No SOFA? Then Transition Death Squad Control from Special Operations to CIA

A little over a year ago, Greg Miller outlined what he said would be the CIA’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan in the near future.  It appears now that he was only half right:

The CIA is expected to maintain a large clandestine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan long after the departure of conventional U.S. troops as part of a plan by the Obama administration to rely on a combination of spies and Special Operations forces to protect U.S. interests in the two longtime war zones, U.S. officials said.


The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December has moved the CIA’s emphasis there toward more traditional espionage — monitoring developments in the increasingly antagonistic government, seeking to suppress al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country and countering the influence of Iran.

In Afghanistan, the CIA is expected to have a more aggressively operational role. U.S. officials said the agency’s paramilitary capabilities are seen as tools for keeping the Taliban off balance, protecting the government in Kabul and preserving access to Afghan airstrips that enable armed CIA drones to hunt al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.

Note that bit about the US withdrawing all of its troops from Iraq in December of 2011. The full withdrawal of course wasn’t what the US intended, but was a result of the botched negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement that would confer immunity to US troops who remained behind in Iraq after the official “withdrawal”. A significant portion of those troops that would have been left behind would have been Special Operations Forces to train and control counterinsurgency militia groups. We were reminded just last week that these groups in Iraq were responsible for so many atrocities that they became known as death squads. As I pointed out, Petraeus’ counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan was built in the same way.

We have a report today in the Wall Street Journal that shows Miller’s prediction of “espionage only” for the CIA’s role in Iraq was wrong, as militias formerly trained and run by Special Operations Forces are now under CIA control (h/t to Joanne Leon for tweeting me a link to this article):

In a series of secret decisions from 2011 to late 2012, the White House directed the CIA to provide support to Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service, or CTS, a force that reports directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, officials said.

The CIA has since ramped up its work with the CTS—taking control of a mission long run by the U.S. military, according to administration and defense officials. For years, U.S. special-operations forces worked with CTS against al Qaeda in Iraq. But the military’s role has dwindled since U.S. troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011.

In Afghanistan, it turns out that the CIA trained its own secret militia very soon after arriving there. Kimberly Dozier and Adam Goldman described the CIA’s Afghan militia back in 2010:

The CIA has trained and bankrolled a well-paid force of elite Afghan paramilitaries for nearly eight years to hunt al-Qaida and the Taliban for the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Modeled after U.S. special forces, the Counterterrorist Pursuit Team was set up in the months following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 to penetrate territory controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida and target militants for interrogations by CIA officials.

The 3,000-strong Afghan teams are used for surveillance and long-range reconnaissance missions and some have trained at CIA facilities in the United States. The force has operated in Kabul and some of Afghanistan’s most violence-wracked provinces including Kandahar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika, according to a security professional familiar with the program.

But of course, as with all the militia groups the US trains and sets into motion, they eventually moved to activities that provoked serious problems in the population. Dozier reported Sunday on the role of CIA-affiliated Afghan personnel in one of the many incidents that set Hamid Karzai into his rants over the weekend:

Karzai raised another difficult issue when he denounced the alleged seizure of a university student Saturday by Afghan forces his aide said were working for the CIA. It was unclear why the student was detained.

Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said in an interview with The Associated Press that the CIA freed the student after Karzai’s staff intervened, but that Karzai wants the alleged Afghan raiders arrested. The president issued a decree on Sunday banning all international forces and the Afghans working with them from entering universities and schools without Afghan government permission.

If, as I expect, Afghanistan also refuses to grant immunity to US forces remaining after the scheduled NATO withdrawal at the end of next year, look for all of the Special Operations trained militias (known in Afghanistan as the Afghan Local Police) to also come under CIA control along with the current force under CIA control. Who needs a SOFA with immunity for US troops when we have the CIA?

Postscript: Yes, I realize that in military academic-speak counterinsurgency and counterterrorism activities are viewed as separate functions. Given what we have seen, though, in terms of actual reported activities for various groups set up in Iraq and Afghanistan under one or the other name, I would say that they differ in name only and overlap virtually entirely in terms of what they really do.


8 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    Jim, that was pretty much my take on it too, except I didn’t get the replace Special Ops with CIA part. I thought that Special Ops would remain and wasn’t sure exactly what the CIA would be doing. I wrote a quick post this morning on it, connecting the ALP information that I’ve learned from you with the recent Guardian investigative piece, and some things about al Nusra. I’m really short on time today but wanted to get something out there. Really glad that you wrote about this so quickly.
    We’re back in Iraq

    I am kind of stunned that this news is coming out now, given the focus on the 10-year anniversay of Iraq invasion, and the huge Guardian articles/documentary recently released.

    Also, I’m sure that you saw the news about the attack on Special Ops and ALP in Wardak yesterday after Karzai’s deadline had passed.

  2. joanneleon says:

    Also, not that I believed it at the time, but this really makes the reports about how Brennan (pre confirmation) intended to rein in the CIA and return to more traditional human intelligence operations, stemming the move toward paramilitary operations, seem not to be very credible.

  3. Jim White says:

    @joanneleon: The issue of whether Special Ops folks are still in Iraq is an interesting one. I did a little digging this morning and couldn’t find anything. Since most of the stories leading up to the final withdrawal mentioned SOF as a large part of who would be remaining if we got immunity in the SOFA, it appears that the official explanation is that they left when the SOFA didn’t come through and we pulled everyone out. However, since there is the previously used trick of assigning SOF to CIA control now and then, we are left to wonder whether there are covert SOF still in Iraq “on loan” to CIA.

  4. joanneleon says:

    Okay, that makes sense. I am, at the moment, confused about the operations performed by SOF and CIA, and not sure whether ALP accounts for two different types of forces in Afghanistan, or if all of the elite paramilitary forces fall under the ALP euphemistic umbrella. I thought that SOF were training ALP. Didn’t know about the CIA trained forces. Again, could be a blurry line between both.

    After the withdrawal from Iraq, I remember some reporting about some particularly bad sectarian violence that led to the Iraqis asking us to send some forces back to Iraq. I never heard much about it after that. I suspect that some arrangement might have been made, and SOF returned. I wish I could find the link to that story. I’m trying to remember what triggered it. Was it the big prison break in Iraq? There was not much reporting after that. Is it possible that some kind of special exception clause could have been added to the SOFA?

    If I find that link, I’ll send it to you but I probably won’t have time to search for it until this afternoon. I do think it may have happened right after this happened:

    Al-Qaeda group takes credit for Iraq attacks
    Islamic State of Iraq claims responsibility for jail break in Tikrit, amid reports of twin bombing in Baghdad.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: He never promised to do that. He ALWAYS said CIA would have a paramilitary function (tho almost no one but me reported that–wishful reporting is a thing, you know). He did say he wants to be out of traditional military operations, but not paramilitary.

    And no, I don’t know where the border line is.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: Contractors, I bet.

    It’s the whole consent of govt thing, I think. If you have it, the military can be there. If not, send the spooks in.

  7. CTuttle says:

    Aloha, Jim great post…! Col. Lang posits that there will be no Afghani SOFA just like Iraq…!

    Here’s another of his rants…

    Afghanistan – “Everybody” who is anybody in the media or government prattles endlessly about “the progress we have already made in Afghanistan.” What the hell does that mean? We have made progress in killing off AQ people and their organization, but anyone who who thinks we have “made progress” in pacifying Afghanistan and making it a place unfriendly to jihadi Islam is either a delusional COINista or just lying to support BHO Administration policy. THERE IS NO “PROGRESS” IN counterinsurency in Afghanistan. Give it up! pl

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