WASHINGTON — The CIA is expanding its covert operations in Afghanistan, sending small teams of highly experienced officers and contractors alongside Afghan forces to hunt and kill Taliban militants across the country, according to two senior U.S. officials, the latest sign of the agency’s increasingly integral role in President Donald Trump’s counterterrorism strategy.
The assignment marks a shift for the CIA in the country, where it had primarily been focused on defeating al-Qaida and helping the Afghan intelligence service. The CIA has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.
Former agency officials assert that the military, with its vast resources and manpower, is better suited to conducting large-scale counterinsurgencies. The CIA’s paramilitary division, which is taking on the assignment, numbers only in the hundreds and is deployed all over the world. In Afghanistan, the fight against the Islamic State has also diverted CIA assets.
The expansion reflects the CIA’s assertive role under its new director, Mike Pompeo, to combat insurgents around the world. The agency is already poised to broaden its program of covert drone strikes into Afghanistan; it had largely been centered on the tribal regions of Pakistan, with occasional strikes in Syria and Yemen.
“We can’t perform our mission if we’re not aggressive,” Pompeo said at a security conference this month at the University of Texas. “This is unforgiving, relentless. You pick the word. Every minute, we have to be focused on crushing our enemies.”
The CIA declined to comment on its expanded role in Afghanistan, which will put more lower-level Taliban militants in its cross hairs. But the mission is a tacit acknowledgment that to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table — a key component of Trump’s strategy for the country — the United States will need to aggressively fight the insurgents.
In outlining his security policies for Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia this summer, Trump vowed to loosen restrictions on hunting terrorists.
“The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” Trump said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”
The CIA’s expanded role will augment missions carried out by military units, meaning more of the United States’ combat role in Afghanistan will be hidden from public view. At the height of the conflict, U.S. Special Operations troops hunted Taliban bomb makers, including with night raids. Now, with Afghan commando forces and their Western partners focused primarily on retaking territory from the Taliban and the Islamic State, the agency’s teams will concentrate on hunting these types of threats, according to the officials.
The new effort will be led by small units known as counterterrorism pursuit teams. They are managed by CIA paramilitary officers from the agency’s Special Activities Division and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence arm, and include elite U.S. troops from the Joint Special Operations Command. The majority of the forces, however, are Afghan militia members.
For years, the primary job of the CIA’s paramilitary officers in the country has been training the Afghan militias. The CIA has also used members of these indigenous militias to develop informant networks and collect intelligence.
The U.S. commandos — part of the Pentagon’s Omega program, which lends Special Operations forces to the CIA — allow the Afghan militias to work together with conventional troops by calling in airstrikes and medical evacuations.
In the past, the counterterrorism pursuit teams have operated in Afghanistan’s southern provinces and near its mountainous border with Pakistan in the northeast, sometimes even undertaking raids to go after militants across the border. As the U.S. military drew down its presence in Afghanistan in 2014, the teams continued to conduct missions in Afghan cities and in the surrounding countryside, and with greater autonomy. The units have long had a wide run of the battlefield and have been accused of indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians in raids and with airstrikes.
“The American people don’t mind if there are CIA teams waging a covert war there,” said Ken Stiles, a former agency counterterrorism officer. “They mind if there’s 50,000 U.S. troops there.”
Taliban-made bombs have been a persistent problem for U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. Over 16 years of war, the Taliban, the affiliated Haqqani network and other militant groups have made roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, their weapon of choice. They serve as a relatively inexpensive and deadly counter to the United States’ overwhelming technological advantage in weaponry and surveillance.
The weapons have maimed thousands, including U.S. troops, Afghan soldiers and countless civilians. Of the roughly 5,700 attacks in the first three months of the year, more than 900 were from the crude weapons, according to a U.S. military report released this summer. In recent months, the Taliban have begun to lean more heavily on suicide vehicles packed with explosives, much as the Islamic State has in Iraq and Syria.
One senior U.S. official acknowledged that the scope of the new directive would require more manpower, and that it would take time to build up the number of officers and teams to carry out those missions in Afghanistan. But the official insisted that the agency was committed to using its new authority to ramp up its strikes in parallel with increased military air and ground operations.
Pompeo said in his remarks in Texas that Trump had authorized the agency to “take risks” in its efforts to combat insurgents “as long as they made sense,” with an overall goal “to make the CIA faster and more aggressive.”
Those risks can be deadly. Since 2001, at least 18 CIA personnel have died in Afghanistan, a figure nearly on par with those killed in Vietnam and Laos almost half a century ago. Seven of those killed in Afghanistan were part of the Special Activities Division, including three veteran officers who died last year in eastern Afghanistan.
In announcing that the CIA was dispatching more officers into the field, Pompeo said, “If we are not out pushing the envelope, the agency simply will not succeed.”
The change also comes amid an increase in violence in Afghanistan in recent months. Attacks on security forces and police, including at least three last week, have taken a heavy toll. A record number of civilians, 1,662, were killed in the first half of the year, and another 3,581 were wounded, according to the United Nations.
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