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The Shadow War | The Nation

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The Shadow War

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About the Author

Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at The Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award...
Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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Black Ops and Black Sites

 

Secrecy is, of course, a part of war. The surprise attack is only a surprise if secrecy is maintained. In wartime, crucial information must be kept from an enemy capable of using it. But what if, as in our case, wartime never ends, while secrecy becomes endemic, as well as profitable and privitizable, and much of the information available to both sides on our shadowy new battlefield is mainly being kept from the American people? The coverage of the suicide attack on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman offered a rare, very partial window into that strange war--but only if you were willing to read piles of news reports looking for tiny bits of information that could be pieced together.

We did just that and here's what we found:

Let's start with FOB Chapman, where the suicide bombing took place. An old Soviet base near the Pakistani border, it was renamed after a Green Beret who fought beside CIA agents and was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It sits in isolation near the town of Khost, just miles from the larger Camp Salerno, a forward operating base used mainly by US Special Operations troops. Occupied by the CIA since 2001, Chapman is regularly described as "small" or "tiny" and, in one report, as having "a forbidding network of barriers, barbed wire and watchtowers." Though a State Department provisional reconstruction team has been stationed there (as well as personnel from the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture), and though it "was officially a camp for civilians involved in reconstruction," FOB Chapman is "well-known locally as a CIA base"--an "open secret," as another report put it.

The base is guarded by Afghan irregulars, sometimes referred to in news reports as "Afghan contractors," about whom we know next to nothing. ("CIA officials on Thursday would not discuss what guard service they had at the base.") Despite the recent suicide bombing, according to Julian Barnes and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, a "program to hire Afghans to guard U.S. forward operating bases would not be canceled. Under that program, which is beginning in eastern Afghanistan, Afghans will guard towers, patrol perimeter fences and man checkpoints." Also on FOB Chapman were employees of the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater) which has had a close relationship with the CIA in Afghanistan. We know this because of reports that two of the dead "CIA" agents were Xe operatives.

Someone else of interest was at FOB Chapman and so at that fateful meeting with the Jordanian doctor al-Balawi--Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, the eighth person killed in the blast. It turns out that al-Balawi was an agent of Jordanian intelligence, which held (and abused) torture suspects kidnapped and disappeared by the CIA in the years of George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror." The service reportedly continues to work closely with the agency and the captain was evidently running al-Balawi. That's what we now know about the polyglot group at FOB Chapman on the front lines of the agency's black-ops war against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the allied fighters of the Haqqani network in nearby Pakistan. If there were other participants, they weren't among the bodies.

 

The Agency Surges

 

And here's something that's far clearer in the wake of the bombing: among our vast network of bases in Afghanistan, the CIA has its own designated bases--as, by the way, do US Special Operations forces, and according to Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill, even private contractor Xe. Without better reporting on the subject, it's hard to get a picture of these bases, but Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal tells us that a typical CIA base houses no more than fifteen to twenty agency operatives (which means that al-Balawi's explosion killed or wounded more than half of the team on FOB Chapman).

And don't imagine that we're only talking about a base or two. In the single most substantive post-blast report on the CIA, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times wrote that the agency has "an archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern Afghanistan," most built in the last year. An archipelago? Imagine that. And it's also reported that even more of them are in the works.

With this goes another bit of information that the Wall Street Journal seems to have been the first to drop into its reports. While you've heard about President Obama's surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you've undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal's reporters tell us that agency personnel will increase by 20-25 percent in the surge months. By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries, and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest "stations" in the agency's history.

This, in turn, implies other surges. There will be a surge in base-building to house those agents, and a surgein "native" guards--at least until another suicide bomber hits a base thanks to Taliban supporters among them or one of them turns a weapon on the occupants of a base--and undoubtedly a surge in Blackwater-style mercenaries as well. Keep in mind that the latest figure on private contractors suggests that 56,000 more of them will surge into Afghanistan in the next 18 months, far more than surging US troops, State Department employees, and CIA operatives combined. And don't forget the thousands of non-CIA "uniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the country," who will undoubtedly surge as well.

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