Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
‘Obama’s Wars’ and clandestine operations
Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars” is making waves for laying bare the policy divisions and the personality clashes within the administration over the U.S. President’s Afghan policy. The author, according to the excerpts published by the New York Times and the Washington Post ahead of the book’s release next week, exposes the colliding egos of senior political and military figures in even more stark detail than Rolling Stone‘s profile of General Stanley McChrystal that cost the U.S. commander his job.
But what may turn out to be even more explosive in the theatre where America’s longest war is being waged is the revelation that the CIA is running a 3,000-strong Afghan army to carry out clandestine operations in not just Afghanistan, but more importantly over the border in Pakistan. The idea that an Afghan army is fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants inside Pakistan is not something that Islamabad can tolerate easily. Or at least the public disclosure of it.
Firing missiles from unmanned U.S. drone aircraft patrolling over Pakistan’s northwest region at a rate that has far outstripped the Bush administration’s record is bad enough ; to now have a brigade-size paramilitary unit operating inside the country marks a significant expansion of the covert war that the Obama administration has waged there.
The Washington Post says Woodward characterizes this previously undisclosed Counter Terrorism Pursuit Teams as “elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.” The New York Times advancer of the book says the “covert army” captures and kills Taliban fighters and seeks support in tribal areas.
The CIA directs and funds the force.
U.S. officials didn’t just confirm the existence of the counter terrorism force, they bragged about it. “You’re talking about one of the finest Afghan fighting forces, which has made major contributions to security and stability,” CNN quoted an unnamed U.S official as saying in a report following the publication of the book excerpts.
According to Woodward’s book, by the end of a 2009 strategy review, Obama concluded that the task in Afghanistan could not succeed without wiping out al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens operating with impunity in the border tribal areas of Pakistan.
“We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” Obama is quoted as saying in the book, the Post said. But crossing into Pakistan was a red line for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan, so the CIA turned into its classic old strategy of setting up a lethal proxy unit. As Spencer Ackerman writes in the military blog Danger Room :
When it’s politically or militarily unfeasible to launch a direct U.S. operation, then it’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. can’t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistan’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 CIA’s payroll at the time.
The other risk of setting up such “kill teams” is to the operations in Afghanistan itself. The members of such teams are probably recruited from the private militias of warlords. But the U.S. army is itself trying to fight or at least limit the influence of the warlords. How does the CIA’s hit squad built up from these fighters square up with the U.S. military objectives in Afghanistan? And how does it work on the ground? Do these teams cooperate with U.S. forces also pursuing al Qaeda and Taliban fighters?