A Newly Assertive C.I.A. Expands Taliban Hunt in Afghanistan: NYT

 
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WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (TNS): The C.I.A. 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 American officials, the latest sign of the agency’s increasingly integral role in President Trump’s counterterrorism strategy, The New York Times reported on Monday.

The assignment marks a shift for the C.I.A. in the country, where it had primarily been focused on defeating Al Qaeda and helping the Afghan intelligence service. The C.I.A. 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 C.I.A.’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 C.I.A. assets.

The expansion reflects the C.I.A.’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,” Mr. 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 C.I.A. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

The C.I.A.’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.

The new effort will be led by small units known as counterterrorism pursuit teams. They are managed by C.I.A. paramilitary officers from the agency’s Special Activities Division and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence arm, and include elite American troops from the Joint Special Operations Command. The majority of the forces, however, are Afghan militia members.

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.

“The American people don’t mind if there are C.I.A. 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.”

One senior American 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.