EDIT of 20 Dec 07 to add links.
This is a superb first-person account. I have absolute and total respect for this officer, his team, his courage, and what he accomplished within weeks of 9-11, setting the stage for a new form of warfare in which CIA opened the door, Special Forces turned on the lights, and conventional Air Force leveled the place.
The book provides some extremely useful insights from the field with respect to Washington's failure to understand local politics and ground truth despite frequent detailed field appraisals from the Chief of Station, and the book makes it clear that Pakistan lobbied Washington strategically and ably to "sell" its plan for taking over Afghanistan with its own allies, against both Russian and US (and for that matter, Chinese) best interests.
There are five substantive military insights in this book:
1) Despite their enormous personal courage and high level of training, the US military special forces are handicapped by a joint defense-level policy that will not do deep bombing unless a Search & Rescue (SAR) capability is readily available. I recall the original Office of Strategic Services dropping people behind enemy lines (the pilots understood they might be shot down as part of the deal) and I just think to myself, shame on DoD, this force protection zero tolerance for casualties has gone too far. We need a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with the balls to change the military culture back to one that is mission oriented rather than casualty averse.
2) Partly as a result of Pakistani influence [the author notes that the Pakistanis co-opted the CIA Station in Pakistan, not just the State Department and NSC in Washington] and point one above, the targeting authorities (CENTCOM and the Air Force) were very slow to act professionally on the targets identified by the Northern Alliance and the CIA field teams. I was enormously impressed by the GPS field surveys that the CIA team carried out, and under-whelmed by the Air Force focus on warehouses near Kabul rather than specified armed forces blocking the Northern Alliance path toward Kabul. I also noted in the margin, having some experience with provincial and tribal intelligence, that the US decision system is still too focused on state to state Ambassadorial level negotiations, and largely ignorant of and uninterested in the nuances of sub-state tribal views and concerns. That needs urgent fixing.
3) The Special Forces, despite their reputation for fearless operations behind enemy lines, were led by officers who insisted that they wear their proper military uniforms and shave every day. I have met the two-star general that gave and then enforced this order, and consider him a superb--absolutely top-notch--officer in terms of military skills, but the man is so culturally clueless as to give new meaning to the term oblivious. As a side note, thinking back to Steve McQueen in the great escape, it occurred to me that we need to establish a protocol under the Geneva Convention in which military personnel and overt intelligence personnel can blend into the local population to avoid cultural dissonance, but wear a small patch, clearly visible to those they see face to face--something like a SOF spear, with miniature rank on one side and miniature service seal on the other side, all within a two-inch wide circle.
4) PAVE LOW missed the Landing Zone (LZ) during the first and most critical Special Operations team insertion. Now, this could have happened if CIA provided the military with the wrong coordinates (or used Russian coordinates while the Americans were on another system), but this should never have happened. It also points out that the military and CIA evidently did not have the ability to talk to each other tactically on the final approach, which reminds me of our Marines not being able to talk to the US Embassy in Somalia as they completed their 400 nautical mile run just in time to stop the people from over-running the place. How is it that something as critical as masked inter-agency tactical communications can still not be achieved? INTER-4 Tacticomps with S-MINDS and CISCO AONS for all hands ASAP.
5) Air Force blew the first food-drop, dropping the packets from 27,000 feet without parachutes. What this made clear to me is that we have a peacetime Air Force (see my review of "Rules of the Game" by Andrew Gordon) that has forgotten how to do nuanced missions, especially those requiring that they do something other than deliver cargo conventionally or drop bombs.
The author ends the book more or less on page 363, where he suggests that a combined CIA and SOF campaign circling Waziristan, is needed. While he underestimates the denied area aspect of this zone, I agree that the Pakistanis are playing the Americans for fools, and I agree that there should be no area of the world where US forces cannot operate if they must.
The author loses one star, with some understanding, for failing to provide context and failing to acknowledge that his heroic mission was required because CIA did not take Afghanistan seriously before and after Charlie Wilson. Three other books, at least, must be read to understand this:
Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB
The compansion to this book is Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander
I had a chance to talk to a CENTCOM officer informally about all this, and welcomed his observation that CIA does not always have the facts when it comes to their perception of military "mistakes." We also talked about the need for a new approach to global intelligence. It is crystal clear to me that we need to have CIA/SOF bases all over the world that are under non-official cover and that work every major tribe and province. For every province, including especially provinces in denied areas, there must be at least one SOF-qualified sleeper able to receive a clandestine arrival, or provide the first stop for a SAR exit.
I'm glad they made it back-this was true grit and deep honor in action.
See also (with reviews):
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World
Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life
on September 29, 2005
Gary Schroen informs the reader upfront in an author's note that an officer of the CIA Publication Review Board characterized this book as "the most detailed account of CIA field operations as told by an officer directly involved" ever to be cleared for open publication. Indeed it is the details of how CIA went about establishing an initial seven man team (codenamed `Jawbreaker') and how that team deployed and operated in Afghanistan that makes this book so fascinating. It throws a spotlight on what has always been one of CIA's murkier corners.
Jawbreaker was established with admirable speed by CIA following the tragedy of 9/11 with a specific goal of going to Afghanistan and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. As the book's title implies Jawbreaker was the first American force deployed to Afghanistan. The story of the organization, deployment and support of Jawbreaker reveals, inadvertently I think, what is right and what is wrong about CIA. Sadly it also reveals serious flaws within the U.S. military command and control system(s) that have seriously hampered the War on Terrorism. Be warned however, this book is not a sensation seeking expose, it is a sober account of how seven brave and resourceful CIA officers did their best to respond to the somewhat confused and contradictory orders generated by often ill-informed and mostly irresolute intelligence officials and policy makers in Washington.
on September 21, 2005
Unlike many reviewers, I wasn't expecting some spy thriller or a military action novel. But I did expect for such an important book to have received more attention in editing. As you can tell from the description and other reviews, the book is a very frank account of the CIA's initial foray into Afghanistan after 9/11. The author has first hand experience, as he led the effort. But he's not a great writer. He repeats himself so much that I got the feeling he wrote the chapters at long intervals, and never went back to re-read what he'd done. A good editor would have smoothed out the flow and eliminated the retelling of the same facts over and over. And a good proofreader would have caught the typos, which were numerous enough as to be distracting (Schroen spells GPS as GSP a few times, which left me wondering "OK, he told us about the GPS team in the last chapter, but what's the GSP team? Is that the same guys, or is he talking about something else?"). I suspect the publisher was rushed to get the book to market. That said, it was an interesting story, which gave me insight into the strange military and political history of Afghanistan.
on April 29, 2006
This is a four-star account of a five-star operation. Schroen perpetuates a few errors, but (as an earlier reviewer on this site noted)in most instances it would take a committed Afghanophile to spot them. He largely dispels the miasma of Pakistan-fostered, western-perpetuated slander that has besmirched the reputation of the anti-Taliban resistance, the so-called Northern Alliance. He makes it clear the alliance, even after the 9/9/01 assassination of their charismatic leader Ahmad Shah Masood, were a responsibly and effectively led grassroots movement, heroic in their resistance to tyranny.
With mingled wonder and dismay, he describes how the 'anti-Tajik' (ie anti-Northern Alliance) lobby in Washington held up the overthrow of the Taliban for weeks longer than necessary, by bombing marginal 'infrastructure' instead of frontline troop concentrations opposite alliance positions north of Kabul. And he doesn't hide his anger over his realization that his superiors in DC weren't even reading the painstaking firsthand analyses he forwarded almost nightly.
Schroen minces no words exposing Pakistan's agenda. Islamabad saw the covert 1980s CIA arms pipeline to the anticommunist rebels as a means to place Afghanistan under the control of "a Pashtun-centered, fundamentalist religious party that will be malleable to manipulation by Pakistan ..." In the mid-1990s, "[t]he Pakistanis quickly came to see the Taliban as a possible answer to achieving their strategic political vision for Afghanistan, and shifted their full support accordingly."
He describes in fascinating detail the CIA's liaison with former communist militia commander Abdul Rasheed Dostum, a sometime Northern Alliance hanger-on. Dostum appears very much as I remember him in 1992-94, when he was on hire to Islamabad and Tashkent: far too eager to please his foreign friends, and a complete tactical doofus; routinely throwing his men's lives away by the hundred, either to impress his patrons, or from sheer stupidity. Schroen describes Dostum leading cavalry charges against dug-in infantry with automatic weapons, a tactic discredited at least since the Mexican Revolution. Dostum's 2001 charges succeeded: at great cost, and because of US air support.
Masood's Panjsheri lieutenants were cut from different cloth. They had bitter memories of a decade of neglect (indeed, during the Clinton years, active opposition) from US officials bedazzled by Pakistani and Saudi propaganda on behalf of the Taliban. Initially the Panjsheris made it clear to Schroen they were not about to waste lives charging militant positions while two-bit opportunists like Dostum hogged the air support. In the end, they reckoned correctly that America now needed them as much as they needed America, perhaps more so. Accordingly, they gave Washington, via Schroen, a low-key ultimatum: They would attack Kabul before winter, bombs or no bombs.
They got their air support. When they stepped off Nov. 12, they routed thousands of entrenched Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters north of Kabul in a matter of hours, and rolled into the capital next day. (It took Dostum weeks, with heavier and more consistent US bombing, to overcome the much weaker Taliban defenses around the northern city Mazar i Sharif.)
Because so many Westerners bought into Pakistani disinformation, the "anti-Tajik" lobby balked at supporting a Northern Alliance advance on Kabul. Instead, early on, the administration cast about vainly for other ways to overthrow the Taliban.
I give Schroen four stars instead of five partly because of his taciturn discussion of one such non-option: the quixotic bid by former Pashtun anti-communist fighter Abdul Haq, who was murdered by Taliban only hours after he returned to Afghanistan to raise revolt. Schroen portrays this tragic episode as fruit of a disastrous daydream by a nostalgic old warhorse; he flatly denies rumors of CIA involvement on Abdul Haq's behalf. But he fails to mention that the disproportionate media attention focused on Abdul Haq, from immediately after 9/11 until his death six weeks later, resulted directly from his noisy promotion by US diplomats based in Pakistan. It is certainly possible that State Department officials, long under the spell of Pakistani intelligence, were off on a tangent of their own; and that CIA wasn't involved. But Schroen owes us an elucidation of US official involvement, not a bland suggestion that there was none.
"First In" also loses points because Schroen, having authoritatively debunked conventional wisdom in the body of his narrative, contradicts himself and succumbs to Beltway orthodoxy in his epilogue. Therein he denounces "regional warlords," their "militias", and other former mujahideen. They are "stuck in the past," using their positions "for the benefit of [their] own ethnic and personal interests, often working behind the scenes against Karzai and the government." These are code words for reluctance, among Afghans who spent a generation fighting off waves of foreign troublemakers, to defer to a mock-democratic regime led by a cabal of westernized carpetbaggers. (In America, for instance, the people elect state and county authorities; under the US-installed Karzai regime and US-imposed Afghan constitution, they are appointed by the president and cabinet.) Many whom Schroen and others revile as "warlords" are proven leaders, men of the people. Most of the charges against former mujahideen are easily exposed as political slander. Washington and its Kabul puppet regime will continue to ignore real Afghans at their own risk.
on July 7, 2006
Gary Schroen was less that 3 months away from retirement from the CIA on 9/11. He'd had a successful career there in "Operations", the guys who do the actual spying (as opposed to "Analysis", the guys who try and figure out what everything means), mostly dealing with the Middle East, and had wound up a Deputy Division head. For 2 years in the early 90s he was the Station Chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later in the decade he'd flown into the Northern Alliance's territory and met Ahmed Shah Masoud, the charismatic leader of that group who was assassinated just before 9/11. He had extensive contacts with various friendly figures in Afghan politics, speaks at least one of the local languages, and of course has lots of experience. As a result, 15 days after 9/11, Schroen was flown into the Northern Alliance's Panshir Valley on a CIA helicopter along with a half dozen other CIA guys, various laptops, satellite phones, and radios, a crate of guns, and $3 million in cash. His orders were to find and kill Osama bin Laden, and topple the Taliban government. This book is his account of the mission, how it went, and the adventures they had along the way.
Schroen was sent into Afghanistan at a time when the army didn't consider it safe to deploy troops (apparently now, if the army can't medivac wounded they won't operate in an area, and since there were no friendly airbases close enough, they were skittish about the idea of committing troops or flying combat missions) so Schroen and his friends were on their own for a considerable time period (about a month). They made friends with the locals (some of whom Schroen already knew) spread around money to buy weapons and supplies, and lobbied for airstrikes, Special Forces teams, and generally support while they watched the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban. As time passed, other CIA teams and Special Forces Operators did appear. At one point in the story, several of the CIA guys participate in a cavalry charge (I keep reading books that recount the "last" cavalry charge in history: believe it or not, this one worked) and there are various other interesting anecdotes. The author, 59 at the time he was inserted into Afghanistan, had terrible intestinal troubles that were never entirely resolved, and one of the other guys had gas (apparently from the altitude). While they didn't get Osama (never even got close, really...they landed on the other side of the country) they were instrumental in tipping the war against the Taliban.
This is an interesting, intelligent book. The accounts of the politics in Washington and the Pentagon are of course frustratingly vague, but of course the author was in Afghanistan when the debates were taking place, so he can only recount what he was hearing over the radio or phone. But for an account of the War on Terror from someone who was on the front lines, this book is just about as good as it gets.
on May 27, 2005
Gary Schroen's "First In" is the missing piece of the puzzle about the early US intervention in Afghanistan after 911. The detailed account of the CIA's first team in pulls back the curtain on the enlistment of the support of the Northern Alliance and the subsequent military action to defeat the Taliban and push Al Qaeda into Pakistan. Inside info such as the $13,000,000 in cash brought into the country to buy favor, and the order by his superiors to "bring Bin Laden's head back in a box on dry ice" is dispensed by Schroen with little censorship by the CIA. Balanced with historical perspective, Gary Schroen's account of the CIA spearheaded War on Terror in Afghanistan is the most recent addition to an uncrowded field of first hand published stories of what really went on and still goes on in Afghanistan.
Another must read is The Gem Hunter, True Adventures of an American in Afghanistan by Gary Bowersox. This boots-on-the-ground, first hand account of Bowersox's 30+ years of travel to Afghanistan to buy rubies, sapphires, emeralds and lapis puts into perspective the unfolding story of the struggles, hopes & dreams of the Afghan people. Bowersox, who was friends with Massoud the head of the Northern Alliance who was killed at the hand of Bin Laden directed assassins two days before 911, tells about the involvement of the Russians, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani government's role in the affairs of the country. Although perhaps self serving, Bowersox says the best way to help everyday Afghan people is to buy gems from their country, one of their only legal exports with opium being number one illegal export.
If you want to know more about this part of the world than 99.99% of all Americans, news pundits and politicians then read both of these books and you will. Better yet, give these books to US soldiers going to Afghanistan and you may save a life from the insight they provide.
on August 26, 2014
This is the first in a series of books documenting the war on Al Qaeda from the perspective of a CIA officer sent post-9-11 with the express mission to destroy the terrorists, their support, uproot the Taliban and bring to justice those who inflicted terrible pain on The United States.
First let me say this book brought back a lot of memories of those days after the attack. It’s interesting many years late to review how we felt, how our leaders thought, and still feel the sting of the attack on our nation. Two hundred years from now people will still be reviewing the historical record. It is for this reason I am most pleased to have read this book.
The author was unique in the sense that he had experience in the region prior to the events that brought him there post-9-11. Because of his contacts and his knowledge of language and culture he was ideal to bring an alliance of tribes inline in order to destroy the enemy. This book deals prodomently with that event.
There is no lack of action. But the book does deal with the important issues of rapidly bringing the war to Al Qaeda. This war developed rapidly and the quality of management needed to ensure its success is quite remarkable.
Ultimately this book merges with another book Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander by Gary Berntsen who takes what was built by Gary Schroen. There’s more physical action in this book . But none-the-less the books provide an inside view of those dark days.
Over all this is a very interesting book about the war in Afghanistan. If you enjoyed this then I would strongly suggest Hank Crumpton’s book The Art of Intelligence: lessons from a Life in the CIA’s clandestine service as they both deal with direct intervention in Afghanistan. I would also recommend Hard Measures by Jose A Rodriguez as a primer for what happens when you have key assets with information derived from the battle field.
All four of the books create an historical record of the CIA’s activities. Well…at least what they will release to the public. There is always a “rest of the story” some place waiting to be read.
A great account of how things actually unfolded in those first months and years following 9/11. There's some very insightful opinion here, but the book primarily focuses on the facts - to include how we let Bin Ladin escape Tora Bora for his long (if recent ended) life on the run. I worked on this issue, as a senior CT intelligence officer for the "other" major intelligence agency (DIA) and this book does a great job discussing things most of us aren't allowed to talk about. I'd definitely recommend this read, even if it is a bit dated at the time of this review.
on February 7, 2006
If you care about your country or the world we lve in, or you just want a great read, you really should read this book. It's a gripping memoir of Gary Schroen's personal experiences as a CIA operative/team leader launching the war in Afghanistan. I've been there and done that with all his wonderful key Afghan characters and can verify he captures their essence with great aplomb. There are quite a few errors when he goes deeper into history and into the life and more recent assassination of Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. That's a pity but it would be jarring only to a long-time Afghanophile. And none of the convoluted factoids on the Afghan front detract from a thoroughly entertaining read and a true insight into what could be called the CIA's most important mission in recent memory. Compared to many other Afghan War books, Schroen's is especially good simply because he has a story to tell. Get the book. You're missing something really worthwhile if you don't. I loved it.
on March 8, 2014
I heard the author interviewed on CNN New Day and was excited to get this 367 page book. However, no battle action until page 250 when northern Alliance calverymen assaulted Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. About page 325 is when action of intense bombing occurs on Taliban front lines north of Kabul which broke their grip over the country and gave Kabul to Northern Alliance. The first 250 pages was drudge of airlifts, recon, Starbucks coffee and assorted daily activities. The author was airlifted from Afghanistan before the book ended, so the rest must have been written in absentia. Little was mentioned of Bin Laden and war in Iraq taking focus off hunting him. Many instances of Washington decision makers indecision on making priority of bombing runs early on main Taliban targets and Pakistani politics. Shame on them for allowing these brave first-in special forces/CIA personnel risk their lives needlessly.