What overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?

Summary: The information superhighway gives us the illusion of knowledge about our world. Yet the past 50 years teaches us that we know so little and that so much remains hidden for so long. Previous posts provide examples from the post-WWII era. Today we look at a telling vignette from our post-9/11 era, a story still shaping how we view these endless and futile interventions. As we begin a new round of wars, we should clearly see the outlines of the ones before.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— The Editor explains in “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).

Our secret weapon in Afghanistan
Our secret weapon in Afghanistan.

We have to be suspicious of hidden history behind what we know. For example thirty years passed until we learned about the Allies’ secret weapon in WWII — cryptography — and had to downgrade the accomplishments of our generals (If NAZI’s had such an advantage, the swastika might still fly over Berlin). How much of our history since 9/11 remains hidden?

For example, what were the reasons for our government’s invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (the stated reasons appear bogus)? Today we examine a smaller issue that shows two reasons why we remain ignorant. It explains how we so quickly overthrew the Taliban in our 2001 invasion, with so few troops.

The standard “narrative” tells how the Special Forces moved among the native — dressing like them, showing mastery of their skills — much as the white guy hero did in Avatar — convinced them to rebel, and with the aid of US airpower led the natives to victory.  It was a reboot of the equally almost-true story of our role in defeating the Russian in Afghanistan, right down to the heroic unconventional troops on horseback. Is this the whole truth?

Special Forces
A Special Forces team, perhaps carrying our secret weapon.

No, it’s not. The role of our cash in buying the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was reported, but softly and only years later. In 2008 the WaPo reported about the CIA’s creative use of non-monetary bribes to supplement the traditional guns and money. In 2013 the NY Times reported what had long been rumored: “With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan“. Following the NYT expose, others spoke up. Such as John Sifton of Human Rights Watch who reported that:

“the CIA had provided {Ismail Khan} with enough cash and weapons that he was soon in control of this part of the country (which also gave him control of 70% of national revenue derived from customs taxes on the Iranian border).”

"First In" by Schroen
Available at Amazon.

Those that paid close attention knew it earlier. CIA agent Gary Schroen’s 2005 book First In, was quite explicit about the $10 million-plus spent to buy our victory — with passages such as this:

As the meeting ended, I stated that I wanted to provide some assistance to Sayyaf, to help him better prepare his troops for the coming fight and to assist in any efforts he might make to lure al-Qaeda leadership into our reach. I produced a $100,000 bundle of cash from my backpack and handed it across the table to Sayyaf, who instinctively took the package.

Of course that’s not the story we were told at the time, and it was not the story we wanted to hear. Better box office was Doug Stanton’s 2009 book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.  But even this dramatic tale has a minor theme about the CIA’s bagman, leaked in little snippets.

"Horse Soldiers" by Doug Stanton
Available at Amazon.

The Afghan Northern Alliance — Massoud’s old fighting force of several tribes led by different warlords — would make up the bulk of the ground power. The CIA would grease the wheels, many of them unturned in years, with money and intel, and help the SF soldiers link up with the Afghans.  {p. 33}

The CIA was doing its part, too. On September 19, paramilitary officer Gary Schroen loaded three cardboard boxes, each packed with $ 3 million in hundred-dollar bills, into an unmarked Suburban, and headed off to see his boss, Cofer Black, at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The money was meant to bribe the Afghan warlords that the Special Forces troops were to work with — rough, mercurial characters with names like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammed Noor, and Mohammed Mohaqeq. For the past decade or more, they had fought each other for control of their country. Schroen would be flying to Afghanistan with the money that day, aiming to convince them to work together to kick the Taliban’s ass. He was doubtful of the outcome. You can’t buy an Afghan’s loyalty, he thought, but you sure can try to rent it.  {p. 37}

These men, Mohaqeq learned, worked for the American CIA. Mohaqeq was disappointed there weren’t soldiers among them; these men had guns, but they weren’t military fighters, Mohaqeq knew that much. He had seen that they spent a lot of time typing on computers, which they connected to small black foldable antennas that looked like spiderwebs spun from strange plastic. They also carried brick-sized stacks of American bills in nylon duffel bags; this money, Mohaqeq guessed, was part of the bounty to be paid to Atta Mohammed Noor, Fahim Khan’s subcommander.

… Two days earlier, a man named Gary Schroen, the leader of another CIA team recently arrived in Khan’s village, had handed over $ 1.3 million in cash to the recalcitrant warlord. (There were two separate CIA teams in Afghanistan; the team lead by Baba J.J. and Baba David in Dehi reported to Schroen’s headquarters.) Schroen had plopped the cash down on a table in a nylon bag, and none of Khan’s men had immediately moved to take possession, as if the money did not matter. When one of the men did pick it up, the minion’s eyes widened in surprise, and he gave an extra tug on the straps to lift it. Schroen looked on, amused.  {p. 57}

One of the team’s missions, once they were on the ground, was to look for these missiles and buy them back from friendly Afghans or from easily bribed warlords looking to make a buck.  {p. 61}


Money is a powerful tool, especially when it saves blood (both ours and the locals’). One day historians will assemble the pieces and tell the real story of how the Taliban’s regime fell, with a balanced account of the push provided by cash and by guns. Until then we’ll remain mostly ignorant. The CIA prefers us not to know, especially if Afghanistan becomes another of their short-term wins with terrible long-term results. The military needs us not to know about the CIA’s role, so that we will believe in their power, support still more foreign interventions, and continue diverting so much of our taxes to fund their activities — while our key infrastructure rots.

Blindfolded ignorance

Our ignorance, like children knocking down piles of blocks

Our invasion of Afghanistan shows us of another important chapter of hidden history. US forces went into Afghanistan knowing little about the structure of its politics and power structure. That didn’t prevent us from overthrowing the Taliban, any more than it prevented us from ejecting the Russians in the 1980’s. In both cases our ignorance prevented us from gaining much benefit from these revolutions. Destroying is more difficult than building, and usually futile when done withour good follow-through. Again we turn to Stanton’s Horse Soldiers for examples:

{Special Forces Captain Dean Nosorog} studied whatever he could get his hands on about Afghanistan, including Ahmed Rashid’s book Taliban, and scraps of classified intel about a warlord named Abdul Rashid Dostum, who reputedly was tolerant of both prostitution and opium production in his camp, and with whom the CIA was hoping to do business. Another warlord was named Atta Mohammed (unrelated to the hijacker, with whom Atta Mohammed, because of name simliarity, was sometimes confused). In comparison to Dostum, Atta Mohammed was a pious Muslim.

Using his laptop in the team’s planning room, Dean searched for more information about these two shadowy men, as well as whatever he could find about bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But there wasn’t much hard intel immediately available. One day, an ISOFAC staffer dropped off an armload of tattered National Geographic magazines and a few Discovery Channel television shows on VHS tape about the history of Afghanistan, and when Dean asked, “What’s that stuff?” the guy replied, “Consider it more intel.”

It dawned on Dean that the U.S. government was woefully under-prepared to send him and his men into Afghanistan. The country had not been lately in anyone’s intelligence bull’s-eye. When Dean finally did hear the CIA analyst knock on his door, the briefing was anticlimactic and he learned little that he didn’t already know. Thankfully, someone had gotten the idea of phoning the publisher of a book called The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, and asked that they send 600 copies. The publisher no longer even stocked the book and had to scramble and send an electronic version to a printing plant, from which fresh copies were express-shipped to the ISOFAC. Dean was pleased when it arrived. He went to sleep each night plugged into his earphones listening to a Barry White CD and poring over the tome.  {p. 47}

Personalities and politics were the two key aspects of unconventional warfare. If Dean couldn’t get inside the shoes of Atta and his men, where could he lead them? Dean had ended up going to the CIA Web page and downloading information about Afghanistan from the World Fact Book.  {p. 193}

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13 thoughts on “What overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?”

    1. Purpleslog,

      Thank you for mentioning this. Yes, that’s often said. It’s not true in a meaningful sense. First, here’s the quote from Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda by Sean Naylor (2006):

      Although Special Forces were considered the United States’ foremost unconventional warfare specialists, they were prohibited by law from actually passing out money or “lethal aid”—weapons and ammunition—to the forces they organized and trained. Only the CIA had that right.”

      It’s not a US law. This refers to international law, and it applies to governments — not just the Special Forces. The CIA “had the right” in the sense that the US government authorizes them to break international law — overthrowing nations, torture, assassination, etc. Needless to say, there is no special “loophole” giving the government of the exceptional “city on a hill” the right to break its treaties. It’s just a game the US plays with itself, saying the military follows the rules so that we have clean hands while the CIA does dark things which we pretend to ignore.

      For a discussion of this see “Legitimacy versus Legality Redux: Arming the Syrian Rebels” by Michael N. Schmitt, Journal of National Security Law and Policy, February 2014.

    2. The US Special Forces did defeat the Taliban nearly by themselves. I was a Green Beret and I know, the CIA are looked at as a bunch of college nerds. The only good ones I ever worked with were ex-Special Operations guys.

      1. SF,

        Outside of high school “nerds” are highly effective people.

        Rather than silly characterizations of the CIA personnel (which are contradicted by the major books about the 2001 intervention), I suggest you focus on the cash. The Brits had a loose de facto control of Afghanistan solely with cash payments. Worked then, and probably worked in 2001. “Nerds” (to use your word) with ten million plus in cash are powerful.

  1. Yeah, the same techniques were applied in the invasion of Iraq, buying off key Republican Guard commanders — which explains why the much-anticipated “Battle for Baghdad” never happened.

    After brief set of articles at the time, this also seems to have largely disappeared down the memory hole:
    Payoffs Aided U.S. War Plan (only copy of this much-cited article I could find – original seems to have vanished from the page of time)
    Does Iraqi General Hold Key To Why Baghdad Fell Quickly?

    In general I think this type of thing is a far better bang for the buck than using a billion-dollar plane to fire a million-dollar missile to destroy a thousand dollars worth of rusted Soviet ordinance. Let the asymmetry work in our favor instead of against us.

    Of course, this doesn’t get you any closer to standing up a legitimate, friendly government since being paid agents of a foreign power works against legitimacy. However, for the limited range of scenarios where military force actually would be effective, bribery is probably going to be more effective.

    1. Phageghost,

      I agree about Iraq, but that’s far less well documented. As stated here, I agree that money is superior in all respects to bullets as a means of change. The relevant points here are

      (1) Neither works well. We can knock down regimes, but that makes the situation worse unless something better can be rebuilt.

      (2) We have an exaggerated view about the capabilities of our massive and expensive military machine. This makes us more likely to use and mis-use it.

  2. Pingback: Lastest Russian Special Forces News | Spetsnaz Videos

  3. “Money is a powerful tool, especially when it saves blood (both ours and the locals’).”
    Yes it is, the biggest tool maybe.

    But It certainly hasn;t saved many ordinary Afghani lives, the ‘meat in the middle’. Squeezed between the Taiban, US ‘death squads’, air strkes and drone attacks..

    History shows that the Taliban panicked and ran away, If they had held their ground then the ‘invasion’ would have died basically. They had an overinflated idea of US military power. A myth that no longer exists.

    Also written out of history was the ‘rump’ left over by the Taliban takeover were a lot of drug lords, who were very angry at them banning opium producton. They were a major part of the ‘takeover’, provided many of the foot soldiers. Obviously they got ‘the nod’ to ramp up opium production as a ‘reward’.

    The single biggest argument (or example) of the total failure of the US in Afghanistan is the ever rising opium production. You’d have to be awfully naive not to think that a lot of US military, CIA, etc people haven’t become very personally rich over that.

    Bribes work both ways….Catch 22 and all that.

  4. Pingback: Lastest Special Forces News | Green Beret Videos

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