Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) sits beside a man who is believed to be Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, in this still image taken from video released January 9, 2010. A Pakistan television station showed on Saturday what it said was the suicide bomber double agent who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan sitting with the Pakistani Taliban leader, and reported he shared U.S. and Jordanian state secrets with militants.
REUTERS/Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan via Reuters TV
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 USâ€™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 bomberâ€™s case – except for the placement of the bomb material – almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and equally inept, â€œshoe bomberâ€ 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 â€œcluelessâ€. They were, he wrote, â€œignorant 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.â€
As if to prove the generalâ€™s point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi websites and an â€œunproven assetâ€ for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched, supposedly with information on al-Qaedaâ€™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 agencyâ€™s number-two operative in the country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he blew a hole in the CIAâ€™s relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: â€œTaliban bomber wrecks CIAâ€™s shadowy warâ€, â€œKillings Rock Afghan Strategyâ€, â€œSuicide bomber who attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordanâ€. It seemed to sum up the hapless nature of Americaâ€™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 low-tech enemies.
No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort werenâ€™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.
A man reads a copy of the dayâ€™s newspaper whose front page shows a photo of suspected suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in Amman January 9, 2010.
We donâ€™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 â€œnativeâ€ guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time â€œintelligenceâ€ raids, â€œsurgesâ€ you didnâ€™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. Thereâ€™s also a polyglot â€œarmyâ€ 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 USâ€™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 USâ€™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 hereâ€™s what we found:
Letâ€™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 â€œsmallâ€ or â€œtinyâ€ and, in one report, as having â€œa forbidding network of barriers, barbed wire and watchtowersâ€. 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 â€œwas officially a camp for civilians involved in reconstructionâ€, FOB Chapman is â€œwell-known locally as a CIA baseâ€ – an â€œopen secretâ€, as another report put it.
The base is guarded by Afghan irregulars, sometimes referred to in news reports as â€œAfghan contractorsâ€, about whom we know next to nothing. (â€œCIA officials on Thursday would not discuss what guard service they had at the base.â€) Despite the recent suicide bombing, according to Julian Barnes and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, a â€œprogram 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 checkpoints.â€
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 â€œCIAâ€ 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 Bushâ€™s â€œglobal war on terror.â€
The service reportedly continues to work closely with the agency and the captain was evidently running Balawi. Thatâ€™s what we now know about the polyglot group at FOB Chapman on the front lines of the agencyâ€™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 werenâ€™t among the bodies.
The agency surges
And hereâ€™s something thatâ€™s far clearer in the wake of the bombing: among the USâ€™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, itâ€™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 Balawiâ€™s explosion killed or wounded more than half of the team on FOB Chapman).
And donâ€™t imagine that weâ€™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 â€œan archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern Afghanistanâ€, most built in the last year. An archipelago? Imagine that. And itâ€™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 youâ€™ve heard about President Barack Obamaâ€™s surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, youâ€™ve undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journalâ€™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 â€œstationsâ€ 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 â€œnativeâ€ 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 donâ€™t forget the thousands of non-CIA â€œuniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the countryâ€, who will undoubtedly surge as well.
The efforts of the CIA operatives at Chapman were reportedly focused on â€œcollecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networksâ€™ top leadersâ€, especially those in the Haqqani network in the North Waziristan tribal area just across the Pakistani border. They were evidently running â€œinformantsâ€ into Pakistan to find targets for the agencyâ€™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 doesnâ€™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, â€œTwo 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 Hellfire missiles.â€
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, â€œtribalâ€ society. In any case, the secret war is evidently becoming a private and personal one. Balawiâ€™s suicide attack essentially took out a major part of the agencyâ€™s targeting information system.
As one unnamed NATO official told the New York Times, â€œThese 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.â€ And the agency was already generally known to be â€œdesperately short of personnel who speak the language or are knowledgeable about the regionâ€. Nonetheless, drone attacks have suddenly escalated – at least five in the week since the suicide bombing, all evidently aimed at â€œan area believed to be a hideout for militants involvedâ€. These sound like vengeance attacks and are likely to be particularly counterproductive.
To sum up, US intelligence agents, having lost out to enemy â€œintelligence agentsâ€, 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 information.
In this war, drones are not the agencyâ€™s only weapon. The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door â€œnight raidsâ€ 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 â€œother government agenciesâ€ (OGAs) or â€œnon-military Americansâ€. These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, donâ€™t fit comfortably with the Obama administrationâ€™s â€œhearts and mindsâ€ 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 â€œthe presidentâ€™s private army.â€ 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 armyâ€™s special forces or indigenous troops carried out the majority of the CIAâ€™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 CIAâ€™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 â€œintelligenceâ€ 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: â€œIf anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask al-Qaeda and the Taliban … The agencyâ€™s still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places.â€
At about the same time, reports were emerging that Blackwater/Xe was providing security, arming drones, and â€œperform[ing] some of the agencyâ€™s most important assignmentsâ€ 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 â€œintelligenceâ€ at war in 2010 – a new micro-brew when it comes to Washingtonâ€™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 â€œin the shadowsâ€ (as they used to say in the Cold War). This is no longer â€œintelligenceâ€ as anyone imagines it, nor is it â€œmilitaryâ€ as military was once defined, not when US operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way.
This is pure â€œlord of the fliesâ€ 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 â€œcounter-insurgencyâ€ as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and â€œprotecting the peopleâ€ 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 â€œintelligenceâ€ dollars are going into the blackest of black holes.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Instituteâ€™s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
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 Universityâ€™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.