Analysis Military

Fighting in the Shadows

On New Year’s Eve, the New York Times, after months of investigation, published a long, detailed article on the activities of CIA-sponsored Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CPTs) in Afghanistan. It was a disturbing read. The Times reporters had visited several of the compounds allegedly targeted by these forces just hours after they had been raided and documented what would appear to be summary executions, the shooting of women and children, torture of Afghans taken for questioning by these teams, and a complete lack of cooperation between these teams and Afghan security forces.

I started searching for other articles concerning the CIA in the Times, and found two from last year — one outlining how the “new assertive CIA is expanding its role in fighting the Taliban” and another concerning the funeral of two CIA members (I think they were contractors not blue badgers, but the story doesn’t say) who were killed last year in gunfights with ISIS-K just outside Jalalabad.

The lead article describes exactly what the legacy media, Hollywood, the UN, and political elites from both parties say will happen if the war in Afghanistan is turned over to contractors, as proposed in the Eric Prince Plan. The CIA militias operate outside the law, outside the military chain of command, remain unaccountable for the murder, mayhem, destruction, and thievery they commit. What’s worse, according to the victims interviewed by the NYT, these guys are accompanied by Americans who the Times claims are CIA officers (which I doubt) or contractors working for the CIA (much more likely).

There is ample historical evidence of the effectiveness of Private Military Contractors working with host national militaries. Executive Outcomes in Liberia is one, and STTEP in Nigeria is another. In both cases the PMCs were effective, while operating within the norms of international rules of law regarding land warfare. But facts don’t matter in this debate; the narrative rules and the narrative is built on the perception that PMCs are ruthless mercenaries.

Karl Eikenberry, who served as one of the seventeen Commanding Generals, and also as one of the twelve Ambassadors to Afghanistan during the past 17 years said, “The dilemma is this: The C.I.A. needs to fight its wars in the shadows.” Fighting in the shadows is fine, killing bad guys is a good thing; taking out enemy leadership is a classic way of undermining an opponent’s morale. In theory, that is. In practice, 17 years of night raids to take out Taliban leaders has resulted in a more powerful, determined Taliban.

An important point to stress about these stories is that the eye-witness accounts in the NYT’s piece should not be accepted at face value. Those people could be deliberately lying, or confused as to exactly what happened during the raid, or the raiders could have been using English, assuming the people on their targets do not understand the language. It is hard to believe that a CIA team would allow this kind of conduct (from the 1st NYT article linked above):

One of the most gruesome episodes examined by The Times was in Khogyani District, in Nangarhar Province. The forces handcuffed and hooded two brothers and, after a brief interrogation as their wives and children watched, both men were dragged away and executed in a corner of a bedroom that was then detonated over their heads, according to relatives and villagers who pulled the bodies out of the rubble.

What is also important to acknowledge is that the Afghan press identifies 02 Unit — the Nangarhar CPT described by the Times — as part of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). From the KHMMA Press article linked above:

The 201st Silab Corps of the Afghan Military in the East in a statement said the 02 Unit of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) based in Nangarhar province carried out airstrikes in Khogyani district, leaving at least 27 militants of the Red Unit of Taliban dead.

02 Unit running a snap checkpoint on the Jalalabad by-pass road in early 2009.

After taking the photograph above, the 02 Unit (named after the Tac Number on the side of their vehicles) stopped me to see who I was and why I was taking pictures. They weren’t too friendly, I am certain they were working for NDS (the Afghan secret police) at that time, and they spoke Dari. I greeted them in Pashto which seemed to anger them, so I greeted them in Dari adding that I was Qua Dhost (friendly forces), which was the way Soviet forces described themselves in internal propaganda back in the day. I then unleashed my tried and true secret weapon which was big smile. They did not smile back — which was the only time that line did not elicit smiles in return.

How a crew of Tajiks working for NDS morphed into Pashtuns working for the CIA is a mystery. The fact is I don’t believe it, and although the NYT has done some outstanding reporting from Afghanistan, they have also, over the years, floated stories I know are complete fabrications. The New York Times has a narrative and when servicing that narrative facts are optional.

I took apart this Dexter Filkins article about “the most dangerous road in the world” in this long rant at Free Range International back in 2010. Dexter was writing about the Kabul – Jalalabad highway, which was dangerous but not anything like he depicted on what I suspect is a trip he has never made. As an interesting aside, one of the reporters on the third article linked above, Matthew Rosenberg, made the drive from Jalalabad to Kabul with me once and must have known his colleague’s story was a ridiculous exaggeration.

The Jalalabad-Kabul road is not the safest highway but is not at all what was described by Filkins in the NYT’s
The biggest threat to civilian traffic on the Jalalabad-Kabul road was coming around a blind corner at speed and running into an American convoy. It’s a great way to get shot — which happened many times in Afghanistan.

While researching my last post on the Gandamak battlefield, I came across a New York Times article by William Dalrymple called The Ghosts of Gandamak, and that too had glaring, obvious, errors that make you wonder if Mr. Dalrymple wasn’t in the Gandamak Lodge bar dreaming it up. He contends Gandamak “backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border” which is false. Tora Bora is located in the Spin Ghar (White) mountains and Gandamak backs into the Tor Ghar (Black) range. Dalrymple also wrote:

As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry could be found lying in the screes above the village; even today, the hill is covered with bleached British bones.

That is absolute fantasy; The Treaty of Gandamak, which ended the first phase of the second Anglo Afghan War, was signed in Gandamak village on 26 May 1879. At that time, the British Army recovered all the remains they could find on Gandamak Hill and interred them in Jalalabad.

The third story linked above — about the deaths of two CIA men — clearly shows that the CIA (or their contractors) are getting involved in gunfights in the countryside outside of Jalalabad. The two men profiled in that article were Brian Hoke, a 42 y/o Naval Academy graduate and former SEAL, and Nathaniel Delemare, a 47 y/o former Marine reservist. Both had worked for the CIA’s Special Activities Division for over 10 years. Both were highly experienced in the dark arts of counterterrorism warfare, and although they may not have been shy about killing people, it is impossible to believe they would tolerate the behavior described in the quote above. Impossible not because it is clearly murder, but because it is clearly stupid.

Using internal security forces for night raids aimed at terrorizing the population into compliance with central government dictates is (in theory again) a proven technique that can work. The former East Germany is an old example, today’s North Korea a modern one. But the one precondition which is mandatory for regimes going down that road is that they control the narrative fed to their populations. We don’t control the narrative in Afghanistan and the incidents, as described and attributed to the CIA, run counter to our stated goals, our desired narrative, and the values we in the West hold dear.

One of the victims of these raids said this to the NYT:

What is the need for raiding me at night?” he said. “Send me a warrant. If I didn’t show up, then you can bring your tanks and fly your planes and destroy me.

That is exactly the point, driving from Jalalabad to the  Khogyani or Bati Kot districts is much safer in the daylight than at night. Trust me on this; I’ve done it hundreds of times. If the CIA had good targeting intelligence focused on a specific compound in one of those districts why not roll down there in daylight, surround the compound, and ask the occupants to come out so the compound can be searched and the men interviewed? If they don’t want to cooperate then ask them to send out the women and children before assaulting the compound.

If both offers are refused then you can enlist the help of local elders to bring the raid to a successful, non-kinetic, conclusion. If that doesn’t work then the raid force could conduct an assault with a degree of justification in the eyes of the local people. And that is the point, at this stage, of the Afghan war: controlling the narrative is more important than killing bad guys.

A book review of Ajit Maan’s Narrative Warfare by friend of the Freq Alex Hollings explains our deficiency in this domain well:

When a bad actor tells lies, America repeats those lies and counters them: “What they said isn’t true, here are the facts.” The problem with that approach is human psychology: by offering a response, America lends credence to the bad actor’s claims, broadening their message’s reach and ultimately, hindering our own counter-disinformation efforts. Instead, Maan argues that the United States and its allies need to establish our own narratives, explaining our actions in a way that not only justifies them, but that discredits the narratives being put forth by competitors. Instead of reacting to bad narratives, American needs to be creating good ones.

Here is an example of a narrative warfare fail from an old blog post on Free Range International:

Screen Shot 2019-01-08 at 10.44.12 AM

Humans do not respond well to “facts,” they prefer stories that form a narrative with which they can identify. If you are a democrat, you probably believe that the republicans are the party of the wealthy while your party represents the working class. That may have once been true, but the voting patterns in our recent national elections show it is not true now. The democrats are clearly the favored party of our coastal, media, and entertainment elites. But the traditional narrative of which party represents which constituency will never change. The narrative is stronger than fact because the politicians and their media allies are not seeking truth; they are seeking power. Just like the Taliban. To maintain that grip on power they have to control the narrative.

The ability of the United States to develop a strong narrative has long passed. The ability to use contractors in place of our military forces has also (in my opinion) passed. The one constructive move that we could make to shore up our preferred narrative, is to not tolerate the kind of operations that are described in the NYT’s articles. But the Afghan government contends they have no control over these units because they work for the CIA. The American generals running that war also claim they have no control over CIA-sponsored militias. Here is another quote from General Karl Eikenberry on that topic:

C.I.A.-sponsored forces which operated outside of the framework that governed those under sovereign control of the Afghan government raised concerns from the beginning.

According a recent article in the Washington Post, the Pentagon is drafting plans to remove thousands of our troops from Afghanistan. The total number remains unknown, as does the timetable. We do not know how many military men and women will remain, nor the modifications to the stated mission those troop cuts will drive. What we do know is the president is frustrated at the lack of results from the billions being spent in Afghanistan.

I am not a fan of the CIA — not because my one interaction with them in Afghanistan was negative, but because of their history of failure. The CIA spent decades training and sending South Vietnamese to infiltrate North Vietnam. Every one of those teams was compromised shortly after being inserted, but that never stopped the CIA from sending more. The same thing happened with the Old Soviet Union. The most informative book ever written on the CIA is The Human Factor; written under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones. The book is a devastating expose of a dysfunctional organization that has an extremely poor historical track record.

I know a few Marines who were “sheep dipped” to spend a tour working for the CIA. They are impressive, accomplished, dedicated warriors — as are many career CIA officers. I’m not knocking the men and women who serve (especially the NOCs — agents operating without diplomatic cover), but the facts are the facts. The CIA, as an organization, has consistently failed to do what it is supposed to do.

The very first group of war fighters to be pulled out of Afghanistan should be the CIA. The CIA may be doing productive things behind the scenes but that is now irrelevant because facts are irrelevant. Gaining control of the narrative is the only thing that matters now. With the CIA removed from the picture we could try to get control of the narrative. When rogue units like Unit 02 act in ways that are clearly violations of international norms, we can pressure the Afghans to get them in line or face the consequences in the form of reduced cash infusions to their corrupt central government. You’ll be amazed how fast problems like this are resolved if the actors involved think their golden goose is not going to lay anymore eggs.

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2 years ago

I’m always interested in these Afghanistan stories…although I don’t usually have any kind of articulate response. I just like learning, especially from different perspectives. This one was kinda fun. It was complex to follow–watching you dismantle the, mmm, elitist political narrative fed to Westerners while advocating the need to control the narrative fed to Afghans to defeat the Taliban. And defending the CIA from misconstrued facts while acknowledging that they have enough rope to hang their own selves without any help from the NYTimes. I’m honestly not in a position to be able to say this guy or that guy… Read more »

2 years ago

Great article! Thanks for your insight, Tim!

2 years ago

Tim, your point is only reinforced by how the CIA pulled out in 89 from Afghanistan, and allowed Pakistan to then impose their state interests on the volitle mix that remained after the Soviet’s left. The way the CIA let Pakistan and the Saudi’s dertermine who got what of CIA funds, and how marginally Ahmad Shah Massoud was treated by the CIA while Hektmatyar Gullbuddin was favored. I think back on how different things would be, if in 89 we had been more proactive, been more involved, and had less of the CIA trying to run the narrative via the… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  Baba Tim

I can’t help but think, with something like Jim Gant and what his team in Mangwel with the Mohmand’s achieved, applied from 89 forward along with true Political backing along with Commands support what could have been the reality by now. Of course, it all sounds good in hindsight, it might just be a pipe dream.

Susan B
2 years ago

Thanks, Tim, for your analysis of the propaganda situation that has been ongoing in Afghanistan. It’s definitely an interesting read and I look forward to more of your insights.

2 years ago

Thanks, Tim, for providing your perspective of Afghanistan. Controlling the narrative is key in any state. Look at the US and how cable news media has controlled and manipulated the narrative of current state of affairs in the US. I can’t imagine how this is in Afghanistan where you have a people who seem not to really trust anyone not in their tribe. Rightfully so. And then you have had continued meddling by “foreigners” in your world for as long as you can remember or anyone in your family can remember. I agree that there are likely many good folks… Read more »

Susan B
2 years ago
Reply to  JoniS


2 years ago

Fascinating article. It makes me think that the CIA should focues on relationships and leave the heavy fighting to our military, rather than the other way around. Lawless mercenaries rarely get good results.

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