By Spencer Ackerman
Residents ride on a horse-drawn cart and bicycles in Kandahar City September 28, 2010.
REUTERS/Erik de Castro
Let there be no doubt that the US is at war in Pakistan. Itâ€™s not just the drone strikes. According to journalist Bob Woodwardâ€™s new book, the CIA manages a large and lethal band of Afghan fighters to infiltrate into Pakistan and attack al-Qaedaâ€™s bases. What could possibly go wrong?
Woodwardâ€™s not-yet-available Obamaâ€™s Wars, excerpted in the Washington Post and the New York Times, unveils a CIA initiative called Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, a posse of anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda locals who donâ€™t respect the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The teams are practically brigade-sized: a â€œparamilitary armyâ€ of 3000 Afghans, said to be â€œelite, well-trainedâ€ and capable of quietly crossing over in the Pakistani extremist safe havens where US troops arenâ€™t allowed to operate. CIA directs and funds the teams.
Administration officials didnâ€™t just confirm the existence of the teams â€” they bragged about them. â€œThis is one of the best Afghan fighting forces and itâ€™s made major contributions to stability and security,â€ says one U.S. official who would only talk on condition of anonymity â€” and who wouldnâ€™t elaborate.
The teams are an implicit concession of a paradox at the heart of the Afghanistan war: the enemies upon which the war is predicated, al-Qaeda and its top allies, arenâ€™t in Afghanistan anymore. The drones â€” flown by both the CIA and the U.S. military â€” are one answer to their safe havens in Pakistan. (Two more drone strikes hit Pakistani tribal areas on Tuesday, bringing the total this year to at least 71.) Another is to launch the occasional commando raid across the Afghan border or rely on Special Forces, operating under the guise of training the Pakistani military, to engage in some dangerous extracurricular activity. Still another is to outsource â€œsnatch and grabâ€ operations against al-Qaeda to private security firms like Blackwater.
But the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams follow a more traditional, decades-old CIA pattern. When itâ€™s politically or militarily unfeasible to launch a direct U.S. operation, then itâ€™s time to train, equip and fund some local proxy forces to do it for you. Welcome back to the anti-Soviet Afghanistan Mujahideen of the 1980s, or the Northern Alliance that helped the U.S. push the Taliban out of power in 2001.
But that same history also shows that the U.S. canâ€™t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistanâ€™s civil war in the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban. One of those CIA-sponsored fighters was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key U.S. adversary in Afghanistan. And during the 2001 push to Kabul, a Northern Alliance military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed hundreds and maybe even thousands of Taliban prisoners. He was on the CIAâ€™s payroll at the time.
Then there are the risks that the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams pose within Afghanistan. CIA has to recruit those fighters from somewhere. While the agency wouldnâ€™t answer questions about how where its proxy fighters come from, the CIA also pays for a Kandahar-based militia loyal to local powerbroker Ahmed Wali Karzai, the presidentâ€™s brother. Fearing that the entrenchment of such warlords will ultimately undermine the Afghan government, the U.S. military is trying to limit the influence of such warlords by changing its contracting rules. CIA may be less concerned.
After all, itâ€™s not like the U.S. has many options for Pakistan, where hatred for the U.S. runs high, official ties to extremists are deep and political restrictions on the presence of American combat troops (mostly) prove durable. One of the larger political narratives Woodwardâ€™s book apparently presents is President Obamaâ€™s inability to either bring the Afghanistan war to a close or find good options for tailoring it to the U.S.â€™ main enemies in Pakistan. When the CIA comes to the Oval Office with a plan for inflicting damage on the safe havens â€” no matter how fraught with risk and blowback the plan is â€” is it any surprise that Obama would approve it?
Update, 10:42 a.m., September 23: In comments, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the military attache in Islamabad, objects to my suggestion that U.S. Special Operations Forces are engaging in direct military action in Pakistan. I thought this merited inclusion in the body of the piece:
Mr. Ackermanâ€™s inferrence that U.S. Special Operations trainers in Pakistan are conducting anti-militant combat operations â€œoperating under the guise of training the Pakistani militaryâ€ is completely false. The U.S. military is conducting no combat operations in Pakistan. U.S. military trainers, personnel, and activities here in Pakistan are conducted at the invitation of the Government and military leadership of Pakistan. At their request, we provide training, equipment, and other forms of support to Pakistanâ€™s defense needs. Our SOF-related training and equipment programs are typically focused on supporting Pakistani Military counterinsurgency operations â€“ support which Pakistani Military officials have requested and which supports their energetic fight against Violent Extremists within Pakistan.