Reporting from the United States has said that the CIA is expanding its operations in Afghanistan, running Afghan militias to “hunt and kill” Taleban and “poised” to start flying armed drones. The CIA has run Afghan militias in the past; they were notorious for human rights abuses and for not being subject to the state justice system or Afghan government. Up till now, only the US military has flown drones offensively in Afghanistan. For Washington, the only ‘advantage’ the CIA might bring over the military would be secrecy and lack of accountability, says AAN’s Kate Clark, as she looks at what an expansion of CIA operations might mean for Afghanistan.The CIA, keen to ‘hunt' and kill Taleban, is reported to be about to start flying armed drones, such as MQ‐9 Reapers, for the first time in Afghanistan. Credit: US Air National Guard photo/Senior Airman Michael Quiboloy 2014.
The New York Times has given a detailed, well-sourced – and rather gushing – account of the CIA’s planned expansion of its operations in Afghanistan. Deploying dehumanising language with apparent relish, the paper describes the CIA using Afghan militias to ‘hunt’ (the word is used five times in the piece) and kill Taleban. The newspaper reports CIA director Mike Pompeo as saying, “We can’t perform our mission if we’re not aggressive…This is unforgiving, relentless. You pick the word. Every minute, we have to be focused on crushing our enemies.” The paper details two tactics the CIA is keen to pursue:
- Counterterrorism pursuit teams or CTPTs. The CIA is reported to be currently running these teams to “hunt and kill Taliban militants across the country” and “hunt[ing] Taleban bomb makers including using night raids.” The teams, the paper says, “are managed by CIA paramilitary officers from the agency’s Special Activities Division and operatives from the National Directorate of Security [NDS] and include elite American troops from the Joint Special Operations Command and contractors. The majority of the forces, however, are Afghan militiamen.”
- Flying drones in offensive operations inside Afghanistan. Up till now, the CIA has only flown drones from Afghanistan across the border to strike targets in the Pakistani tribal areas. However, according to The New York Times, the CIA has been pushing for authorisation to fly drones inside Afghanistan and is now “poised” to do this.
The CIA’s use of militias
Afghan militias, operating outside an Afghan government chain of command, have been used by international forces, especially US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the CIA since 2001. It has often been debatable who was running whom. Militias set up by or fighting alongside international forces (often called ‘campaign forces’) have frequently used their alliance to pursue personal or factional goals – including targeting rivals and carrying out crime – as well as often gaining a fierce reputation for fighting Taleban. (For more detail on militias, see here). Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CTPTs) were examples of this type of militia. The name was first used publicly by Bob Woodward in his 2010 book “Obama’s Wars”. He described them as:
… 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.
According to Kimberly Dozier, Associated Press’ intelligence correspondent 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.” They have also been involved in night raids and detentions. In 2009, Dozier said, they had been the subject of a turf war between US Special Operations Forces and CIA over who would control them; the CIA won. (Other US newspaper reports on the teams can be read here and here.)
The CTPTs tended to follow the pattern of being aggressive enemies of the Taleban and perpetrators of crimes and egregious human rights abuses against civilians and detainees. Their close working relationship with US forces meant they were able to operate with virtual impunity from the Afghan justice system, as can be seen by looking at some of the individual units.
Khost Protection Force
The Khost Protection Force, reportedly still active and still under CIA control, emerged out of a militia which was notionally the 25th Division in the Afghan Military Forces – the latter term was used to describe the various militia and factional forces from the Northern Alliance and those loyal to pro-US Pashtun commanders which came under Ministry of Defence control in 2001/02 and were funded by the US before the creation of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The 25th Division had a high proportion of former members of the PDPA army. It was spared Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) because of its good links to the US military.
Allegations against the Khost Protection Force are long-standing. These include extrajudicial killing, torture and beating of civilians, sometimes in the presence of US advisers (see here and here)and unlawful detentions. In 2014, UNAMA found that five detainees who had been arrested by the Khost Protection Force together with international military forces and detained at the US Camp Chapman base in Khost were subjected to ill-treatment by the force. In December 2015, US newspaper reporting alleged that six civilians had been killed during Khost Protection Force-led raids on homes in the province in the presence of American advisers and that the group was still unlawfully detaining and abusing detainees, UNAMA’s 2016 mid-year report cited particular concerns about the number of civilian casualties caused by the Khost Protection Force and called for its integration into regular ANSF chains of command and accountability.
Afghan Security Guards
This Counterterrorism Pursuit Team operated in Paktika province and was commanded by Commander Azizullah, an ethnic Tajik in an overwhelmingly Pashtun province. An investigation by reporter Jules Cavendish described the Afghan Security Guards as existing to “protect Firebase Lilley, a remote outpost in eastern Paktika province that doubles as a listening post for the CIA and a training hub for some of the agency’s 3,000 private troops (known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams).” The Afghan Security Guards’ main job though, he said, was “killing Taleban.”
Cavendish and later Human Rights Watch, both with access to two internal United Nations reports, detailed at least nine well-documented and established incidents perpetrated by the Afghan Security Guards from 2008 to early 2010 including extrajudicial killing of civilians, possible examples of collective punishment or retaliatory killing, summary execution of detainees in custody, detaining young boys and reportedly sexually abusing them and frequent thefts and beatings during night raids. (1) No disciplinary or criminal measures were ever reported as having been taken against Azizullah or the forces under his command. Indeed, in 2011, the Afghan Security Guards was folded into the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and Azizullah was appointed chief of the provincial ALP. This means that his forces are probably largely intact and in situ.
Kandahar Strike Force (KSF)
The KSF operated out of the old house in Kandahar of former Taleban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, re-named Camp Gecko. Its chain of command appeared to be an informal arrangement, by-passing the ministries of interior and defence, and answering to the US SOF and/or CIA, as well as to Ahmad Wali Karzai, the late brother of former president Karzai. Jules Cavendish, again at the forefront of investigations (see here and here), described how KSF recruits were cherry-picked from regular Afghan army units and trained by US SOF at Camp Gecko:
‘Foreign military advisers at the camp taught hand-to-hand combat and put new recruits through ambush training, as well as teaching them English, said [former leader Atal] Afghanzai. Everyone, he said, from the cook to the Special Forces advisers, was ‘working for OGA somehow’: an acronym standing for ‘other government agencies’ and generally used to refer to the CIA. ‘We had day raids, night raids. Any time we received intel from the NDS [Afghanistan’s security service] that there were 10, 20, 50 insurgents gathering in a house or a garden, we’d launch an op.’
The 400-strong group fought well, but according also to The Wall Street Journal and reports on the torture of security detainees by the Open Societies Foundation and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and UNAMA, it was abusive. Allegations included extrajudicial killings, unlawful detentions and extreme beatings and brutality during night raids and severe beatings amounting to torture at Camp Gecko.
The group’s de facto impunity for alleged crime and abuses partly ended when forty KSF soldiers stormed Kandahar police station in 2009 and killed the provincial police chief, Matiullah Qahteh, apparently in revenge for a murdered KSF fighter. KSF leader, Atal Afghanzai and 38 others were convicted of this murder, a rare example, reported Cavendish, of “the Afghan judiciary coming down on a US bankrolled mercenary – and likely only happened because Afghanzai and his men killed a well-connected Afghan police commander in broad daylight.” There has been little reporting on the KSF since 2013 when public pressure, in particular the detention and abuse of a student, may have forced the group to disband.
The NDS 0-4 Team, Kunar
In 2013, there were two disastrous raids in the Shigal Valley in Kunar which brought to light the existence of the ‘0-4 unit’, a 1200-strong force that was nominally NDS. However, then Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizy told The Guardian the force was actually a CIA proxy: “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.” During two raids in Shigal on 7 February and 13 April 2013 when seven or eight CIA paramilitaries accompanied about 75 men from the unit, the CIA called in air strikes which killed nine and 17 civilians, respectively. There were indications that those on the ground knew when they requested the second strike that there were civilians in the house they were targeting, but called it in anyway (potentially in breach of the Laws of War); it followed the killing of a CIA agent by insurgents. (Read AAN analysis here).
In the wake of the strikes in Kunar, the National Security Council ordered the disbandment of all militias run by international forces. President Karzai had already banned such groups in February 2013. (2)
Militias currently operating
Earlier this year, AAN and GPPi wrote that, out of the various CTP teams, only the Khost Protection Force appeared still to be active – and to be still under CIA command and linked to Camp Chapman. The Afghan Security Guards in Paktika had been rolled into the ALP programme and the Kandahar Strike Force appeared to have been disbanded. Yet, the recent piece by The New York Times refers to the CTPTs in the present tense and says that, after the withdrawal of most international forces in 2014, they “continued to conduct missions in Afghan cities and in the surrounding countryside, and with greater autonomy.” Some more detail from the newspaper as to who they are referring to would be useful here. The Times says the units are “managed” by CIA and NDS operatives, but the experience of NDS 0-4 highlights the possibility that Afghan oversight can be in name only. It also said contractors are part of the teams.
Some digging has produced a few other possible examples of CTPTs currently operating. NDS 0-4, we were told, now consisting of 250 men trained by US Special Forces appears still to be active, and working with (for?) the CIA still, with a zone of responsibility extending into southern Nuristan. NDS’s 0-2 brigade in Nangrahar would be another possible unit worth looking into. In a recent incident, a night raid reportedly with international air support in Mohmand Dara district on a house occupied by people displaced by the conflict in Achin, ended with what relatives said were seven dead civilians. Voice of America journalist, Zabihullah Ghazi, named the 0-4 unit as involved, although the 0-2 unit would seem more likely given the location. Relatives and neighbours brought the dead bodies to Mohmand Dara district headquarters in protest and blocked the Jalalabad to Torkham highway on 24 October 2017.
Finally, it seems possible that some of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief Abdul Razeq’s forces in Kandahar are formally designated as CTPTs to allow for operations on the other side of the border. Razeq has been reported to run limited campaigns into Pakistan – mostly for assassinations.
The problems with militia forces
Militia forces have a long and troubled history in Afghanistan. Unless reigned in by tight command and control, they tend to be abusive. Militias that answer to foreign powers and lie outside Afghan state control have had a particularly poor record since 2001. Those giving the orders on the US side have tended to have very short-term, narrow goals. The definition of ‘security’ for local Afghans and the Afghan state, for example, is likely to be much broader than just killing Taleban and would include a desire not to be exposed to abusive militias or see state sovereignty eroded by them. The Karzai administration was mistrustful of such militias because they undermined state power, with some limited exceptions, such as the Kandahar Strike Force, which answered not only to the US SOF and CIA, but to the president’s brother, Ahmad Wali (himself named as a CIA proxy). For the US military or CIA, a militia’s raison d’être would be killing Taleban, while the abuse of civilians might be an unpleasant, but unavoidable side effect. This view was put into words by a Green Beret captain, known as Matt, speaking to Jules Cavendish in 2011 as he tried to justify why they worked with militias whose behaviour “insults Western sensibilities [sic].”
“There are no good guys by our standards. There is no standard to begin with. There is no justice system or rule of law to hold people accountable,” Matt says. “The Taliban are not horribly bad and the Afghan farmer is not an innocent victim.”
In this moral twilight, refusing to work with paramilitaries accused of rights abuses accomplishes nothing, he argues. Instead, as relationships develop, so do the possibilities for altering the “moral calculus” of the Afghan fighters.
“I don’t like this reality,” says Matt. “But I do not have the power to make Afghans conduct themselves like Americans in matters of politics and warfare. I can only influence it over time.” The alternative is to “go home now.”
Abuses can also, of course, drive rebellion. This was the conclusion of the leaked UNAMA report about Azizullah’s offenses against the population in Paktika. (3)
CIA drones and secrecy in conflict
The other obvious problem with the CIA running militias or flying drones is the secrecy the agency operates under. Different US legislation governs the CIA and the military. The CIA, as opposed to the military, has extensive license to run secret programmes and the government is legally restricted from providing information about them. Up till now, only the US military has flown drones in Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, the CIA is now about to start doing so. As AAN reported in 2016, this issue is not straightforward:
There have been reports of ‘turf fighting’ between the Pentagon and CIA over who should control the programme, but mainly reports of a high degree of operational cooperation, for example in kill/capture operations in Yemen, Iraq and cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and of air force pilots flying drones on behalf of the CIA. Last year , a general shift from the CIA to JSOC [the US military Joint Special Operations Forces Command] carrying out drone strikes was reported.
Robert Chesney of the US law and national security website, Lawfare, has said that “in terms of practicalities…the operations themselves may still be hybrid, involving both military and CIA surveillance and intelligence.” Who issues the final order may not be so important, he thinks.
However, there are concerns about the CIA’s lack of accountability and transparency in Afghanistan, at least (for discussion, see here and here and here). For Washington, the only benefit the CIA might have over the military in flying drones would be the extra secrecy. This was important, for example, in the drone strikes carried out in neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas; the CIA was chosen to fly drones from Afghanistan into Pakistan, it seems, because the agency’s secrecy allowed Islamabad to pretend that it was hostile to American attacks on its territory. However, the US is fighting a ‘declared war’ in Afghanistan (in US terms, it is an “area of active hostilities”) which means, for example, that air sorties and munitions dropped are reported.
The US military has certainly become less transparent about its operations in Afghanistan since pre-2014, but it is still far more accountable to Afghan policy makers, MPs and official watchdogs than the CIA, and the media and NGOs can, at least, contact it. Moreover, it is the CIA’s secrecy, whether it comes to authorising drone strikes or running proxy militias, that makes it dangerous.
We do not know whether agency operatives get training in the Laws of Armed Conflict – unlike the military which publishes its training and legal manuals – or whether agents are disciplined for breaching them. We do not know what the CIA tells its proxies they can or cannot do. Unlike the foreign military and Afghan intelligence, police, army and detention centres, as far as we know, the CIA does not open its doors to the official watchdogs, such as UNAMA’s human rights team, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the AIHRC. Nor does it engage in dialogue on issues such as whether it adheres to the Geneva Conventions when it conducts hostilities. An official from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) told AAN, it does not and cannot scrutinise US funding of the NDS because the funding comes from the CIA. The only monitoring of the agency is in the United States and is domestic, through the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
Philip Alston, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, writing in 2011 about the CIA’s use of lethal force when carrying out targeted killings by drone or in ‘kill/capture’ missions, has said the agency is effectively unaccountable:
Assertions by Obama administration officials, as well as by many scholars, that these operations comply with international standards are undermined by the total absence of any forms of credible transparency or verifiable accountability. The CIA’s internal control mechanisms, including its Inspector-General, have had no discernible impact; executive control mechanisms have either not been activated at all or have ignored the issue; congressional oversight has given a ‘free pass’ to the CIA in this area; judicial review has been effectively precluded; and external oversight has been reduced to media coverage which is all too often dependent on information leaked by the CIA itself. As a result, there is no meaningful domestic accountability for a burgeoning program of international killing.
The CIA’s secrecy and lack of accountability makes abuses and breaches of the Laws of War more likely to happen. At the same time, the lack of accountability means the United States, in Alston’s words, “cannot possibly satisfy its obligations under international law to ensure accountability for its use of lethal force, either under [International Human Rights Law] or [International Humanitarian Law – the Laws of War].” Significant also is that, looking at the CIA’s record over many decades of operating in Afghanistan, it has shown itself to be consistently short-termist and ready to accept or even embrace abuse for the ‘greater good’. (4)
The CIA’s role in the context of Washington’s military strategy
The New York Times reported Pompeo saying that President Trump had “authorized the agency to ‘take risks’ in its efforts to combat insurgents ‘as long as they made sense,’ with an overall goal ‘to make the C.I.A. faster and more aggressive.’” The belligerent posturing of the CIA director appears to be part of a wider US narrative, with the tone set by Trump when he announced his Afghan military strategy on 21 August 2017 as “killing terrorists… not nation-building [sic].” General John Nicholson, commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, has since promised that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” and “this is the beginning of the end for the Taliban.” (5) For all the bold words of the US, though, even Trump does not claim that ‘victory’ involves defeating the Taleban:
“Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” (emphasis added)
Trump acknowledged that “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country” and that, “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” The New York Times also reported in its piece on CIA militias that there is a “tacit acknowledgment that to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table — a key component of Mr. Trump’s strategy for the country — the United States will need to aggressively fight the insurgents.”
Afghanistan has been here before. During the surge (2009-12) when President Obama raised US troop levels to more than 100,000, the US military believed it could solve the country’s insurgency by killing Taleban. A great deal of energy, creativity, thought, money and lives went into that fighting. Efforts to find a negotiated end to the conflict were, by contrast, meagre, despite then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton casting US strategy as “fight, talk, build” (in 2009, she had accepted that some Taleban could be talked to. In 2011, security correspondent for The Wire, Spencer Ackerman reported, “Obama’s generals promised that it would whup the Taliban into suing for peace,” but all the surge did was “rescue Afghanistan from the brink of total failure.”
Since then, the Taleban adapted and, in the lead up to the withdrawal of most international forces, themselves ‘surged’ and have steadily taken territory and threatened population centres since then, taking (and losing) Kunduz city in 2015 and 2016 and almost taking Lashkargah in Helmand, Tirin Kot in Uruzgan and Farah city in 2016. The US in support of the ANSF may be able to push the Taleban back again (see analysis here), but virtually no-one expects a military victory by either side. Despite that, as of yet, there has still been no significant attempt to, as Trump put it, begin a “political process to achieve a lasting peace.” Rather, as the American intervention in Afghanistan enters its seventeenth year, the CIA like the US military is, as reported by The New York Times, preparing to intensify its efforts:
One senior American official acknowledged that the scope of the new directive would require more manpower, and that it would take time to build up the number of officers and teams to carry out those missions in Afghanistan. But the official insisted that the agency was committed to using its new authority to ramp up its strikes in parallel with increased military air and ground operations.
This reader is left with a strong sense of déjà vu, not just with America’s strategy and rhetoric, but with the prospect of the CIA once again trying out the failed tactics of the past.
(1) The leaked UNAMA southeast region report, as reported by Human Rights Watch, included to particularly horrific accounts of extrajudicial killings, one clearly against civilians and the other appearing to be a form of retaliatory or collective punishment. Nine civilians, including three children (six to ten years old) were reportedly killed in early 2009 in Barmal district. Then, later that year, in September/October 2009, UNAMA documented a retaliatory raid, led by Azizullah, against a village in Barmal where there was a clash between the Afghan Security Guards and insurgents. During the raid, forces shot and killed three men working in nearby farm areas (for no apparent reason) and “then strapped [the] bodies [of the three men] to the hood of vehicles and drove through Margha Mandi bazaar, announcing that they were terrorists. The bodies were kept for eight days until they started to decompose, at which point they were returned to their families.”
(2) Later in 2013, there was a new scandal when it was revealed that 17 detainees had been killed, possibly after torture, between 2012 and 2013 in Nerkh in Wardak province (see reports (here and here). The perpetrators were either militiamen affiliated with or direct auxiliaries of US Special Operations Forces, or members of the SOF themselves (see also AAN analysis). One translator was charged and sentenced. After repeated denials of wrong-doing, on 17 July 2013, the US military said it was launching a criminal investigation after the UN and ICRC had supplied it with fresh evidence. It has yet to release its findings.
(3) Human Rights Watch quoted the 2010 report as saying:
We see significant indications that the unintended consequences of employing someone like Commander Azizullah may be the growing hostility of large parts of the population due to his behavior towards the local people both on and off duty.
(4) As AAN wrote in 2013:
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 jihad 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 jihadist 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, ‘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. 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).
For more details about the impact of CIA detentions and torture on Afghans and Afghanistan, including how the abuse helped fuel the Taleban insurgency, see here.
(5) Trump has lifted some restrictions on the US military on the ground and in the air, with one result being a sharp rise in air strikes, following earlier steady increases, as targeting conditions were loosened. Civilian casualties have also risen. See details and AAN analysis here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020