China and Neighbourhood

Afghanistan-Pakistan Revealed: America’s Private Spies

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By Prof. Scott Lucas | 20 May 2010


During the Bush years, authors such as Jeremy Scahill and Tom Englehardt documented how the US Department of Defense turned to private companies for intervention and occupation. The most notorious of these cases were the activities of Blackwater and the “outsourcing” of interrogation and torture to private companies at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Beyond this was a systematic increase in the place of private firms in day-to-day military and covert operations: it has been estimated that half of the US forces in Afghanistan are employed by private concerns.

You might think, given the public declarations of the Obama Administration that it is distinct from its predecessors, that this approach would have been curtailed.

You are wrong.


On Sunday, Mark Mazzetti wrote in The New York Times:

 

Top military officials have continued to rely on a secret network of private spies who have produced hundreds of reports from deep inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to American officials and businessmen, despite concerns among some in the military about the legality of the operation.

Earlier this year, government officials admitted that the military had sent a group of former Central Intelligence Agency officers and retired Special Operations troops into the region to collect information — some of which was used to track and kill people suspected of being militants. Many portrayed it as a rogue operation that had been hastily shut down once an investigation began.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials and businessmen, and an examination of government documents, tell a different a story. Not only are the networks still operating, their detailed reports on subjects like the workings of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the movements of enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan are also submitted almost daily to top commanders and have become an important source of intelligence.

The American military is largely prohibited from operating inside Pakistan. And under Pentagon rules, the army is not allowed to hire contractors for spying.

Earlier revelations by The Times led to an investigation of a contractor network run by Michael D. Furlong. Mazzetti updates:

A review of the program by The New York Times found that Mr. Furlong’s operatives were still providing information using the same intelligence gathering methods as before. The contractors were still being paid under a $22 million contract, the review shows, managed by Lockheed Martin and supervised by the Pentagon office in charge of special operations policy….

A senior defense official said that the Pentagon decided just recently not to renew the contract, which expires at the end of May. While the Pentagon declined to discuss the program, it appears that commanders in the field are in no rush to shut it down because some of the information has been highly valuable, particularly in protecting troops against enemy attacks.

So what’s the big deal here? After all, you can always fly the flag of “protection”. Well, there could be the issue of accountability:

In general, according to one American official, intelligence operatives are nervous about the notion of “private citizens running around a war zone, trying to collect intelligence that wasn’t properly vetted for operations that weren’t properly coordinated.”

And although no one seems to have considered it in the Mazzetti article, there might be some Afghans and Pakistanis — not all of them bad guys — who are nervous as well.

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