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.
Modeled after U.S. special forces, the Counterterrorist Pursuit Team was set up in the months following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 to penetrate territory controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida and target militants for interrogations by CIA officials.
The 3,000-strong Afghan teams are used for surveillance and long-range reconnaissance missions and some have trained at CIA facilities in the United States. The force has operated in Kabul and some of Afghanistan's most violence-wracked provinces including Kandahar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika, according to a security professional familiar with the program.
The security official and former intelligence officials spoke about the Afghan force on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive information.
The secret Afghan force has emerged as a new component of ramped-up American counter-terror operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against al-Qaida and allies over the mountainous border in Pakistan. The U.S. military, including special operations forces, has been working with the CIA in an intensified crackdown against militants on both sides of the border.
Drone strikes run by the CIA are at their highest level yet against Afghan Taliban, Haqqani and al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, while U.S. special operations forces have been staging combined raids with Afghan army special forces against the midlevel leadership that operates on the Afghan side.
The Afghan pursuit teams were described in detail in Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars," due out Monday.
Woodward reported that the units conducted covert operations inside neighboring Pakistan's lawless border areas as part of a campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban havens.
Pakistan allows U.S. special operations forces to enter the border region only for limited training missions. The use of Afghan paramilitaries to carry out spying activities will likely inflame already frayed political relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We do not allow any foreign troops or militia to operate on our side of the border," Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. "There are no reports of any such incident, and, should it happen in future, they will be fired upon by our troops."
Unlike regular Afghan army commandos, the CIA-run Afghan paramilitary units mostly work independently from CIA paramilitary or special operations forces but will occasionally combine forces for an operation. Despite operating independently, the units coordinate their operations with NATO, the security professional said.
The Afghan force became the focus of a debate last year between CIA and military officials over who would control its operations. The CIA remained the lead agency, the former official said.
The paramilitaries earn generous salaries compared to Afghans employed by the army or police.
The CIA-run Afghan paramilitary in Kandahar were compensated on an elite pay scale, according to human rights investigators. The average paramilitary in the force could earn $340 a month while a regiment head could take home as much as $1,000. In Uruzgan, the U.S. pays members $300 to $320 per month.
In comparison, a freshly recruited Afghan solider in troubled Helmand province earns about $240 a month. And Afghan policemen make an average starting salary of only about $140 per month. Even the Taliban reportedly pays its footsoldiers about $250 to $300 a month.
While U.S. officials insist the paramilitary forces have an excellent record, at least one unit stumbled badly in the past. The Kandahar branch paramilitaries shot and killed Kandahar's police chief and nine other Afghan police officials in 2009 over a dispute after one of its own members was arrested. During their face-off with the police chief, the paramilitaries were wearing uniforms and guns bought by the CIA.
Current and former U.S. officials said the incident had been reviewed fully and that the review found that CIA officers had no prior knowledge that the Afghans had intended to go on a killing spree. One U.S. official said the review showed that the incident was not typical of the force and that the paramilitaries were reacting to what they viewed as the unfair arrest of one their people by one of their rivals.
Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights expert working with the Open Society Institute, said: "These paramilitary groups operate in such a cloak of secrecy that accountability for their abuses is nearly impossible for most Afghans. These forces don't fall under an Afghan military chain of command, and if a civilian is killed or maimed, the U.S. can say it wasn't the fault of the U.S.
Horowitz added that Afghan civilians have regularly accused these paramilitary groups of physical abuse and theft of property during night raids, conduct that he said taints Afghan views of the U.S. forces who arm, train and pay them.