In the late summer of 2001, Amrullah Saleh flew to Frankfurt, Germany, to meet a man he knew as Phil, a C.I.A. officer. Saleh handled intelligence liaisons, among other tasks, for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan guerrilla commander, who was then holding out against the Taliban and Al Qaeda from a shrinking haven in the northeast of his country. At twenty-eight, Saleh had a stern, serious demeanor; he was clean-shaven and kept his dark hair cropped short. He spoke English well, but deliberately, in a sonorous accent.
Saleh typically met his C.I.A. handlers at a hotel. He and Phil discussed a cache of spy gear the C.I.A. had organized for Massoud. The delivery included communications equipment and night-vision goggles that would allow Massoud’s intelligence collectors on the front lines to better watch and eavesdrop on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The C.I.A. had been training and equipping Massoud’s intelligence directorate for several years, but the program was limited in scope. Under the policies of the Clinton administration and more recently the George W. Bush administration, the C.I.A. could not provide weapons to support Massoud’s war of resistance against the Taliban. The agency could only provide nonlethal equipment that might aid the agency’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the fugitive emir of Al Qaeda, who moved elusively around Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan. One shipment had included a giant, remote-controlled telescope. At another point the C.I.A. considered supplying Massoud with a balloon fixed with cameras to spy on Al Qaeda camps, but between Afghanistan’s heavy winds and the possibility that neighboring China might misinterpret the dirigible, they decided against it.
Frankfurt was a logistics hub. The C.I.A.’s supply lines for Massoud were jerry-rigged and constrained by caution at headquarters. By early 2001, Langley had ordered C.I.A. officers to stop flying in Massoud’s helicopters because they weren’t judged to be safe enough. Phil and his colleagues usually delivered equipment directly to Dushanbe, where Saleh ran an office for Massoud. Tajikistan was recovering from a bloody civil war and there was occasional political unrest in the capital. That could make it difficult for C.I.A. officers to travel there but for the most part they found a way. Once in a while, however, they had to ask Saleh to pick up equipment in Germany and carry it the rest of the way himself. The C.I.A. officers involved knew the German government was highly sensitive about anything the agency did on German territory without informing the B.N.D., the principal German intelligence agency. But the supplies to Massoud were uniformly nonlethal; some of the equipment might skirt the borders of export licensing rules, but it was not obviously illegal, as arms and ammunition would be. Massoud’s lieutenants were experienced smugglers. Sometimes Saleh would have to figure out how to transport C.I.A. equipment on his own.
This made Saleh nervous. He did not relish answering the questions of German police or customs officers at Frankfurt Airport. Where did you buy this? He would have no answer. Do you have any receipts? No. What will you use these night-vision goggles for? It would be unwise to mention the Afghan war. How did you obtain the funds to buy a $5,000 satellite phone and subscription?
Saleh had become an intelligence specialist only recently, but he was an avid student of the profession. In 1999, Massoud had selected him and eight other senior aides and commanders to travel to the United States to attend a C.I.A. training course put on by the Counterterrorist Center under strict secrecy rules; few people outside the center knew about it. The curriculum partly covered the arts of intelligence—identifying and assessing sources, recruitment, technical collection, analysis, and report writing. The paramilitary courses covered assessing targets, manuevering and communicating in the field, and so on. In Nevada, the trainees climbed a mountain with a telescope to practice reconnaissance operations in conditions that replicated those in Afghanistan. The training reflected the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center’s hope—a quixotic one, in the view of many agency analysts familiar with Afghanistan—that Massoud’s guerrillas might someday locate and trap Bin Laden, even though the Al Qaeda leader rarely traveled to the north of the country, where Massoud’s guerrillas were.