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September 17, 2017



CIA for expanding its drone strike powers despite Pentagon misgivings

WASHINGTON: 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 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-Qaeda and other terrorist targets across the border in Pakistan.

The changes are being weighed as part of a broader push inside the Trump’s White House to loosen Obama-era restraints on how the CIA and the military fight 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 — and riskier — CIA strikes in such countries as Libya, Somalia and Yemen, where the US is fighting the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or both.

Until now, the Pentagon has had the lead role for conducting airstrikes — 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 US 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.

He said the Agency was hunting “every day” for al-Qaeda’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. From the outset of his tenure at the CIA, Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former army officer, has made clear that he favours pushing the Agency to take on a more direct role in fighting militants. Afghanistan, the most active war zone in which the United States is fighting, makes sense as the place to start: In the past three years, the number of military drone strikes there has climbed, from 304 in 2015, to 376 last year, to 362 through the first eight months of this year.

The CIA, in comparison, has had little to do across the border in Pakistan, where there were three drone strikes last year and have been four so far this year, according to the Long War Journal published by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

“This is bureaucratic politics 101,” said Christine Wormuth, a former top Pentagon official. “The CIA has very significant capabilities, and it wants to go use them”.

Spokesmen for the CIA and Defence Department declined to comment on the pending proposal, which involves delicate internal deliberations.

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 American 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.

One senior Defence Department official said the US 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 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- Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban. In his speech last month outlining his policy for South Asia, including Afghanistan, the president promised that he would loosen restrictions on American soldiers to enable them to hunt down terrorists, whom he labeled “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: Gen 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 American troops advising and assisting them.

Trump has already authorised Mattis to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. Some 4,000 reinforcements will allow American 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 United States forces, including Special Operations advisers, are not accidentally targeted, officials said.

When John O. Brennan, a former top White House counterterrorism adviser, became CIA director in late 2013, he announced an intention to ratchet back the paramilitary operations that have transformed the Agency since 9/11 attacks.

Brennan’s goal, he said during his confirmation hearings, was to refocus the Agency on the traditional work of intelligence collection and espionage that had sometimes been neglected. During those hearings, Brennan obliquely criticised the performance of American spy agencies in providing intelligence and analysis of the Arab revolutions that began in 2009, and said the CIA needed to cede some of its paramilitary role to the Pentagon.

In a speech in May 2013 in which he sought to redefine American policy toward terrorism, President Barack Obama expanded on that theme, announcing new procedures for drone operations, which White House officials said would gradually become the responsibility of the Pentagon.

But critics contended that effort, too, proved slow-going, and that Brennan did not push forcefully for moving all drone operations away from the CIA.

Now, with Pompeo in charge, the Agency appears to be aggressively renewing its paramilitary role, and pushing limits on other forms of covert operations outside conflict zones, including in countries where no fighting is under way, such as Iran. A veteran CIA officer viewed as the architect of the drone programme was put in charge of the Agency’s Iran operations this year.

It is drone strikes though that remains the most visible aspect of the CIA’s clandestine fight against militants and often carrying the greatest risk of harming bystanders.

“One of the things we learned early on in Afghanistan and Iraq was the importance of being as transparent as possible in discussing our military operations,” said Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

“Why we took the specific action, who 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”.