The CIA has trained and bankrolled a well-paid force of elite Afghan paramilitaries for nearly eight years to hunt al-Qaida and the Taliban for the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.
On an Afghan ridge 7,800 feet above sea level, about four miles from Pakistan, stands a mud-brick fortress dubbed Firebase Lilley, and it is a nerve center in the covert war against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The CIA has relied on Lilley, part of a constellation of agency bases across Afghanistan, as a hub to train and deploy a well-armed 3,000-troop Afghan paramilitary force collectively known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. In addition to being used for surveillance, raids and combat operations in Afghanistan, the teams are crucial to the United States’ secret war in Pakistan, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The existence of the teams is disclosed in “Obama’s Wars,” a forthcoming book by longtime Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
Interviews with sources familiar with the CIA’s operations and a review of the database of 76,000 classified U.S. military field reports posted online by the website WikiLeaks reveal an agency that has a significantly larger covert paramilitary presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan than previously known.
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The operations are particularly sensitive in Pakistan, a refuge for senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders where U.S. units are officially prohibited from conducting missions.
The WikiLeaks reports include many descriptions of the activities of the “OGA” and “Afghan OGA” forces. OGA, which stands for “other government agency,” is generally used as a reference to the CIA.
The field logs provide glimpses into the kinds of operations undertaken by the CIA and its Afghan paramilitary units along the Pakistani border.
The CIA declined to comment on the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams.
A U.S. official familiar with the operations, speaking on condition of anonymity, described them as “one of the best Afghan fighting forces,” adding that “it’s made major contributions to stability and security.”
The official said the teams’ primary mission is to improve security in Afghanistan and they do not engage in “lethal action” when crossing into Pakistan. Their cross-border missions are “designed exclusively for intelligence collection,” the official said.
The logs indicate that the CIA and its Afghan units are at times involved in heavy fighting, in contrast to long-standing perceptions that the agency has largely served to direct attacks carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces or conventional military units.
A former senior CIA official involved in the formation of the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams said the first unit was created in Kabul soon after the U.S.-backed invasion in 2001. Since then, units have been created elsewhere, including Kandahar.