The shadow war in Afghanistan
By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse
It was a Christmas and a New Year from hell for American intelligence, that
US$75 billion labyrinth of at least 16 major agencies and a handful of minor
ones. As the old year was preparing to be rung out, so were the US's
intelligence agencies, which managed not to connect every obvious clue to a
(literally) seat-of-the-pants al-Qaeda operation. It hardly mattered that the
underwear bomber's case - except for the placement of the bomb
material - almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and
equally inept, "shoe bomber" plot of eight years ago.
That would have been bad enough, but the New Year brought worse. Army Major
General Michael Flynn, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report
in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone - but by implication
US intelligence operatives generally - as "clueless". They were, he wrote,
"ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers
are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best
position to find answers ... Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the US
intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."
As if to prove the general's point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a
Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi
websites and an "unproven asset" for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),
somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched,
supposedly with information on al-Qaeda's leadership so crucial that a
high-level CIA team was assembled to hear it and Washington was alerted.
He proved to be either a double or a triple agent and killed seven CIA
operatives, one of whom was the base chief, by detonating a suicide vest bomb,
while wounding yet more, including the agency's number-two operative in the
country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he
blew a hole in the CIA's relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on
al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: "Taliban bomber
wrecks CIA's shadowy war", "Killings Rock Afghan Strategy", "Suicide bomber who
attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordan". It seemed to sum up the
hapless nature of America's intelligence operations, as the CIA, with all the
latest technology and every imaginable resource on hand, including the latest
in Hellfire missile-armed drone aircraft, was out-thought and out-maneuvered by
No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort
weren't well covered. There were major TV reports night after night and scores
of news stories, many given front-page treatment. And yet lurking behind those
deaths and the man who caused them lay a bigger American war story that went
largely untold. It was a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American
public knows remarkably little about, and which bears little relationship to
the Afghan war as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.
We don't even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a
battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives,
hired-gun contractors doing military duty, and privatized "native" guard
forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style
night-time "intelligence" raids, "surges" you didn't know were happening,
strings of military bases you had no idea were out there, and secretive
international collaborations you were unaware the US was involved in. In
Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There's also a
polyglot "army" representing the US that wears no uniforms and fights
shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple
assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.
Black ops and black sites
Secrecy is 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 the US's case, wartime never ends, while
secrecy becomes endemic, as well as profitable and privitizable, and much of
the information available to both sides on the US's 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
kilometers 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 US 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
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 US 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
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 at that fateful meeting with the
Jordanian doctor Balawi - Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a captain in the Jordanian
intelligence service, the eighth person killed in the blast. It turns out that
Balawi was an agent of the 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 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 Sirajuddin and
Jalaluddin 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 the
US's 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 a 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
15-20 agency operatives (which means that 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 Barack 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% 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 agency history.
This, in turn, implies other surges. There will be a surge in base-building to
house those agents, and a surge in "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.
The efforts of the CIA operatives at 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 the North Waziristan tribal area 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 Obama entered office; 44 to 50 (or more) have been launched
in the past 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/al-Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using
Since the devastating explosion at 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. Balawi's suicide
attack essentially took out a major part of the agency's targeting information
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
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 ops 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" counter-insurgency strategy.
The militarization of the agency
As the identities of some of the fallen CIA operatives at 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-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, American author and professor 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, George W 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
back seat 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 about 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). 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 "counter-insurgency" as much as you want, but this is another kind
of battlefield, and "protecting the people" plays no part in it. And 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.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a
2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson
Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is
currently a fellow at New York University's Center for the United States and
the Cold War. He is the author of
The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives(Metropolitan
Books). His website is NickTurse.com.