Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 9, 2009

Fragments from September 10, 2001… Climbing carefully into the Hindu Kush

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 9, 2009

This is the third in a series:

Fragments from September 10, 2001 (Monday)

Fragments from September 10, 2001… Losing momentum with Mexico (Tuesday)


Hours before the Mexican President landed at Dulles, the Bush administration’s National Security Council held its first principals meeting with al-Qaeda on the agenda.

At the September 4 meeting, the principals approved the draft presidential directive with little discussion. Rice told us that she had, at some point, told President Bush that she and his other advisers thought it would take three years or so for their al Qaeda strategy to work. (Report of the 9/11 Commission, page 213)

National Security Presidential Directive 9 remains classified.  It was also amended in the days after September 11 before being signed by the President on October 25, 2001.

Credible sources indicate the original draft authorized a sustained effort to seek Taliban cooperation to eliminate al-Qaeda.  The Taliban government in Kabul, while not officially recognized, was seen as a potential contributor to  regional stability.  If the Taliban would give up Osama and his cohorts, the United States had no particular  interest in how Afghanistan’s internal  divisions played out.

While NSPD-9 cannot be quoted, the September policy draft — it is widely reported — reflected  many details from a months-old memorandum that has been declassified.  In a late 2000 proprosal entitled,  Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qida (sic) then White House advisor Richard Clarke, argued for a range of actions, including:

  • “Identify and destroy camps or portions of camps run by known terrorists while classes are in session.  To take advantage fully of this initiative, we would need to have special teams ready for covert entry in to destroyed camps to acquire intelligence for locating terrorist cells outside Afghanistan.”
  • Launch an interagency effort including the Treasury department’s Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, State Department and DEA counter-drug operations, and the “FBI’s programs to translate and analyze material obtained from domestic surveillance authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the operate multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) in major metropolitan areas.  And recent funding to support Customs, IRS, and INS participation in JTTFs must be sustained and expanded.”
  • “Continue and expand the Predator UAV program.”

Clarke’s recommendations regarding Pakistan were carefully framed.  Pakistani cooperation would be crucial to eliminating the al-Qaeda threat, but for such cooperation to be effective and sustained it must reflect realities in Pakistan.  He wrote, “We need to keep in mind that Pakistan has been most willing to cooperate with us on terrorism when its role is invisible or at least plausibly deniable to the powerful Islamist right wing (in Pakistan).” 

Eight years ago Pakistan was the target of tough international sanctions. Clarke suggested positive strategic engagement with Pakistan  including, for example, “Helping to build up a secular educational system that ends rural Pakistan’s exclusive reliance on the fundamentalist madrassas.”

Preference was  given to continuity in Kabul, while removing, “the more extreme wing of the Taliban from power.” But Clarke’s proposal also included  giving, “massive support to anti-Taliban groups such as the Northern Alliance led by Ahamd Shah Masood.”

Masood was a charismatic Tajik who led an anti-Taliban insurgency called the Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (among other monikers).  In the West this was known as the Northern Alliance since it was strongest among the non-Pashtuns of Northern Afghanistan. 

During an April, 2001 trip to address the European Parliament, Masood warned, “My message to President Bush is the following: If he isn’t interested in peace in Afghanistan, if he doesn’t help the Afghan people to arrive at their objective of peace, the Americans and the rest of the world will have to face the problems.”

Prior to the September 4 NSC decision, US aid to the Northern Alliance had been minimal.  Masood’s coalition was thought to have insufficient support among Pashtuns to have a reasonable chance of governing  Afghanistan.  With NSPD-9 the decision was made to support Masood as part of a collection of carrots and sticks to substantially reduce al-Qaeda’s capacity.

Then five days later — eight years ago today — Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated, probably by al-Qaeda.  After spending years seeking an alliance with the US,  he died unaware of the NSC decision.

When reading the 9/11 Commission report — with full knowledge of how the plot reaches climax — we may well squirm at delayed decisions and non-decisions.  The delay between the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and the September 4 decision must have been maddening for Clarke and others assigned to the terrorist watch.

But with the same value of hindsight, I do not squirm over the substance of the decisions that were finally undertaken.   What I find is clear-eyed, tough, multi-dimensional application of influence and power. The decisions are realistic about what the United States can and cannot or, perhaps, should not do.

If those who criticize “September 10 thinking” mean to attack avoiding decisions, ignoring problems, and bureaucratic delay, I will join them.

But let’s not get self-righteous.  According to the 9/11 Commission the NSC Deputies Committee gave significant attention to  the new administration’s counterterrorism policy on March 7, 2001.   A first draft of NSPD-9 was circulated on June 7. (Pages 203-204).  The Commission quotes Steven Hadley as saying, “For the government, we moved it along as fast as we could move it along.” (Page 205)  Any of us who have worked in any large organization, public or private, will recognize the realism in Hadley’s comment.

Eight years after 9/11 — and after thousands of deaths and billions of dollars — I read about the plan that Condi Rice said would take three years to implement and Clarke guessed might take five.  I am left wondering, should we have stayed closer to that deliberate product of “September 10 thinking”, instead of the much more aggressive stance spawned post-9/11?

Eight years later we are re-considering negotiations with the Taliban.  We are still looking for authentic and effective anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. We are constantly pushing Pakistan to take stronger action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Pashtuns are still a puzzle.  Perhaps the biggest change is the number of Predators we deploy.

We are powerful.  But we are not all powerful.  Humility is not only a virtue, it is a practical policy.  When Hadley circulated the first draft of NSPD-9 he warned it was “admittedly ambitious.”  It was also restrained in comparison to its successor strategies.  There can be wisdom in restaint.


For our increased power related our will and purpose to vaster and vaster entanglement with other wills and purposes, which made it impossible for any single will to prevail or any specific human goal of history easily to become the goal of all mankind. (The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr)

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Comment by Peter J. Brown

September 9, 2009 @ 5:32 am

A close observer of Soviet experiences there, Zbigniew Brzezinski shares thoughts on current situation in Afghanistan —


Comment by William R. Cumming

September 9, 2009 @ 6:33 am

Excellent post! Praising and not condemning of the Bush efforts to deal with the issue of AQ and the non-state actors to be dealt with by the US. What is most interesting is that ignores the major efforts started off by a White House Press Conference on May 8th, 2001, designating VP Richard Cheney as the formal lead to reorganize Executive Branch efforts on preparedness and response to domestic incidents/events of terrorism. Much of this effort was completely ignored by the 9/11 Commission after it made its own decisions on its jurisdiction under its appointive statute–specifically not to focus on what might have been accomplished but only on what was done. On September 10th the leadership of FEMA, except for it Acting Director of its Office of National Security, John McGaw, was at a NEMA conference in a western states with most of the STATE EM leadership. A draft Executive Order and other implementing documents had completed internal review in several places in the Executive Branch and was almost finalized as well as formal briefings and other evidence of the Cheney effort. Then of course 9/11 and all was off as the world was born anew. I continue to be concerned like many others that the preparedness, prevention, response and recovery to a WMD incident/event is lacking and of course that is the “Big One” for our democracy (republic)! Based on what we know VP Cheney was and is concerned that a WMD event could destroy our political system. I think he is correct but probably have a much different rationale. The history of that Press Conference and the domestic arena should be fully documented but of course has not been. Why? Perhaps some of that effort was worthy of understanding why or why not it should have been adopted.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 9, 2009 @ 4:47 pm


I am especially glad you mentioned the May assignment of Cheney to the CT role. I had that in an earlier draft, but it seemed to distract from the NSPD discussion and I was already over 1000 words… which is too long for this medium.

Certainly I am not condemning Bush-Cheney. I also agree with you — and with the former Vice President — that the threat of a WMD event is real and the implications potentially dire.

But I will clarify that I do not intend praise. As my post tomorrow may do a better job of explaining, it seems to me that the policy process coming to a head on September 4 was ambitious yet appropriately restrained. The post-9/11 policies strike me as increasingly Manichean, over-reaching and as a result, unrealistic.

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