Watch CBS News

Ex-CIA Operative Comes Out of the Shadows

Web Extra: Secret Museum 01:36

You don't hear from people like Henry Crumpton very often. That's because "Hank," as he's known, spent most of his adult life as a spy for the CIA. Now he has stepped out of the shadows to tell how just after 9/11, at age 44, he masterminded the downfall of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

He did it with just a handful of CIA officers, military special operations teams and an army of Afghan tribal warriors. Crumpton probably knows more about the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban than almost anyone else.

And now that he is out of the CIA, he makes no secret anymore about what he did to defeat them in 2001.

Web Extra: Secret Museum
Web Extra: Tough Talk
Web Extra: Shadow Warrior

"I've described it as our own insurgency to overthrow the Taliban, to attack al Qaeda," Crumpton told 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan.

Asked what orders he gave his men, he said, "Orders were fairly simple: 'Find al Qaeda and kill them, especially leadership. Destroy command and control. If the Afghans, including Taliban leaders wanted to help us, we are receptive.'"

"How did that work? I mean, going to each individual tribal leader one by one and offering them what? Saying what?" Logan asked.

"Well, in a very crude way, it would be a carrot and a stick. The carrot would be 'If you come cooperate with us, we will reward you and your people.' The stick was 'If you do not cooperate, the chances of your survival are greatly diminished.' And we would prove this by attacking Taliban leaders who had rejected our overtures," Crumpton explained.

"Killing them?" Logan asked.

"Yes. And the next day, we'd talk to the tribal leader that was next door. We would make him the same offer. Given the incentive that we had set the previous day, he was much more amenable to negotiations in our favor," Crumpton replied.

"Because he heard the guy that wouldn't cooperate was killed yesterday?" Logan asked.

"Or in some cases, he saw that his fellow commander, his tribal ally was killed," Crumpton said.

Crumpton took 60 Minutes with him in September to the place where his plan first began to unfold: the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Our helicopter touched down on the same riverbank where Crumpton first landed in the dead of night eight years ago. Just across the river on a hill overlooking the landing site is the original safe house used by the CIA in 2001. Inside the now-renovated building, one of Crumpton's old allies was waiting to greet him.

Muhammad Arif Sarwari, known among the CIA's operatives as "Engineer Arif," was a senior commander of the main coalition of Afghan tribes opposing the Taliban. Crumpton's men - small teams of seasoned operatives - flew into Afghanistan on Russian-made helicopters. On one they painted "9-11-01" on the tail.

The teams linked up with Engineer Arif's tribal militia. "And it worked very well. You could always count on Engineer Arif and his men. We put our lives in your hands," Crumpton told his old ally.

A few miles away, ascending thousands of feet up a winding mountain road, Engineer Arif and Crumpton showed us where they spied on the Taliban and al Qaeda, from a position overlooking the vast Shomali Plains where the Taliban army was dug in, 40,000 strong. From that vantage point, they gathered critical intelligence on enemy positions and movements.

"And this is where you fully expected the Taliban and al Qaeda to fight, right? To defend? To try and stop the advance towards Kabul?" Logan asked.

"Yes, they had the frontline stretched all the way across. They were entrenched and we thought that it would be a stiffer fight," Crumpton recalled.

The CIA's Afghan allies were so successful infiltrating enemy lines and providing targets for U.S. airpower that it took just over eight weeks for the Taliban and al Qaeda to collapse. Crumpton never had more than four dozen CIA officers on the ground at any one time, supported by small teams of special operations forces.

"So, how do you feel when you hear it referred to as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan?" Logan asked.

"I think that's incorrect. Well, I was here and it was not an invasion. We were invited by our Afghan allies. We were very few in number. The teams, in fact, were very small," he said.

"They were initially eight. Eight people could not invade a country," Amrullah Saleh, the head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's domestic intelligence agency, told Logan.

Saleh has also spent much of his life in the shadows. When it comes to intelligence and clandestine operations in Afghanistan, he is the man at the top. And when Crumpton was in Afghanistan back in 2001, Saleh was usually at his side.

Asked if he liked Crumpton, Saleh told Logan with a smile, "Yes. That's why I'm giving this interview. I don't meet the press."

Back then, at just 28 years old, Saleh was the main conduit for intelligence sharing between the CIA and the Afghans.

"The same people who we were trying to kill those days, the bulk of them are alive. The war has not ended," Saleh told Logan.

Asked if he considers it his war, he said, "Oh, yes. I am ready to die any moment. I am not fighting for America, no. This is my war. I am fighting for my wife, for my children, for my community, for this country. And indirectly fighting for America. Because we have common enemies."

Saleh and Crumpton share a deep bond, forged by their long fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A photograph from 2001 shows them in the control tower at Bagram Airbase; at that time, the tower overlooked the Taliban frontline. Today the base it overlooks represents the heart of U.S. power and commitment to Afghanistan.

"This does look a lot different. You have glass," Crumpton told Logan, when he entered the tower's upper floor for the first time since the photograph was taken in November 2001. "There's no shell fragments layin' around."

"Did it even cross your mind when you were here then what it would look like?" Logan asked.

"No, I didn't. We were focused on the enemy and the intelligence collection, the covert action and getting to Kabul," he replied.

"And, officially, you weren't here?" Logan asked.

"That's correct," Crumpton said.

Today, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is about to surge by 30,000 more soldiers. We wanted to hear from Crumpton and Saleh - two experienced veterans of the Afghan fight - what they think about where the war is heading.

"We still have a window of opportunity that has not closed. But, it is more difficult because the Taliban, well, they've gained ground. And it's frustrating because we are fighting for the same ground that we won in '01/ '02," Crumpton said.

"And fighting for it over and over and over again," Logan pointed out.

"That's correct. That's exactly right. It's easy to say, 'Okay, let's pack up. Let's go home.' But this is an enduring security concern for the United States, for our homeland. And for me, it's much like déjà vu because prior to 9/11, I made this same argument. I said, 'If we do not address the issue in Afghanistan, we will suffer in the homeland. It will happen.' And it did," Crumpton explained.

"The American public is underestimating the Islamic fundamentalist groups, and terrorism and extremism," Saleh added.

Asked what he thinks would happen in Afghanistan if the U.S. decided to withdraw, Saleh told Logan, "I am very clear on what will happen. First, a massacre campaign will start. The human cost in this country will easily be up to two million people killed, at least. It will not be a big news for Afghanistan. We are used to tragedies, throughout our history. But the cost for you will be bigger."

"What will that be?" Logan asked.

"Glory comes from winning wars. Not from retreat," Saleh responded.

Saleh said it would mean glory for al Qaeda if the U.S. retreated.

Since Saleh is the man responsible for Afghanistan's security, he has a more immediate concern: what's happening across the border in Pakistan.

"Al Qaeda and Taliban are now headquartered in Pakistan. The bulk of people we kill, neutralize or capture in Afghanistan are the expendable part of the terror network. The leadership is there, and they are not feeling the heat, apart from these occasional drone attacks," Saleh explained.

"In Pakistan and elsewhere where you see enemy's safe haven, where they are the power, where they are the status quo, we must be the insurgents. We must work and recruit with locals, and we must collect intelligence. We must engage in subversion and sabotage, and be very precise," Crumpton added.

"If you were in your old job at the CIA, is that what you'd be doing right now?" Logan asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"You would be inside Pakistan and have men on the ground in the tribal areas…building the exact kind of relationships that you built with the Afghans that helped defeat the Taliban?" Logan asked.

"Certainly. And I think, ultimately, that's how you win this type of war. You have to empower the locals so they have the victory," he replied.

Crumpton also believes the U.S. cannot win without capturing or killing the enemy's leaders, especially Osama bin Laden. That was something he tried very hard to do a decade ago. For two years before 9/11, Crumpton had CIA officers tracking the al Qaeda leader inside Afghanistan.

"There were a couple of occasions in particular where we had no doubt he was there and we could have gained access to him," Crumpton said.

"By gained access you mean you could have killed him?" Logan asked.

"Killed him or captured him," he replied.

A video of bin Laden in Afghanistan almost ten years ago is the last time the CIA had a confirmed visual bead on the head of al Qaeda. The video image was made by an unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicle in September 2000. Back then, Crumpton could never get authority to kill the terrorist leader.

"So, why is it that so many politicians and leaders today try and play down the importance of killing Osama bin Laden?" Logan asked.

"Perhaps because we haven't succeeded yet," Crumpton responded.

Amrullah Saleh is hunting bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. And they are hunting him: just days before our interview, Saleh's deputy Abdullah Laghmani - the second-ranking intelligence official in Afghanistan - was assassinated by a suicide bomber.

Saleh said they managed to get so close to Laghmani by waiting for a long time.

"They could be waiting for you," Logan remarked.

"Sure, and if they kill me, I have told my family and my friends not to complain about anything, because I have killed many of them with pride, so, I am a very, very legitimate target, very legitimate, because when I stand against them, the desire to stand against them is part of my blood. I believe they are wrong," Saleh said. "Bin Laden cannot engender a vision for this world or for this country. Mullah Omar is the same. I am not saying this to flatter the U.S. politicians or public. The enemies we are fighting, they are truly forces of darkness. "

"There will be an attack in the homeland. And sadly I think we face that prospect in the future. I think we'll be hit again," Crumpton predicted.

Asked if such an attack would be on the scale of 9/11, he said, "It's certainly possible. Or perhaps even greater."

"There's no doubt in your mind about that?" Logan asked.

Crumpton's reply? "None."

Produced by Howard Rosenberg

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.