'Dirty dogs' of CIA enter the fray in covert war

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The Independent Online

From the outset this was going to be a long and messy war, against a shadowy and resilient foe. And this weekend America publicly unsheathed two new weapons: grainy pictures of commando units going in on the ground in Afghanistan and official word that the CIA, complete with every dirty trick at its disposal, is joining the fray.

"The gloves are off," unnamed senior officials told The Washington Post, disclosing that President Bush has told the CIA to do whatever is necessary to eliminate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida network. "Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-11 September are now under way."

The agency has been handed an extra $1bn (£700m) to fight terrorism: in effect, the 35-year-old ban on political assassinations has been lifted.

As America's onslaught against Mr bin Laden and Afghanistan enters its third week, a complex mosaic of operations is emerging, fought from the air and on the ground. Continuing strikes from the air, not so much against fixed installations as against "emerging targets" flushed out by the bombing and the destruction of communications networks, constitute a piece of this mosaic.

A second element is carefully calibrated activity in support of the Northern Alliance, to which America is giving money, weapons and some logistical backing on the ground. And now, as a new chapter in the war opens, there are the acknowledged operations by American and British special forces.

Some will be spun off the campaign of the Alliance, using the latter's intelligence on the Taliban and the airfields and other facilities the Alliance controls. Others ­ such as those disclosed over the weekend by the Pentagon and which may well be continuing ­ will take the form of raids in southern, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, aimed at Mr bin Laden and the high command of the regime that protects him, but also designed to sow dissent in Taliban ranks.

But to what extent is this strategy succeeding? Despite the eerypictures of paratroops floating down through the skies around Kandahar, scant operational detail has been revealed by the Pentagon.

According to US spokesmen, the attacks against the compound of Mullah Mohammed Omar in the city, and on an airfield some 60 miles to the south west of Kandahar, met only "light resistance". General Richard Myers, the joint chiefs chairman, insisted the aim was to gather intelligence, rather than to kill or capture terrorists and their protectors.

Apart from the two servicemen killed and three wounded when a Black Hawk helicopter crashlanded in Pakistan, the only casualties were on the enemy side. The Taliban naturally paint a different picture, claiming to have shot down the helicopter and to have killed 20 to 25 American troops.

Another piece in the puzzle is the report in yesterday's Washington Post by Bob Woodward, doyen of journalists covering the American political establishment and privileged recipient of the views of those in power. Its prime message is that the dirtiest dogs of war have been unleashed against Mr bin Laden and his followers.

So back to the good old days, then, when the CIA went in against perceived left-wing, anti-American governments in Iran, Chile and elsewhere, destabilising them and mounting plots to kill their leaders. But a double caveat is in order.

The CIA, with its failure to predict ­ let alone prevent ­ the attacks of 11 September, emerged especially badly from the disaster. Well before that, its reputation was in shreds. The directorate of operations, its clandestine arm, has been hamstrung by scandals, excessive bureaucracy and a general loss of expertise and morale. For all America's wizardry at electronic eavesdropping, the agency desperately lacks human intelligence.

Not surprisingly, Vice-President Dick Cheney, who went on the record for Mr Woodward, warned there would be failures as well as successes, "good days as well as bad days". The film of commando units going about their shadowy business is this war's equivalent of the newsreel action clips of the Second World War, showing that the GIs are out there, fighting back for America. The administration is seeking to ram home the now familiar double message.

It wants to leave no doubt that the mightiest country on Earth is indeed striking back with every means at its disposal. It is also, however, at pains to stress that the authorities are doing everything possible to counter a persistent threat on the home front.

In the meantime, the air strikes and operations on the ground will continue, with the latter assuming an ever more important role as the Taliban's ability to hit back is diminished.

According to the officials quoted by Mr Woodward, American intelligence has identified "new and important weaknesses in the bin Laden organisation" and will direct its covert war against these frailties. But again, not a single operational detail was disclosed.

What the Pentagon announces publicly is only a fraction of what the Pentagon is doing privately. The film clips may reassure the American public, but they can hardly have surprised Mr bin Laden and his networks, who surely took it for granted that America would retaliate on a huge scale inside Afghanistan after the fearful events of 11 September. Nor can they have imagined that CIA agents would greet him with a polite "Please come along with me, sir", should they ever find him.

But Vice-President Cheney's words to Bob Woodward are sobering: "This war may never end, at least not in our lifetime."This enemy, he points out, has nothing to defend. "For 50 years we deterred the Soviets by threatening the utter destruction of the Soviet Union. What does bin Laden want? There's no piece of real estate ­ it's not like a state or country.

"The notion of deterrence doesn't really apply here. There's no treaty to be negotiated, there's no arms control agreement that's going to guarantee our safety and security. The only way you can deal with them is to destroy them."