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Secret CIA Units Playing a Central Combat Role

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2001; Page A01

The CIA is mounting a hidden war in Afghanistan with secret paramilitary units on the ground and Predator surveillance drones in the sky that last week provided key intelligence for concentrated U.S. airstrikes on al Qaeda leaders, according to well-placed sources.

The CIA units, whose existence has not been previously disclosed, are operating in what amounts to a central combat role in America's unconventional war in Afghanistan. On Sept. 27, one of these units was the first U.S. force to enter the country in the current terrorism war, paving the way for U.S. Special Operations forces. The units also have been providing the rebel Northern Alliance movement with intelligence on opposing Taliban and al Qaeda troop concentrations, the sources said.

The units are part of a highly secret CIA capability, benignly named the Special Activities Division, that consists of teams of about half a dozen men who do not wear military uniforms. The division has about 150 fighters, pilots and specialists, and is made up mostly of hardened veterans who have retired from the U.S. military.

The division's arsenal includes helicopters and airplanes and the unmanned aerial Predator drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and Hellfire antitank missiles. Last week, a CIA-run Predator provided intelligence resulting in three days of strikes that killed key al Qaeda leaders. But it was unclear what role CIA information played in the successful attack on Muhammad Atef, the senior operations lieutenant for Osama bin Laden whose death was confirmed yesterday by the Taliban.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has given almost daily briefings summarizing the course and accomplishments of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, which began six weeks ago. Absent from those briefings are any details or sense of the CIA's covert role in the battles, a secret war that has until now remained largely under wraps.

The role of the CIA's paramilitary units has been particularly important in Afghanistan, several sources say, because much of the war has turned on intelligence and targeting information. The CIA warriors also bring an experienced knowledge of the territory and Northern Alliance factions.

In addition to its paramilitary units, the CIA's Special Activities Division has inserted into Afghanistan specialized CIA case officers from the agency's Near East Division who know the local languages and had previous covert relationships with the Northern Alliance going back years.

For the last 18 months, the CIA has been working with tribes and warlords in southern Afghanistan, and the division's units have helped create a significant new network in the region of the Taliban's greatest strength.

One source said that the Special Activities Division units have directly or indirectly helped with hundreds of successful military strikes since Oct. 7, when the U.S. military bombing campaign began. The handling of intelligence for airstrikes and the use of the Predator has led to some turf friction and complaints about sharing between the U.S. Air Force and the CIA, but both military and nonmilitary sources say the relationship is working and has provided obvious benefits. The CIA's global response center monitors critical intelligence and video and is in direct communication with the U.S. Central Command, which runs the war from its headquarters in Tampa.

In addition to their war-fighting role, the CIA's covert units designate locations where the massive U.S. humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan is most needed.

All of this covert CIA work is a key part of President Bush's strategy, which one source described as an attempt to "deny the sanctuary of Afghanistan to bin Laden and his al Qaeda network." Bush in September signed an intelligence order, called a finding, ordering the CIA to use all necessary means to destroy bin Laden and al Qaeda. About $1 billion in new funds have been provided the CIA, most of which is for covert action.

The CIA work with the Northern Alliance and tribes in the south is central to that strategy. Operationally, it means that once the CIA locates opposition groups in Afghanistan that have the will and capacity to hunt and kill Taliban and al Qaeda members, those groups will receive covert or overt U.S. support in the form of weapons, ammunition, food and money.

A unit of the Special Activities Division was the first to enter Afghanistan after Bush declared his war on terrorism. The unit established a bridgehead on Sept. 27 for the regular U.S. Special Forces that followed.

These CIA paramilitary units have moved in and out of Afghanistan periodically, and some have established permanent bases. The special units work "hand in glove with the special forces and notably have provided a crucial eyes-on-the-ground capability," a well-placed source said. The Special Activities Division reports to the deputy director for operations, the clandestine arm of the CIA.

Before last year, the division was called the Military Support Program, or MSP, which had existed in the agency for decades.

Senior administration officials attribute a significant portion of the speed and effectiveness of recent Northern Alliance advances in Afghanistan to the assistance of the CIA units.

Key has been the precision bombing of Taliban logistics. The sources said coordination on targeting among the CIA special units, traditional satellite and signals intelligence and the U.S. military has improved significantly over the course of the short war, accounting, in part, for the rapid collapse of Taliban forces. "They can't get food and ammunition," a source said. "The Taliban communications have been largely severed."

Because the CIA has focused on bin Laden and al Qaeda for years and gained a strong foothold among the Northern Alliance opposition, several sources said the Afghan phase of the war on terrorism may turn out to be easier than coming phases directed at terrorists in other countries where there is less of a CIA presence.

In some respects, the war on terrorism in Afghanistan appears, at least so far, to provide some ideal circumstances.

First, the special units have been going in and out of Afghanistan since 1997, and have gained immense operational experience and important contacts, particularly with the Northern Alliance.

Second, the CIA gained experience during the 1980s covert war in Afghanistan, when the agency provided massive support and funding to the mujaheddin rebels, who eventually drove the Soviet army out. The Near East Division has 10 to 20 case officers with Afghan experience, knowledge of the terrain and languages, and contacts with anti-Taliban groups and tribes. Some of these case officers have been inserted into Afghanistan with the help of the CIA's paramilitary units as liaison and support for the Northern Alliance.

Third, in the mid-1980s, the CIA set up a counterterrorism center to coordinate intelligence and operations within the U.S. government. Personnel are assigned from the CIA, the FBI, other U.S. intelligence agencies, even the Federal Aviation Administration. Nearly 300 worked in the center before Sept. 11, and that number has swollen to 900 since the terrorist attacks that killed more than 4,300.

Nine days after the terrorist strikes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush outlined the plan for the war on terrorism in a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress. He said the war might include "covert operations, secret even in success."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company