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Commentary. Clandestine agents in Afghanistan will not have to answer to the chain of command in their offensive against the Taliban.

CIA paramilitaries get free reign in Afghanistan

After visiting Iraq and Afghanistan and before stopping in New Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday along his whirlwind tour, the first real diplomatic offensive in the house of the “frenemy.”

Tillerson had harsh words toward Pakistan in his statements in Afghanistan — though he toned them down in Islamabad. Accused of being a safe haven for the dregs of the war, the Pakistanis, indeed guilty of giving shelter to the Afghan Taliban, did not take very well to this diplomatic aggression, announced by the fiery words of Trump and his ambassador to the U.N.

The Pakistanis, already put in an embarrassing position by an interview with Caitlan Coleman (an American woman freed together with her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle, who recently told the Toronto Star that her kidnapping in Afghanistan turned into captivity in Pakistan for more than a year, giving the lie to Islamabad’s position), are especially alarmed by two issues: one diplomatic, one military.

The diplomatic issue concerns India, the estranged brother just across the border, whose expansion into Afghanistan is a great worry to Islamabad. After the Americans asked Delhi in direct terms to “keep an eye” on Pakistan, the latter’s anger is not easily kept under wraps. The second issue is that Tillerson’s journey also inaugurates a new phase in the war in Afghanistan, together with its after-effects in Pakistan.

The news in this matter concerns the green light given by the American president to the new counterinsurgency strategy authored by Michael “Mike” Pompeo, a Republican congressman (of Italian descent) well-liked by the Tea Party, and head of the CIA since January. Pompeo, who attended West Point and has a military career behind him, is a tough-guy type, just like Trump himself.

His interpretation of The Donald’s message — that no enemy will have a place to hide anymore — calls for a new expansion of the Agency’s activities, going beyond the restrictions the Obama era, which authorized drone operations only for the military, and which, at most, allowed the CIA to operate within Pakistan.

In the last three years, raids using military drones have in any event been increasing (assuming the data is accurate), from 304 in 2015 to 376 in 2016 and 362 in the first eight months of 2017 (while the CIA’s own share is said to have been only three last year and four this year, and only within Pakistan).

But these numbers are not enough for Pompeo and Trump, nor is it any longer enough that the CIA should merely train its Afghan counterpart (the NDS). From now on, the CIA will conduct all the raids it wants in Afghanistan, without answering to the army command under General Nicholson, also in charge of the NATO troops.

The path forward of the “Pompeo project,” which would deploy the so-called paramilitary forces of the Agency has not been easy: the CIA is so well-known for its wanton approach toward collateral damage that, as the American press reports, several Defense Department generals turned up their noses at this plan: “What can they do that we can’t?”

In truth, secret services only conduct “undercover” operations, thus bypassing any chain of command. But who will be faced with the bill of civilian casualties, already running high during “regular” air raids? For the Afghan in the street, a drone is a drone, and a bullet has no paper trail. The sins of the CIA will be blamed on the army.

The Afghan government, in turn, welcomes this development. The practice of “hunt and kill” is to the liking of the Ministry of Defense, which praised the plan. Washington argues that the massive new campaign of targeted killings will more easily bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. But it is far more likely that it will only fuel the flames of war, as well as the civilian death toll.

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