EXCLUSIVE: On Nobility and the CIA’s War in Afghanistan

OPINION — On December 31, The New York Times published a piece that claimed Afghan forces “trained and equipped by CIA agents or contractors” were conducting “torture and killings with near impunity.” The piece opens with the description of one such raid where an alleged CIA-trained strike force burst into a family’s home, separated the men from the women and children, and began shooting.

If the insinuation that the men and women were separated only for ease of execution was insufficiently evocative, we are then told that one woman had been shot three times in the head and a child had been burned to death in her torched bedroom.  In six unequivocal sentences, the murdered woman and immolated child become helpful journalistic tools for a case to be made; people whose suffering need not be embellished, but merely laid bare for the higher purpose: ending CIA atrocities.

Forgive my rage.  As a former CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who served in the places where these atrocities allegedly took place, (and I know the Americans still serving there), perhaps I’m too close to it.  Perhaps I shed too much blood in Afghanistan.  Perhaps I have too many dead friends, Afghan and American.  Perhaps I’ve seen too many colleagues slandered too many times, Afghan and American.  Or perhaps having risked and fought for and still absolutely believing in, the Agency’s core value – And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free – has caused me to finally hit my limit of one-sidedness and I can no longer swallow hard and go on quietly, as me and my colleagues usually do when this kind of story is told.

Space and classification limit a point by point rebuttal.  I’m also (partially) resisting an urge to dive into what the story means by the term “CIA agents” and why the word “contractor” is such a trigger word.  Am I a different case because I was a government employee?  In my memory of Afghanistan, bullets and IEDs were unconcerned with their targets’ IRS tax status and employment relationship with the CIA.

But these are asides.  The spirit of a whole-sided truth is the point: a truth that includes the heroism, selflessness, honor, and remarkable effectiveness of CIA officers and their Afghan partners.  These men are the ones who are bound not only by the Rules of Engagement, but also by their powerfully-defined conscience and morality.  The CIA “agents and contractors” I know see an evasion and abdication of responsibility as immoral.  They know that a bomb dropped from far away may save you the sight of death, but whatever damage and death was done for the sake of your clean memory is still a stain on your honor.  They close with the enemy until all that remains between them is the weapons held in their hands.  They pry the enemy out from behind the woman and the children he uses as shields and engage him face to face.  These Americans venture solidly into the kinetic and chaotic world of snap decisions and close contact, willing to take and bear the responsibility, and not outsourcing it to missiles and machines.  They are the ones that see it – it: the dead, the innocent.  They are the ones that sit with the families when it is all over.  They are the ones who deserve better than this.

I’ve seen it again and again as these units have taken great risks above and beyond what would be demanded under the Rules of Engagement.  I’ve seen it as these CIA-trained forces have navigated tribal complexities and have de-escalated misunderstandings that could easily have become lethal, when it would have been well within the Rules of Engagement, if they killed everyone.  I’ve seen it in the high casualty rates of Afghans and Americans – casualty rates that don’t come from fighting women and children.  I’ve seen it in examples such as the time one of these Afghan units struggled to defuse a truck bomb in the compound of a Taliban fighter and decided that rather than blowing it up in place (as the Rules of Engagement certainly allowed) they moved it, so they wouldn’t destroy a family’s home.

I saw it once in Eastern Afghanistan, after several suicide truck bombs had struck the military base there.  For hours, there had been sporadic running firefights as one of these units tried to find the remaining attackers that were hiding in nearby homes.  Near midnight, they spotted a man walking toward them.  He was either a villager, coming to tell them where the Taliban was, or a suicide bomber.  They waited until he was close.  Even after they saw a rifle, they waited.  Then the firing started.  Then an explosion.  He was a suicide bomber.  Under the Rules of Engagement, they could have shot him the moment they saw a weapon.  But they waited.  This is the risk: closing with the enemy until you are absolutely sure he is a threat; closing until there are none between him and you.  No women, no children.

Amid the allegations of atrocities, The New York Times article did make slight mention of the broader effectiveness of these units but did not provide detail as to why they are effective.  This is strange given the premise.  Is the article suggesting that the brutality is requisite to effectiveness?  Is the only downside that civilians are more appalled by CIA atrocities than Taliban atrocities, and are thus turning away from America?  Setting aside the emotion and morality for a moment, professional soldiers know that brutality is self-defeating.  When Mao wrote that the insurgent must be like the people are like the water and the guerrilla is the fish that inhabits it, he was recognizing that the insurgent cannot live without the people.  These units are not insurgents, but they are students of insurgency.  To win, the water must be made unsuitable for the enemy.  Atrocities do not lend to this.  Professional soldiers know it.

In my experience, this contrasts with parts of the Afghan police and military.  Generally, they are not as well paid, trained, or led, as their Afghan partners in the intelligence units, and may turn to corruption, extortion, or collusion; often merely to survive.  In a case mentioned in the article, a CIA-trained unit allegedly killed the senior law enforcement officer in Kandahar in an effort to free a colleague that had been detained on criminal charges.  Another perspective on that story may be that the soldier had been kidnapped by the police for extortion.  When the CIA-trained unit arrived to negotiate his release, one of the nervous and poorly-trained police officers fired accidentally.  In the exchange that followed, several police were killed and the strike force left without a wounded man.  To consider that the cause of the soldier’s arrest may have been corruption, and the deaths of the police may have been the result of extremely poor judgement and marksmanship, even after years of training and investment, is a far greater embarrassment for (nearly) all concerned than a tidy narrative of rogue Afghans trained by knuckle-dragging CIA contractors.

Maybe that’s the point.  It’s not for my own sake, or that of my dead friends or my colleagues who feel slandered.  It’s the lack of the whole story being told, even if it takes more time and more work to tell it; the hands over eyes and mouth to anything that may suggest a counter-narrative to whatever allegations of atrocities and torture to be compiled and nurtured and grown into a Pulitzer.  Maybe it’s a deep compassion for the memories held by the families of those who were killed carrying out a dangerous, but necessary mission.  The parents, spouses, and kids that must grieve in silence, knowing that they cannot tell the stories of their loved ones’ heroism; able to talk to very few about how some days are harder than others and why birthdays and anniversaries will never be the same.  Those are the people I also thought about when I read this story.  And those are the people I want to never doubt the nobility of their loved ones’ mission.  I want them to know that there are people here and in Afghanistan that will never forget them.  They served to protect Americans and Afghans, and did so with nobility.


Ian Allen is a former Marine and CIA Clandestine Service Officer with broad experience in defense and intelligence. As a Paramilitary Operations Officer with the CIA, he developed and implemented covert action programs in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of San Diego, and his awards include the Intelligence Star and Meritorious Service Medal.

Read more Cipher Brief Expert Opinions and Analysis here


Share your point of view

Your comment will be posted pending moderator approval. No ad hominem attacks will be posted. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 Replies to “EXCLUSIVE: On Nobility and the CIA’s War in Afghanistan”
  1. Very good point of view from a military on the ground. It is true, civilians are not prepared for the atrocities of war. but the newspapers only report incomplete facts in order to raise the ratings and manipulate readers, not divulge the complete facts or the context.

  2. I feel for your passion when it comes to one-sided stories. Working intelligence, I often saw the inaccuracies of media stories first hand compared to ground truth.

    When it comes to intelligence reporting, the media understands the story will be eaten up by the public. In that sense, the media has a larger responsibility to attempt to obtain both sides of the story – if not, then convey in their reporting that the information was only obtained single source without validation.

    You’re correct in being outraged. Your comment piece hopefully helped provide others with a broader sense of reality.

  3. In the author’s bio, it’s noted that ‘… he developed and implemented covert action programs in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.’ Which kind of begs a chicken or egg question: which came first, state-sponsored killings and other oppressions, or the CIA?