THE CIA could have seized Osama bin Laden from his Afghanistan headquarters before 9/11, it has emerged.
The farm in Tarnak was watched for four years -- scrutinised and mapped in a story of missed chances that ended in tragedy on September 11, 2001.
Tarnak now has a new agricultural research station built nearby with millions of dollars of aid money that Western officials declare is a hopeful sign for Afghanistan's future.
Tarnak farm was Osama bin Laden's main Afghan residence during much of the late-1990s.
From there he oversaw al-Qa'ida's plot to fly hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers and Pentagon in an attack that killed more than 2,500 people.
Bin Laden was already well known to the CIA when he arrived at Tarnak. He had yet to approve the September 11 operation but American intelligence officers had become increasingly concerned over his close links to terrorists planning to attack the US. A bin Laden tracking unit had been set up a year previously and plans to seize him were discussed.
Tarnak provided an opportunity for the CIA to spy on bin Laden. The bin Laden unit meticulously mapped out Tarnak to find where he slept and it planned a raid to capture him.
The plan was refined and rehearsed from late 1997 to 1998 until it was decided that a raiding party of about 30 armed tribesmen would subdue the guards and seize the al-Qa'ida leader as he slept.
However, after months of debate, senior CIA managers decided not to go ahead because of fears that the tribesmen were not up to the task and innocent civilians would be killed.
Unknown to them, they would have no better chance to seize him until more than 10 years later when he was finally cornered at his compound in Pakistan.
Al-Qa'ida struck in 1998, killing 12 Americans and 200 others in bombings at two US embassies in east Africa. Another opportunity presented itself in mid-2000 when the CIA and Pentagon ran a joint mission to fly unmanned Predator drones over bin Laden's camps looking for him. The first flight over Tarnak saw a tall figure in white robes surrounded by bodyguards who was identified as bin Laden. Officials again debated a strike but the plan was shelved again.
In the end, it was only after September 11 that missiles were launched at Tarnak in the US campaign to drive the Taliban out. By then bin Laden was long gone.
Andrew Haviland, the senior State Department official in southern Afghanistan, said: "Working to bring peace and stability to the part of Afghanistan where the Taliban took root and al-Qa'ida hatched plans for 9/11 is a great responsibility that is full of risks and challenges.
"Not all of our efforts are received in the same positive spirit they are given. Nonetheless, the signs of progress we see every day give us hope." (© Daily Telegraph, London)