Berntsen’s book, co-written by author and playwright Ralph Pezzullo, combines a compelling first-person, fly-on-the-wall account of some of the critical events in the defeat of the Taliban with enough strategic insights to make it required reading for anyone interested in how the Afghan war was fought and why we are still hunting for Osama bin Laden over four years after his men murdered 3,000 people on these shores.
At the book’s heart are two stories, one of tremendous success, the other of agonizing failure. The success story, of course, is the tale of how a handful of Agency operatives armed with bagfuls of cash allied themselves with the Northern Alliance and, with the invaluable help of U.S. Army Special Forces advisors and American air power, turned what had been a stalemated conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban into a rout of the latter. But that success contained the seeds of the failure to capture or kill bin Laden, Zawahiri and the hundreds–perhaps thousands–of their trained, hardened fighters who slipped over the border into Pakistan.
Jawbreaker (the title comes from the name of Berntsen’s team of Agency operatives) makes clear that from the outset U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Chief Gen. Tommy Franks’s preference was for a conventional campaign to remove the Taliban, rather than something more imaginative that would seek first and foremost to destroy al Qaeda’s leaders and field forces before they could slip the noose being drawn around them. Even Berntsen fell victim to this line of thinking, writing that as he puzzled over conflicting intelligence reports on bin Laden’s location, “I thought, We’re going to have to destroy the Taliban first, if we’re ever going to get a shot at him and his fighters.”
But the strategy of disposing of the Taliban first and relying on fickle local allies, rather than U.S. troops, to do the bulk of the fighting finally failed at Tora Bora, bin Laden’s mountain fortress on the Pakistan border. It was there, with bin Laden seemingly trapped, that the United States lost its last, best chance to kill or capture the al Qaeda leader, and Berntsen details the series of missed opportunities in detail that will be embarrassing to some leaders. In particular, he recounts how he pleaded with the military, to no avail, to prevent bin Laden’s escape by sealing the border with a battalion of 800 Rangers–the Army’s most highly-trained paratroops. All the Rangers in theater were under the command of Maj. Gen. Dell Dailey, the head of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the headquarters in charge of the hunt for bin Laden. Dailey in turn worked for Franks. Berntsen describes his frustration during a Dec. 14, 2001, meeting with Dailey when the JSOC commander expressed the prevailing view in CENTCOM and the Pentagon that putting a significant number of U.S. ground forces into Afghanistan was not an option, as it might upset the locals:
“General Dailey said that he was against introducing U.S. troops for fear of alienating our Afghan allies. ‘I don’t give a damn about offending our allies!’ I shouted. ‘I only care about eliminating Al-Qaeda and delivering bin Laden’s head in a box!'”
The discussion of Tora Bora alone makes the book worth reading, but Berntsen delivers other valuable insights, such as an account of the flight by two Pakistani planes on Nov. 23, 2001, to the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, where Taliban forces were under siege by the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance told Berntsen that the planes picked up Pakistani intelligence advisors to the Taliban and several senior Taliban leaders and flew them to safety in Pakistan. What makes this particularly interesting is that, by then, the United States controlled Afghan air space. Nothing could have moved through it without tacit American agreement. Berntsen writes that at the time he had no way of confirming the Northern Alliance story, but he says now that, based on what he has subsequently learned, it rings true. “Part of the price, possibly, for using Pakistan [as a base for some U.S. forces] may have been that,” Naylor told me when I interviewed him in March.
One of the most critical lessons that Berntsen shares is the need for CIA and military personnel to be joined at the hip in the field, sharing information immediately, rather than sending it up stovepipes to their respective headquarters and then waiting for a filtered version to trickle back down to their partners based just a few yards away. This is how the CIA teams in Afghanistan functioned, and it might seem like just so much common sense, but it often meant that Agency operatives had to break the rules set by bureaucrats at Langley.
Another of the book’s most important messages that might be taken for granted if it weren’t ignored so often by the U.S. national security bureaucracy is the crucial importance of language skills in the war against Islamic terror. Berntsen’s ability to speak Farsi, a close cousin of Dari, spoken by many Northern Alliance fighters was a critical factor in his ability to make personal connections quickly.
Berntsen also sheds light on the important role played in Afghanistan by Muslim CIA operatives, immigrants to America from South Asia and the Middle East, and he describes his own efforts to buck the Agency’s bureaucracy in an attempt to speed up the hiring of such officers.
Jawbreaker is a story that Berntsen has had to fight to tell. Like all CIA employees, Berntsen had to submit his manuscript to the Agency for a security review, which he did in May 2005, the same month that he retired after 20 years as a member of the clandestine service. This should have been a straightforward process. The Agency told him the review would take about 30 days. But he fell afoul of the regime in place under Porter Goss, George W. Bush’s newly-appointed Director of Central Intelligence. Goss, a former CIA operative, was determined to plug politically embarrassing leaks from the Agency, as well as to reverse the trend of CIA employees writing books. He was known to have been particularly enraged by the publication of Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Agency’s bin Laden unit, which was fiercely critical of the Bush administration.
“Goss gave an order and said, ‘I want no more books,'” Berntsen told me. The Agency was so determined to prevent Berntsen from publishing that it tried to bribe him while he was still on duty, he says. “They offered to promote me into the senior service, to give me any job I wanted,” he told me. “They would have done anything to stop me.” Undeterred, Berntsen pressed ahead with his writing. But after the CIA dragged its heels for two months on the security review for his book, he did what would previously have been unthinkable for him and took the Agency to court. “I’m the last person in the world who’d want to sue the U.S. government,” he said. But he felt he had no choice after his erstwhile employers had demanded that 70 pages be cut from his book. He succeeded in getting about 50 of those pages restored, but remains bitter over the decisions that kept significant sections of his story out of the public eye. “It was done by people that knew nothing of the war,” Berntsen told me. The seemingly arbitrary decisions about what got left out means that anyone with a basic knowledge of the major players in the Afghan war and access to an Internet search engine can fill in many of the blanks himself.
To Berntsen’s intense frustration, the CIA even excised material that it had allowed another CIA operative in Afghanistan, Gary Schroen, to publish in his book, First In. At one point this results in a farcical situation in which Berntsen directs his readers to a specific page in Schroen’s book where they can learn the identity of an Afghan warlord whose name is redacted in Jawbreaker.
To give his readers some idea of what the CIA took out, Berntsen represents the sections that stayed redacted as blacked-out sentences and paragraphs, making the book at once a frustrating and tantalizing read. Much of the excised material appears to concern the way U.S. forces organized the Eastern Alliance, a very loose coalition of Pashtun warlords intended to both attack the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts along the Pakistan border and to act as a counterweight to the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance. But although this part of the war was much less successful than the Northern Alliance’s sweeping victories and seizure of Kabul, and in fact resulted in the escape of bin Laden, his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri and hundreds of their fighters, Berntsen sees no partisan political agenda behind the decisions to keep so many of the details from the American people. He says bureaucratic politics, not a desire to protect the administration’s reputation, were the cause. “They did not want people to know that I was making operational decisions and planning and directing portions of that conflict,” he said. “They did not want it to be made clear that a CIA officer was making operational decisions like that.”
The rest of the book makes for fascinating reading, though Jawbreaker is not without its flaws. The narrative is marred in places by a strident tone that crosses the line that separates the muscular, no-nonsense approach one might expect from a CIA field officer in combat from macho arrogance. Berntsen is weakest when he strays from commenting on what he personally witnessed or experienced. Sometimes his claims border on the absurd, such as when he states in the opening pages that the CIA’s directorate of operations “is responsible for running operations against 6 billion people and governments around the world who want to harm the United States.” This is either paranoia on a grand scale or a significant editing slip.
And the authors have a tendency to set up straw-man arguments that are easily demolished. It’s true, for example, that some pundits misread the opening stages of the Afghan campaign and thought the U.S. and its allies were becoming bogged down. But which “military experts were predicting protracted trench warfare not unlike that of World War I”?
But none of these defects detracts significantly from the essential truths that Berntsen conveys vividly and credibly. He accurately assesses the refusal to commit U.S. ground forces to the fight at Tora Bora as “the biggest and most important failure of CENTCOM leadership.”
“Now that we finally had bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cadres trapped in the White Mountains why was headquarters pulling us out?” he writes about the decision to replace him at a critical juncture in the Tora Bora fight. “And why was Washington hesitant about committing troops to get bin Laden? These were the questions that kept me up at night.”
“[W]e’d failed to finish the job,” Berntsen concludes. That failure should ensure plenty of sleepless nights for those far higher on the totem pole than Gary Berntsen.
Sean Naylor is a senior writer for the Army Times Publishing Company and the author of Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.