneventful years in the field artillery, when he was mostly based in West Germany and played a lot of basketball, he had become a student. David had enrolled at Westchester State University and discovered a talent for languages, beginning with Russian because it seemed the most exotic. During a semester at Columbia University, he had been so short of money that he had started going to a New York homeless shelter to get free soup. Before long, he had become a helper there; then, for free board and a modest paycheck, he worked as a live-in supervisor. Some of the men took him around the New York subway system, introducing him to underground tribes of homeless. David had become so involved in the lives of the men at the shelter, many of them alcoholics or drug addicts, that Rosann had fretted it was distracting him from his studies.

He quit Columbia and moved to a doctoral program at Indiana University, at the same time securing an ROTC commission as an intelligence officer. His second stint in the Army enabled him to use the G.I. Bill to fund his student life. Central Asian studies was a niche area of academia that offered more opportunities than Russian, which was dominated by émigrés. David had grown up in a family with an ethos of modesty, thrift, teetotalism, and staunch Christianity drawn from the Mennonite tradition. Having discovered his aptitude for languages and a fascination with other cultures, he was drawn from these simple roots to explore the obscure and the esoteric.

David’s patriotism was understated but deep. His father had served in the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid during World War II and survived Japanese kamikaze attacks. Although post-traumatic stress had never been discussed, after the war his father had seemed a changed man and had struggled to stay in jobs, working variously as a carpenter, janitor, preacher, and security guard. David had studied in Leningrad from 1985 to 1986, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, fueling his belief in personal freedom, the rights of the individual versus the state, and America’s role as a force for good in the world. He had experienced communism again as a student in Tashkent beginning in 1989, when he was arrested regularly by the Uzbek secret police; he used his time being held, sometimes overnight in the cells, to hone his tenses and bolster his vocabulary.

David’s first job at the Agency in 1996 was not glamorous: translating “open source” material such as the Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda. He joked that rather than being recruited as a clandestine operative, as he initially hoped, he had been captured by the nerds. His department, the Agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service, occupied a nondescript office block seven miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. But David’s facility with languages meant he was soon plucked from this backwater. After an accelerated course at “The Farm,” the Agency’s training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia, he was bound for his old stomping ground of Tashkent.

In Uzbekistan, David had impressed his CIA superiors with his thirst for every aspect of his job, barring bureaucracy. A case officer in Pakistan destined for the highest ranks of the CIA had taken him under his wing, teaching him the art of hands-on spying, recruiting assets, and navigating the intrigue of ethnic rivalries. David was not fazed by danger and was happy to take risks. He seemed to be the kind of eccentric who was a perfect fit for the CIA. Colleagues loved to tell the tale of how the Tyson family, with Rosann’s parents in the back of the car, had stopped at a gas station in rural Uzbekistan. When Rosann had looked around as the gas was being pumped, her husband had disappeared. Some considerable time later—the exact period depended on who was recounting the story—he returned, puzzled by the fuss over his absence. David had seen an elderly farmer working in a field and walked over to talk to him. The old man had invited David to his home for tea; it would have been rude to refuse.

David had no sense of self-importance and would help anyone. He was also uninterested in professional advancement. It was received wisdom that any new case officer, and especially one who had joined the Agency late, should take a job in headquarters after their first tour. Instead, David had signed up for a second stint in Tashkent. He was where he wanted to be. Having left academia behind, David was now all in with the CIA. He had found his new tribe.

On September 11, David’s destination was a hotel close to Grosvenor Square in London’s well-heeled Mayfair district. Although he had been in the CIA just three years, David’s age, expertise in his region, and air of quiet self-assurance meant that he was being treated as an operative with greater experience. The following day, he was to meet fellow CIA officers inside the Agency’s vast London station, where the subject would be Afghanistan.

Ravaged by war for more than two decades, Afghanistan was one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. Its position between Persia, India, and the Arabian Sea made it a strategic crossroads, and for millennia it had attracted a succession of invaders. In 2001, Afghans had a life expectancy of forty-three years and a literacy rate around 25 percent. Some 3.5 million of its population of 23 million were living in squalid refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. The country was infested with up to 7 million land mines, which killed or wounded more than 1,000 Afghans—many of them children—each year.

Many argued that Afghanistan was not even a country; David tended to agree. With no majority ethnic group, and tribal or regional identities much stronger than nationalism, it seemed forever destined to be engulfed by strife. For most of its history, Afghanistan had been ruled by the Pashtuns, who made up 38 percent of the population and were mostly in the south and east. But Tajiks, 25 percent of Afghans, had ruled from 1992 to 1996 with the help of Hazaras, 19 percent, and Uzbeks and Turkmens, 12 percent.

Afghanistan had become a Cold War battleground in April 1978, when the secular, modernist president Daoud Khan was executed during a bloody coup by Marxists in the army. His killers created the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). The DRA was immediately opposed by Islamic mujahideen fighters, who declared jihad—“holy war”—against the communist infidels. Fearing the DRA would be overthrown, the Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 with 100,000 troops. What the Russians intended to be a short operation to prop up the DRA and its puppet leader, Babrak Karmal, turned into a bloody occupation of more than nine years that cost the lives of over 40,000 Soviet soldiers and 1.5 million Afghans—90 percent of them civilians.

During the war with the Soviets, most of Afghanistan was united against the common enemy. The mujahideen, numbering up to 150,000 fighters, represented all ethnic factions; money, weapons, and supplies poured in from the United States, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Under President Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1987, it was the war in Afghanistan that the CIA conducted that became the biggest clandestine operation in history. Most US aid was administered through the CIA’s counterparts in the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency—a relationship that would come back to haunt the CIA. The United States provided $4.5 billion in aid to the mujahideen—a sum matched by Saudi Arabia—and in total the rebels received $10 billion.

Among the most prominent mujahideen leaders were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun extremist based in Pakistan; Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik based in northern Afghanistan; Abdul Haq, a moderate Pashtun in the east; and Karim Khalili, a Hazara Shia in central Afghanistan. Opposing the mujahideen in alliance with the Russians were Abdul Rashid Dostum and his ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan. They had strong links with Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union, and feared Pashtun domination. Secular and anti-Pashtun, Dostum opposed Islamic fundamentalism and based his leadership on the interests of ethnic Uzbeks and their autonomous way of life. Over the years to come, Dostum would wield power by switching sides at strategic moments, consistently putting Uzbek tribalism above all else. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the principal funders of the Pashtuns, who were fellow Sunni Muslims, while Iran backed their fellow Shia.

While the United States sent everything from Tennessee mules to combat boots and chickpeas, it also supplied lethal aid. From 1986 on, the CIA secretly provided the mujahideen with up to 2,500 shoulder-launched, heat-seeking Stinger missiles that the rebels had requested to neutralize Soviet air power. The CIA also supported the ISI efforts to recruit radical Islamists from around the world and persuade them to flock to Pakistan to fight with the mujahideen. The virulently anti-communist Reagan administration, which sought to stamp out Marxism from the globe, wanted to show that the Muslim world was united against the Soviet Union. It even supplied Korans and anti-Soviet tracts to fighters who would distribute them in Uzbekistan while carrying out guerrilla raids. The United States paid mujahideen leaders handsomely: Massoud, for one, received $200,000 a month, on top of what he was getting from the ISI.

From 1982 to 1992, some 35,000 Islamic radicals from forty-three countries fought with the mujahideen. The Saudis saw the Afghan jihad as a way of promoting the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam and—as a bonus—took the opportunity to export radicals who might cause trouble in their own kingdom. Among the Saudis who went to Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden, who arrived in 1984 to assist the mujahideen with cash and construction, and later took up arms. At the time, the choice could not have been easier for America. So what if, as one former senior US official argued, the price of ending the Cold War included backing “a few stirred-up Muslims” in a faraway land?

While the United States supported local mujahideen leaders in Afghanistan, it never funded or trained bin Laden or his future Al-Qaeda lieutenants. Bin Laden’s “Arab Afghans” did not arrive until seven years after the Soviet invasion, and they were never a major force within the mujahideen. US support for Pakistani and Saudi sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, however, did lead indirectly to the founding of Al-Qaeda—Arabic for The Base—in 1988 and, thirteen years later, to the blowback of 9/11.

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, CIA aid to Afghanistan ended. The communist president Najibullah clung to power until April 1992. He resigned and tried to flee the country, but was blocked at Kabul airport by the Uzbek forces of Dostum, previously a loyal ally. Najibullah took refuge in the capital’s UN compound. With the Soviets gone, the mujahideen dissolved into competing ethnic and religious factions that waged a bloody, four-year civil war. After the fall of Najibullah, the Tajik forces of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Massoud, supported by Dostum, seized Kabul, marking the first time in 300 years that the Afghan capital had not been under Pashtun control. Hekmatyar laid siege to the Afghan capital, bombarding it mercilessly. Pashtuns supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia fought Hazara Shia backed by Iran. In January 1994, Dostum switched sides again, joining Hekmatyar to attack Kabul.

By the end of 1994, the Rabbani government, with Massoud commanding its military forces, still held Kabul, but the country was disintegrating. Warlords ruled their fiefdoms, often brutalizing their people; the economy was in shambles and corruption was rife. In this environment, a new Pashtun group emerged, promising to cleanse Afghanistan. This was the Taliban—fundamentalist Islamic students, or “talibs,” many of whom had grown up in refugee camps and been educated in madrassas in Pakistan. They vowed to end abuses of power by re-creating an Afghanistan based on the ideals of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. The Taliban, now backed by Pakistan, seized Kandahar in November 1994, followed by Herat some ten months later. Hekmatyar and Dostum aligned themselves with their former foes Rabbani and Massoud, hoping to fight off this new common enemy together. But it was too late.

On September 26, 1996, Massoud withdrew his forces from Kabul to the Panjshir Valley rather than be wiped out. The Taliban had effectively won the civil war and now established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The new regime’s first act was to make an example out of the hapless Najibullah, who had spent four years at the UN compound. He was beaten, then driven from the compound to the presidential palace, where he was castrated, dragged behind a jeep, and shot dead. The bodies of Najibullah and his brother were hung by wire nooses from concrete traffic posts. Cigarettes had been placed between their fingers and banknotes stuffed in their pockets to symbolize their alleged debauchery and corruption.

Rabbani fled the country and a month later the Northern Alliance was formed, with Massoud, Dostum, Khalili, and some Pashtuns coalescing in one anti-Taliban bloc. Massoud controlled the Panjshir Valley while Dostum held the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, along with six surrounding provinces. The Taliban had barred women from working, forced men to grow long beards, and banned all games, including chess and kite flying. In contrast, Dostum ran a modern, secular ministate, backed by Russia, Uzbekistan, and Iran. He had his own airline, the markets were filled with French perfumes and Russian vodka, and women wore lipstick and went to university.

Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, was an oasis of modernity and tolerance. Once a trading post near the ancient Silk Road, it had become a place where Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and even some Pashtuns lived together peacefully. All this came to an end in May 1997, when Dostum’s deputy Abdul Malik Pahlawan—who suspected that his brother had been murdered by Dostum—betrayed the Uzbek leader. Malik cut a deal with the Taliban that would allow them to take over Mazar-i Sharif in return for giving him a government post.

Some 2,500 Taliban troops arrived in the holy city, shut down the university, and imposed sharia law, prompting Dostum to flee to Turkey. The city’s Hazaras revolted, massacring 600 of the Taliban. Malik, unhappy with the Taliban’s offer of only a minor post in their government in exchange for his treachery toward Dostum, changed his mind. Five days after his act of betrayal, he joined the Hazaras against the Taliban. Even considering the history of shifting Afghan allegiances, this was an extraordinary turnaround. Malik then followed up with another zealous interpretation of an Afghan tradition: the slaughter of prisoners. Malik’s men were believed to have killed as many as 2,000 Taliban captives, some of whom were thrown alive into wells and gruesomely killed by hand grenades dropped on their heads.

Dostum returned to Mazar-i Sharif from his exile in Turkey in September 1997, and the treacherous Malik soon fled into Turkmenistan. But with the Uzbeks divided, Dostum managed to control the city for only a year. A fresh Taliban offensive on Mazar-i Sharif, which Dostum and his men could not withstand, ended with the Uzbek warlord being driven out—again—in August 1998. Dostum retreated to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan and then left for Iran.

The Taliban, now back in power throughout northern Afghanistan, killed Hazaras with a ferocity stunning even by their own standards. They shot dead some 400 civilians who had sought sanctuary at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, and blew up the tomb of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Hazara leader killed by the Taliban in 1995, with civilians trapped inside. Mullah Manon Niazi, the new Taliban governor of Mazar-i Sharif, declared that Hazaras, being Shia, were not Muslims and were to be “exterminated.” He vowed: “Wherever you go we will catch you. If you go up, we will pull you down by your feet. If you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair.” An estimated 8,000 Hazaras were murdered, some by having their throats slit “the halal way”—one swipe of the blade across the throat—others by being shot in the testicles. Human Rights Watch described it as “one of the single worst examples of killings of civilians in Afghanistan’s 20-year war.” The Taliban raped Hazara women, 400 of whom were kidnapped and taken as concubines. The murder by the Taliban of eleven Iranian diplomats inside their consulate in Mazar-i Sharif prompted an international outcry, and Iran dispatched troops to its border with Afghanistan.

Having narrowly avoided war with Iran, the Taliban faced diplomatic isolation. In the United States, First Lady Hillary Clinton declared: “We must give voice to women in Afghanistan, where women are brutalized and silenced by the Taliban.” Mavis Leno, wife of the television comedian Jay Leno, championed the issue among the Hollywood elite. There was also outrage that poppy cultivation and opium and heroin production had skyrocketed since the Taliban had come to power, despite the group’s pious words about the evils of narcotics. A State Department report concluded that the Taliban had instituted a 10 percent tax on drugs to enrich itself and was “facilitating major traffickers to move large quantities of morphine base and heroin to the West” in a bid to destabilize the United States and Europe. Yet for all the concerns about the Taliban’s medieval system of justice, repression of women, and drug dealing, for the CIA it was only the Taliban’s relationship with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda that mattered.

Bin Laden had returned to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan in 1989 and then broken with his homeland after its royal family allowed US troops to be stationed there during the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. When American forces stayed on after the war, bin Laden branded the interior minister, who was a prince, a traitor. Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia in 1992 to take part in the Islamic revolution in Sudan. In 1994, the country of his birth—angered by his continued and vocal criticism—revoked bin Laden’s citizenship. After US and Saudi pressure led to his expulsion by Sudan in May 1996, the now-stateless Al-Qaeda leader was given refuge by the Taliban, flying to Afghanistan in a chartered jet along with a large armed entourage, three wives, and thirteen children. Three months later, bin Laden declared jihad against the United States in a thirty-page fatwa. In February 1998 he issued another fatwa, this one stating that “to kill Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim.”

Six months later, on August 7, 1998, Al-Qaeda operatives bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 and injuring 4,000. These were the deadliest attacks against Americans overseas since the 1983 Beirut bombings by Hezbollah. David Tyson, preparing for his posting to Tashkent, knew that Osama bin Laden had become his country’s principal foe. President Bill Clinton responded with seventy-five Tomahawk cruise missiles, which were fired at night on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and on Al-Qaeda camps in Khost, northeastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. Each missile cost around $750,000; the attacks cost the United States over $56 million. Yet they killed no terrorist planners and failed to damage Al-Qaeda’s capabilities. It was an anemic response that had handed bin Laden a publicity coup.