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Posted on Jun 12, 2005 in Books and Movies

First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan – Book Review

By Steven McWilliams

First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan
Gary C. Schroen
Presidio Press, 2005

In “First In”, veteran and highly decorated CIA officer Gary Schroen gives a blow-by-blow account of the CIA’s infiltration into northeast Afghanistan to support the Northern Alliance campaign against the Taliban and foreign Arab forces around Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. Having worked with Afghan rebels during the Soviet occupation, Schroen was well familiar with the terrain and geography, and also with several of the NA functionaries with whom he would work.

Like most Americans witnessing the terror of 11 September 2001, Schroen was shocked and dismayed, but also resolved to ‘do his part’ to give it back to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Arriving in the Panjshir Valley on the afternoon of 26 September, only fifteen days after the terror attacks, Schroen and his team set to work. All knew the instability that could arise from the death of the charismatic NA leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, and Schroen was determined to make contact with the NA leadership to work out plans for US support to them in the coming campaign against the Taliban.


The CIA team’s mission to the Northern Alliance ranged from the purely personal (shipping of Starbucks coffee and other personal favorites), to the absurd (objections by the NA leadership on landing fields to be used by US Special Forces, and also whether they could wear their uniforms), to the maddening (State Department functionaries who want to block the Northern Alliance from taking Kabul, wanting to reserve this to their favorites, the Pashtuns), to the downright dangerous (the rugged terrain of the region, its unpredictable weather, and equally unpredictable Taliban artillery and mortar attacks). Schroen spends much of his time explaining to General Fahim and others of the NA leadership why promised airstrikes against Taliban positions are not coming. He also describes the experience of holding many millions of dollars in his room – at one time in four duct-taped boxes – and the distribution of these funds to NA leaders for food, clothing, weapons and ammunition and other needs. Throughout, Schroen’s diplomatic, organizational and leadership skills are regularly challenged, and equally as often are triumphant.

In the end, of course, the promised airstrikes do materialize, the Taliban are rooted out from their prepared positions and set to flight by the very capable and well-disciplined NA forces. Schroen describes his handing over of “command” of the CIA team on 4 November 2001. With a mixture of relief at a job well done, and regret at not being present for the fall of Kabul, he returns home for a slightly delayed retirement and a chance to spend more time with his family.

“First In” is a well-written account of the side of the Afghanistan campaign that most people never saw or heard of. The first strike at al-Qaeda, its leaders and sponsors dealt a mortal blow which soon saw them fleeing for their lives. All those engaged in the campaign against terrorism owe a debt of gratitude to the Northern Alliance, the CIA teams, the Army Special Forces, the aircrews who flew raids and other ground forces. As well, we owe Gary Schroen for a brilliantly composed account of America’s first campaign in the war against terror.

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