The CIA is pushing for expanded powers to carry out covert drone strikes in Afghanistan and other active war zones, a proposal that the White House appears to favour despite the misgivings of some at the Pentagon, according to current and former intelligence and military officials.
If approved by President Donald Trump, it would mark the first time the CIA has had such powers in Afghanistan, expanding beyond its existing authority to carry out covert strikes against Al Qaida and other terrorist targets across the border in Pakistan.
The changes are being weighed as part of a broader push inside the Trump White House to loosen Obama-era restraints on how the CIA and the military fight Islamist militants around the world.
The Obama administration imposed the restrictions in part to limit civilian casualties, and the proposed shift has raised concerns among critics that the Trump administration would open the way for broader CIA strikes in such countries as Libya, Somalia and Yemen, where the United States is fighting Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Al Qaida or both.
Until now, the Pentagon has had the lead role for conducting air strikes — with drones or other aircraft — against militants in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, such as Somalia and Libya and, to some extent, Yemen. The military publicly acknowledges its strikes, unlike the CIA, which for roughly a decade has carried out its own campaign of covert drone strikes in Pakistan that were not acknowledged by either country, a condition that Pakistan’s government has long insisted on.
But the CIA’s director, Mike Pompeo, has made a forceful case to Trump in recent weeks that the Obama-era arrangement needlessly limited the United States’ ability to conduct counterterrorism operations, according to the current and former officials, who would not be named discussing internal debates about sensitive information. He has publicly suggested that Trump favours granting the CIA greater authorities to go after militants, though he has been vague about specifics, nearly all of which are classified.
“When we’ve asked for more authorities, we’ve been given it. When we ask for more resources, we get it,” Pompeo said this week on Fox News.
He said that the agency was hunting “every day” for Al Qaida’s leaders, most of whom are believed to be sheltering in the remote mountains that straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“If I were them, I’d count my days,” Pompeo said.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has not resisted the CIA proposal, administration officials said, but other Pentagon officials question the expansion of CIA authorities in Afghanistan or elsewhere, asking what the agency can do that the military cannot. Some Pentagon officials also fear that US troops on the ground in Afghanistan could end up bearing the burden of any CIA strikes that accidentally kill civilians, because the agency will not publicly acknowledge those attacks. The military has also had to confront its own deadly mistakes in Afghanistan.
One senior Defence Department official said that the United States would gain little from having the CIA carry out drone strikes alongside the military, and that it raised the question of whether it was an appropriate use of covert action.
A former senior administration official familiar with Pompeo’s position said that he views a division of labour with the Defence Department as an abrogation of the CIA’s authorities.
Pompeo’s argument seems to be carrying the day with Trump, who has struck a bellicose tone in seeking to confront extremist groups in Afghanistan, including Al Qaida, Daesh and the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban.
In Trump’s speech last month outlining his policy for south Asia, including Afghanistan, the president promised that he would loosen restrictions on US soldiers to enable them to hunt down terrorists, whom he labelled “thugs and criminals and predators, and — that’s right — losers.”
“The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” the president said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”
Pompeo may have a potentially important ally: General John W. Nicholson Jr, the top commander in Afghanistan, who reportedly favours any approach to train more firepower on the array of foes of Afghan security forces and the 11,000 or so US troops advising and assisting them.
Trump has already authorised Mattis to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. Some 4,000 reinforcements will allow US officers to more closely advise Afghan brigades, train more Afghan Special Operations forces and call in American firepower.
Among the chief targets for the CIA in Afghanistan would be the Haqqani network, whose leader is now the No 2 in the Taliban and runs its military operations. The Haqqanis have been responsible for many of the deadliest attacks on Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in the war and are known for running a virtual factory in Pakistan that has steadily supplied suicide bombers since 2005.
Despite their objections, Defence Department officials say they are now somewhat resigned to the outcome and are working out arrangements with the CIA to ensure that US forces, including Special Operations advisers, are not accidentally targeted, officials said.
Beyond the military, critics see the proposal as another attempt to expand the CIA’s drone wars without answering long-standing questions about whether US spies should be running military-style operations in the shadows.
“One of the things we learnt early on in Afghanistan and Iraq was the importance of being as transparent as possible in discussing our military operations,” said Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“Why we took the specific action, who all was killed or injured in the operation, what we were going to do if we had inadvertently killed civilians or damaged property,” he continued. “I don’t know what the Trump administration is specifically considering in Afghanistan, but if their new plans for the war decrease any of that transparency, that would be a big strategic and moral mistake.”
“We broke the back of Al Qaida,” Pompeo said at a public appearance in July, referring to the drone campaign inside Pakistan that decimated the militant network’s leadership ranks.
“We took down their entire network,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to do again.”