What exactly is the CIA doing in Afghanistan? Proxy militias and two airstrikes in Kunar
AAN has discovered that the NATO airstrike on Kunar on 13 April 2013 which killed as many as 17 civilians was the second strike on almost the same location to have been requested by the same mixed Afghan/CIA force. President Karzai’s spokesman has reported the president’s assertion – and anger – that the Afghan unit involved was part of the NDS in name only and is actually under CIA control. Last week, President Karzai’s spokesman reported the president’s assertion – and anger – that the paramilitary unit of the NDS involved in the operation is actually under CIA control. After the earlier strike on 7 February in which nine civilians were killed, the president banned Afghan forces from calling in NATO air strikes on residential areas. His accusation that the CIA is running militias will hardly be news to anyone following the war, but it is highly significant – the first time the issue has been spoken about so publically. Putting the spotlight on the work of the agency, says AAN senior analyst Kate Clark is a good thing. Its record in Afghanistan is, at best, dubious and its lack of accountability deeply problematic.
The CIA involvement in two operations in Kunar this year which went so disastrously wrong would surely never have come to light if, during the second operation, a CIA officer had not been killed, if NATO air support had not been called in and if so many women and children had not been killed. ISAF told AAN the NDS had been conducting the February operation (see also reporting here and here). After the second strike, the fact of the dead CIA agent was undeniable. ISAF said the operation had involved ‘an Afghan and coalition force’, which did not include ISAF and that the air strike had been requested by ‘coalition forces – not Afghans’ after an American ‘civilian advisor’ had been killed (see reporting here and here).
All assumed the dead man was a CIA officer because which other civilian would be engaging in hostilities? Now, presidential advisor, Shuja-ul-Mulk Jalala, who headed up both investigations ordered by the president into the successive airstrikes, has told AAN the exact same forces had been involved in both operations, a paramilitary unit of the NDS, which he named as the 0-4 unit, and ‘seven or eight’ CIA officers.
President Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, speaking to The New York Times said the 0-4 Unit, which he also referred to as a ‘Counterterrorism Pursuit Team’ was made up of about 1,200 officers and was part of the NDS in name only. It actually took orders, he said, from the CIA. The CIA itself declined to comment to The New York Times and a US military spokesman told the newspaper he would not discuss the investigation into the second strike or offer an explanation of who had caused the civilian casualties. However, he insisted the raid had been NDS-led and NDS-manned.
What actually happened on 17 April 2013 is still somewhat murky, but Afghan investigators told The New York Times that a 75-strong 0-4 team, along with a handful of CIA officers, had hiked up to a village in the Shigal Valley to arrest an alleged Taleban commander. When they raided his house, according to a team member, they found only women, children and a mentally ill man; while still in the house, they came under insurgent fire. The air strike was requested after the CIA took casualties. The 0-4 team member said that when they were evacuated from the house, all the civilians were still alive. Investigators told The New York Times the women and children may have been killed when their house subsequently collapsed.
Jalala’s accusation that the February air strike was called in by the same NDS-CIA team makes more sense of two orders which came from the government just afterwards. There was not only the decree from the president banning Afghan forces calling in NATO air strikes on residential areas, but also a demand from the National Security Council for foreign forces to disband any Afghan militias they were running (see our reporting here). At around the same time, accusations were also coming in from Nerkh district of Wardak province that an armed group of Afghans or Afghan-Americans alleged by the government to be allied to US Special Operations Forces had been murdering people (the US military has denied this, see reporting here and here). Faizy told The New York Times, the president has now ordered a nationwide review of all Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, which, he said are mostly used in the east and the south, and of similar irregular forces run by the CIA or by US Special Operations Forces (SOF).
The term, Counterterrorism Pursuit Team, was first used by Bob Woodward in 2010(2) to describe what he said was a dedicated, CIA-trained paramilitary force:
One important secret… was the existence of the CIA’s 3000-man covert army in Afghanistan. Called CTPT for Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, the army consisted mostly of Afghans, the cream of the crop in the CIA’s opinion. These pursuit teams were a paid, trained and functioning part of the CIA that was authorised by President Bush. The teams conducted operations designed to kill or capture Taleban insurgents, but also often went into [the Pakistani] tribal areas to pacify and win support.
(NB: Woodward uses the past tense because of the strange way he reproduces reported speech – his source is Vice Admiral Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence.)
According to Kimberly Dozier, AP’s intelligence correspondent writing in 2010, ‘the 3,000-strong Afghan teams are used for surveillance and long-range reconnaissance missions and some have trained at CIA facilities in the United States.’ In 2009, she said, they had been the subject of a turf war between the SOF and CIA over who would control them; the agency won. Other newspaper reports on the teams can be read here and here.
Some caution is needed before categorising any particular group as a CIA-proxy. ‘Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams’ always appeared to be a generic name, like ‘Afghan forces’ or ‘Campaign Forces’, rather than a designated name for groups belonging to a particular CIA-run programme. It also seems possible that there is a division of duties, for example, the CIA funds and the SOF trains units, while other irregular forces appear to work particularly closely with the SOF. Speaking to those who have been detained or had their houses raided by mixed groups of Afghans and internationals, it can be difficult to identify who the internationals are. Uniforms should signal a person is military and SOF wear uniforms and often grow beards, but CIA officers also sometimes wear uniforms (black or black/grey camouflage) and grow beards. Having this element of uncertainty in the constellation of foreign forces adds to the difficulty of pinning down who has effective control, especially when things go wrong.
In the case of the Kunar raids, however, Faizy’s accusation is specific – that the CIA has effectively co-opted units which are in the NDS’ tashkil. This is how he described them to The Guardian:
[He] said the CIA controlled large commando-like units, some of whom operated under the nominal stamp of the Afghan government’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), but were not actually under its control. ‘Some of them are said to be working with the NDS, but they are not armed by the NDS, not paid by the NDS, and not sent to operations by the NDS. Sometimes they only inform the NDS minutes before the operation,’ Faizi said. ‘They are conducting operations without informing local authorities and when something goes wrong it is called a joint operation.
Afghan Anti-Taleban armed groups working for the CIA are not a new phenomenon. According to those who were on the ground in the earliest days of the 2001 intervention when the CIA deployed to arm and fund the Northern Alliance in its fight to topple the Taleban, the agency asked Shura-ye Nezar - the military organisation of Jamiat-e Islami run by late Ahmad Shah Massud – intelligence for some good men to work with (estimates of the numbers are 100-300). Paid for and trained by the CIA and based apart from their Afghan comrades, Shura-ye Nezar intelligence soon found they had effectively ‘lost’ their men to a different chain of command.
Twelve years on and the CIA is still running Afghan paramilitaries, or has such close relationships with armed units which are officially within Afghan state structures that, as President Karzai has done, one would want to ask serious questions as to who has command responsibility – the Afghan government or the CIA. This is not just an issue of Afghan sovereignty, but of law: those in command are responsible for the war crimes committed by their subordinates if they ordered them to commit the crimes, did not prevent them from carrying them out or failed, subsequently, to discipline them.(1) AAN has previously reported on the dangers of such murky chains of command (see here, here, including on the US and Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) relationship, here, here and here). In Kunar, where it has come to light that civilians were killed in two apparently very similar incidents, one would want to ask whether the forces involved had adhered to Geneva Convention principles, including distinguishing between civilians an those engaged in hostilities and taking necessary precautions to avoid harming civilians, something which would include investigating when things go wrong and implementing lessons learned.(3)
Even if not being under actual foreign command, the militias’ close relations with the CIA and/or SOF helps bring them effective immunity from the Afghan courts. These units may be valued by their international allies for their fierce anti-Taleban fighters, but journalists have uncovered accounts of such groups carrying out theft, rape, child abuse, torture and murder. See, for example, investigative reporting including on the Kandahar Strike Forceand the Afghan Guard Force which operates in Loya Paktia, by Julius Cavendish here, here and here and in The New York Times, here, here and here).
The Kandahar Strike Force, which is based at Mulla Omar’s old house, also known as Camp Gecko and is alleged to work closely with the CIA and to have been run by President Karzai’s late half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai (for sourcing on this, see the previous paragraph), regularly appears in reports on the torture of security detainees (see the 2012 joint report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Open Societies Foundations and a 2013 UNAMA report. Both reports also allege – carefully and drily – that the CIA has continued to hand over detainees to facilities which ISAF and the US military have declared off-limits after UNAMA found torture was being practiced there:
… UNAMA received allegations from detainees held in facilities that had not completed ISAF’s certification process that international military forces had captured them and transferred them to NDS or ANP detention. UNAMA referred many of these cases to ISAF for investigation and confirmation. Following investigations into the cases referred, however, ISAF maintained in all instances that international military forces, including U.S. Special Forces, had not been involved in the capture or transfer of the detainees in question. ISAF recommended that UNAMA attempt to confirm the allegations of capture and transfer with an ‘other government agency’ – an unofficial designation for US intelligence agencies active in the areas where individuals were captured.
The CIA’s actions in 2001 when it supported proxy militias was one thing – possibly ‘justifiable’ given the US’s war aims, although still politically disastrous given how the strategy consolidated an elite weighted heavily towards commanders and leaders of armed factions. However, it is difficult to justify why the CIA should still be running militias in Afghanistan in 2013. After more than a decade of an overt war by international forces and indeed of Afghanistan having its own government and armed forces, there can be no justification for the continuation of this – other than that this is what the CIA tends to engage in.
From its inception, the agency has never been solely, or even mainly, an intelligence gathering body. Rather it has focussed resources and personnel on running covert operations, often of a military nature. In Afghanistan, its record is long and dubious, going back to its funding of the 1980s jehad through the ‘deniable’ conduit of the Pakistani Islamist military dictator General Zia ul-Haq and the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. By subcontracting its support for the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance, the CIA gave Pakistan a free hand to favour and build up Islamist forces and marginalise non-Islamist forces. Zia was also able to cream off funds: CIA dollars helped pay for the immeasurable strengthening of the ISI, the forced lurch of the army to the jehadist right and a huge Islamist madrassa building programme.
In the CIA’s second bite at the Afghan cherry, after the 9/11 attacks, it was given new orders by President George W Bush in a top secret directive issued on 17 September 2011, in the words of Tim Weiner,(4) ‘to hunt, capture, imprison and interrogate suspects around the world… set[ting] no limits on what the agency could do.’ The CIA would go on to arm proxy forces in Afghanistan. These, incidentally, were always either treated as if they did not exist by the various disarmament programmes of DDR and DIAG, or were units of the old army such as in Khost which were officially disarmed, but kept on as Campaign Forces.(5) The CIA also set up a global detention and rendition programme in which torture and associated abuses were perpetrated, with Afghanistan acting as one of the hubs (for details see this report). This programme was eventually closed down by President Obama when he came into office in 2009. The agency has also developed a drones programme which uses lethal force against those considered insurgents in various countries.(6)
The CIA may act increasingly in concert with SOF and both groups may support Afghan irregular forces, yet the CIA is far more troubling. Unlike the military, including special forces, when the CIA conducts hostilities, we do not know how and to what extent its officers are taught the laws of armed conflict, what legal manuals the agency might use in its use of lethal force and detention, and how it might discipline those who break the law. We do not know what it tells its proxies they can or cannot do. The agency’s very lack of transparency, by itself, encourages abuses. This is relevant, not just for the drones programme (for discussion see here and here and here, but also in working out if CIA officers have command responsibility for crimes committed by groups they work with.
Again, unlike the military, there is no ‘address’ and no spokesman for the CIA, nowhere for journalists, human rights advocates and Afghan civilians, including MPs, to ask questions about, for example, civilian deaths. The agency may squat in the heart of Kabul in the former Ariana Hotel, a property belonging to the still existing Afghan trade union federation, in between the Presidential Palace, ISAF HQ, the US Embassy, the Ministry of Defence and various NDS directorates. Yet in Afghanistan, to all intents and purposes, it is unaccountable.
Again, unlike the foreign military and Afghan intelligence, police, army and prisons, as far as we know, the CIA does not open its doors to monitors from the ‘official’ watchdogs, such as UNAMA, the ICRC and the AIHRC, or engage in dialogue on issues such as whether it adheres to the Geneva Conventions when it conducts hostilities. Its only monitoring is domestic through the Senate and Congressional Intelligence Committees.
For all these reasons, Karzai, as head of state, is right to be deeply troubled about its role in his country, including its future plans. US officials, speaking privately, say that in any post-2014, counterterrorism mission, the US SOF, CIA, Afghan SOF and assorted irregular forces will be crucial. President Obama speaks about the US having two long-term tasks in Afghanistan which are ‘very specific and very narrow’:
Number one, to train, assist, and advise Afghan forces so that they can maintain their own security; and number two, making sure that we can continue to go after remnants of al Qaeda or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland. That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan.
The second task looks to be very much about the continuing mission of the CIA, the SOF and their Afghan partners, to be separated again from any ISAF successor mission, just as the US’s largely ‘counter-terrorist’ Operation Enduring Freedom has been kept separate from ISAF. It is worth bearing in mind that there are some who believe a future war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be an intelligence war. Look, for example, at the analysis of former US Commander in Afghanistan General David Barno of that if the US fails to secure a bilateral security agreement and if it would leave no US troops behind after 2014 – the ‘zero option’ – could still leave the US able to pursue its military objectives:
Eleven years of extensive quiet intelligence efforts partnered with Afghans (and Pakistanis) have created a deep web of friendly contacts that will be maintained long after 2014. In some ways, the post-2014 environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could evolve into a prolonged ‘intelligence war,’ with hundreds of US operatives and billions of covert dollars invested in preventing further terrorist attacks on the United States. Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure – regardless of the size of the residual US military presence.
The dangers of the CIA and its proxies are evident for anyone concerned about rule of law, the democratic space, sovereignty and stability. Militias, unregulated by their own government, have a nasty history in Afghanistan. There is also a nasty history of outside interference using proxy forces to the great detriment and suffering of the nation and its citizens.
(1) In terms of war crimes, for a commander to be held responsible for the acts of his subordinates, the following requirements must be in place (according to Art. 28 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court)
• The subordinates must be under the effective command and control, or the effective authority or control of the superior;
• The military commander knew or should have known that his forces were committing or about to commit such a crime;
• The military commander failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent the crimes or to punish them by submitting them to the competent authorities for investigation and prosecution;
• If the superior is a civilian, he will be responsible if he knew or consciously disregarded information which indicated that his subordinates were committing crimes.
(2) Bob Woodward Obama’s Wars (2010) Simon & Schuster p 8.
(3) ISAF has very tight tactical directives aimed at safeguarding civilian life and property (see it here).
(4) Tim Weiner Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007) Penguin, pp 555-6.
(5) Militias linked to the Northern Alliance and other groups were largely formally incorporated as army or police units in the Ministries of Defence (under Marshal Fahim) and Interior (under Yunis Qanuni) in 2001/2002 and given the old army and police designations. After that the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, launched in 2003, aimed at standing down most of these fighters and incorporating some into the new Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. In Khost, US SOF co-opted parts of the 25th Army Division; although it was officially DDR-ed, the soldiers never left their base and were instead re-designated as the Afghan Guard Force, with the divisional commander, the PDPA officer, General Khialbaz Sherzoi, becoming the commander of the AGF (he later became Chief of Police in Ghazni and elsewhere).
(6) The Council on Foreign Relations writes:
Traditionally the CIA has managed the bulk of US drone operations outside recognized war zones, such as in Pakistan, while the Defence Department has commanded operations in established theatres of conflict, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But in some instances, the drone operations of both the CIA and DOD are integrated, as in the covert drone campaign in Yemen.