Those Afghans aren’t the same as the ones who comprise its paramilitary Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, the fighting units that Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Obama’s Wars first disclosed. “These are really two separate efforts,” a U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss ongoing intelligence operations, tells Danger Room. “If information from one helps feed the other, all the better. But one is primarily focused on security and stability in Afghanistan while the other is directed at terrorists across the border.”
Since 2001, the CIA has cultivated and managed a large web of Afghan proxy forces, Pakistan-focused informants and allies of convenience, as a richly-detailed Washington Post piece reports today. Some of the CIA’s Afghans are more brutal and incompetent than the agency portrays, according to people with direct experience with them. And some are the missing piece behind America’s unacknowledged war in Pakistan, a CIA-driven effort that the agency considers one its proudest achievements.
While the end result of the drone strikes is visible for anyone to see — the New America Foundation keeps a running tally of the missile attacks — their origins are far more opaque. The only possible explanation for how the drones have so far launched 71 strikes in 2010 compared to 34 in 2008 is that the intelligence network supporting them in the Pakistani tribal areas has grown more robust. After all, someone needs to provide usable intelligence about militant activity for the drones to target. But while CIA Director Leon Panetta has bragged that the drone program is “the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history,” he and other agency officials have (understandably) said practically nothing about the informant network upon which the drones depend.
That’s led al-Qaeda and its allies to take lethal countermeasures against anyone and anything they suspect to be tied to the drones. They kill local Pakistanis in the tribal areas suspected of being informants. They claim online that the CIA’s moles plant infrared homing beacons in militant areas to flash signals to the drones. And in December, they managed to sneak a Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, onto a base called Chapman in eastern Afghanistan. Brought to Chapman on the promise that he could learn the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Balawi blew himself up, killing seven CIA operatives and Blackwater contractors.
According to the Post piece, which draws heavily on the recent WikiLeaks archive of 77,000 frontline military reports from Afghanistan, Chapman, in Khost Province, is only one of a network of CIA bases, mostly in eastern Afghanistan, for training both its Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams and its Pashtun spy network. Firebases Lilly and Orgun-E in Paktika Province — facilities that the CIA shares with Special Operations Forces — are two more launching pads for the Afghan teams. The CIA backstops them with some serious firepower: a 2008-era WikiLeaked report that the Post unearths describes the CIA dropping 500-pound bombs on extremists who launched rockets at Lilly. (So apparently the CIA has air support as well.)
While U.S. officials describe the CIA’s Afghans as “one of the best Afghan fighting forces,” others aren’t so convinced. Author and Afghanistan traveler Robert Young Pelton crossed paths with them. “I did some advising on local militias (called Arbakai) and the Agency big footed us with their version, which is essentially to hire the least trustworthy, least liked and most brutal groups,” Pelton says in an email. “I think CIA paramilitary Billy Waugh described them to me as ‘No good cheating shitheads’ in my book.”
Indeed, some of the Afghans on the CIA payroll include the private militia of Kandahar jefe Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, who’s long been tied to the Afghan opium trade. The Post provides another example. In 2007, during a home invasion conducted by a CIA-trained Afghan team, a team member severed the fingers of a 30-year old Afghan, who received medical treatment from American troops.
But these Afghans are better paid than their countrymen who join the U.S.-sponsored Afghan military, according to the Post — which means the CIA and the Taliban both offer better wages than the Afghan National Army. That raises the prospect that the CIA is essentially competing with the U.S. military for qualified recruits to the U.S.’s exit strategy. (Without the bothersome first-grade-level reading requirement.)
That cash apparently pays for the seeds of the drone attacks — which, in at least one case that Woodward discovers, killed people holding U.S. passports in a militant training camp. What it buys in Afghanistan is questionable. The CIA’s Afghans were “known more for the their sunglasses and low budget rambo outfits than actually doing anything,” Pelton says. “I am sure they have a lot more gear now and better sunglasses.”
Photo: Noah Shachtman