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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 an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is...
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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Making War

 

The efforts of the CIA operatives at Forward Operating Base Chapman were reportedly focused on "collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks' top leaders," especially those in the Haqqani network in North Waziristan just across the Pakistani border. They were evidently running "informants" into Pakistan to find targets for the agency's ongoing drone assassination war. These drone attacks in Pakistan have themselves been on an unparalleled surge course ever since Barack Obama entered office; f0rty-four to fifty (or more) have been launched in the last year, with civilian casualties running into the hundreds. Like local Pashtuns, the agency essentially doesn't recognize a border. For them, the Afghan and Pakistani tribal borderlands are a single world.

In this way, as Paul Woodward of the website War in Context has pointed out, "Two groups of combatants, neither of whom wear uniforms, are slugging it out on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Each group has identified what it regards as high-value targets and each is using its own available means to hit these targets. The Taliban/Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using Hellfire missiles."

Since the devastating explosion at FOB Chapman, statements of vengeance have been coming out of CIA mouths--of a kind that, when offered, by the Taliban or Al Qaeda, we consider typical of a backward, "tribal" society. In any case, the secret war is evidently becoming a private and personal one. Dr. al-Balawi's suicide attack essentially took out a major part of the agency's targeting information system. As one unnamed NATO official told the New York Times, "These were not people who wrote things down in the computer or in notebooks. It was all in their heads.... [The CIA is] pulling in new people from all over the world, but how long will it take to rebuild the networks, to get up to speed? Lots of it is irrecoverable." And the agency was already generally known to be "desperately short of personnel who speak the language or are knowledgeable about the region." Nonetheless, drone attacks have suddenly escalated--at least five in the week since the suicide bombing, all evidently aimed at "an area believed to be a hideout for militants involved." These sound like vengeance attacks and are likely to be particularly counterproductive.

To sum up, US intelligence agents, having lost out to enemy "intelligence agents," even after being transformed into full-time assassins, are now locked in a mortal struggle with an enemy for whom assassination is also a crucial tactic, but whose operatives seem to have better informants and better information.

In this war, drones are not the agency's only weapon. The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door "night raids" in conjunction with Afghan paramilitary forces. Such raids, when launched by US Special Operations forces, have led to highly publicized and heavily protested civilian casualties. Sometimes, according to reports, the CIA actually conducts them in conjunction with Special Operations forces. In a recent American-led night raid in Kunar Province, eight young students were, according to Afghan sources, detained, handcuffed and executed. The leadership of this raid has been attributed, euphemistically, to "other government agencies" (OGAs) or "non-military Americans." These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, don't fit comfortably with the Obama administration's "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency strategy.

 

The Militarization of the Agency

 

As the identities of some of the fallen CIA operatives at FOB Chapman became known, a pattern began to emerge. There was 37-year-old Harold Brown Jr., who formerly served in the Army. There was Scott Roberson, a former Navy SEAL, who did several tours of duty in Iraq, where he provided protection to officials considered at high risk. There was Jeremy Wise, 35, an ex-Navy SEAL who left the military last year, signed up with Xe, and ended up working for the CIA. Similarly, 46-year-old Dane Paresi, a retired Special Forces master sergeant turned Xe hired gun, also died in the blast.

For years, Chalmers Johnson, himself a former CIA consultant, has referred to the agency as "the president's private army." Today, that moniker seems truer than ever. While the civilian CIA has always had a paramilitary component, known as the Special Activities Division, the unit was generally relatively small and dormant. Instead, military personnel like the Army's Special Forces or indigenous troops carried out the majority of the CIA's combat missions. After the 9/11 attacks, however, President Bush empowered the agency to hunt down, kidnap and assassinate suspected Al Qaeda operatives, and the CIA's traditional specialties of spycraft and intelligence analysis took a distinct backseat to Special Activities Division operations, as its agents set up a global gulag of ghost prisons, conducted interrogations-by-torture, and then added those missile-armed drone and assassination programs.

The military backgrounds of the fallen CIA operatives cast a light on the way the world of "intelligence" is increasingly muscling up and becoming militarized. This past summer, when a former CIA official suggested the agency might be backing away from risky programs, a current official spit back from the shadows: "If anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask Al Qaeda and the Taliban.... The agency's still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places." At around the same time, reports were emerging that Blackwater/Xe was providing security, arming drones and "perform[ing] some of the agency's most important assignments" at secret bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also emerged that the CIA had paid contractors from Blackwater to take part in a covert assassination program in Afghanistan.

Add this all together and you have the grim face of "intelligence" at war in 2010--a new micro-brew when it comes to Washington's conflicts. Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war "in the shadows" (as they used to say in the cold war era). This is no longer "intelligence" as anyone imagines it, nor is it "military" as military was once defined, not when US operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way. This is pure Lord of the Flies stuff--beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.

Talk about "counterinsurgency" as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and "protecting the people" plays no part in it. And of course, this is only what can be gleaned from afar about a semi-secret war that is being poorly reported. Who knows what it costs when you include the US hired guns, the Afghan contractors, the bases, the drones and the rest of the personnel and infrastructure? Nor do we know what else, or who else, is involved, and what else is being done. Clearly, however, all those billions of "intelligence" dollars are going into the blackest of black holes.

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