Let there be no doubt that the U.S. is at war in Pakistan. It’s not just the drone strikes. According to insider journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, the CIA manages a large and lethal band of Afghan fighters to infiltrate into Pakistan and attack al-Qaeda’s bases. What could possibly go wrong?
Woodward’s not-yet-available Obama’s Wars, excerpted today in the Washington Post and the New York Times, unveils a CIA initiative called the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, a posse of anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda locals who don’t respect the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The teams are practically brigade-sized: a “paramilitary army” of 3000 Afghans, said to be “elite, well-trained” and capable of quietly crossing over in the Pakistani extremist safe havens where U.S. troops aren’t allowed to operate. The CIA directs and funds the teams.
Administration officials didn’t just confirm the existence of the teams — they bragged about them. “This is one of the best Afghan fighting forces and it’s made major contributions to stability and security,” says one U.S. official who would only talk on condition of anonymity — and who wouldn’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, aren’t in Afghanistan anymore. The drones — flown by both the CIA and the U.S. military — 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 “snatch and grab” operations against al-Qaeda to private security firms like Blackwater.
But the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams follow a more traditional, decades-old CIA pattern. 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.
Then there are the risks that the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams pose within Afghanistan. CIA has to recruit those fighters from somewhere. While the agency wouldn’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 president’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, it’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 Woodward’s book apparently presents is President Obama’s inability to either bring the Afghanistan war to a close or find good options for tailoring it to the U.S.’ main enemies in Pakistan. When the CIA comes to the Oval Office with a plan for inflicting damage on the safe havens — no matter how fraught with risk and blowback the plan is — is it any surprise that Obama would approve it?
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