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CIA-led force may speed Afghan exit

05 March, 2012

WASHINGTON: Top Pentagon officials are considering putting elite special operations troops under CIA control in Afghanistan after 2014, just as they were during last year's raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, sources told The Associated Press.

The plan is one of several possible scenarios being debated by Pentagon staffers. It has not yet been presented to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, the White House or Congress, the sources said.

If the plan were adopted, the US and Afghanistan could say there are no more US troops on the ground in the war-torn country because once the SEALs, Rangers and other elite units are assigned to CIA control, even temporarily, they become spies.

No matter who's in charge, the special operations units still would target terrorist on joint raids with Afghans and keep training Afghan forces to do the job on their own.

The idea floated by a senior defence intelligence official comes as US defence chiefs try to figure out how to draw down troops fast enough to meet the White House's 2014 deadline. Pentagon staffers already have put forward a plan to hand over much of the war fighting to special operations troops. This idea would take that plan one step further, shrinking the US presence to less than 20,000 troops after 2014, according to four current and two former US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pentagon spokesman George Little denied the idea is being discussed. "Any suggestion that such a plan exists is simply wrong," Little said on Saturday. "United States special operations forces continue to work closely with the intelligence community to confront a range of national security challenges across the world."

Reducing the US presence faster would be a political boon for the White House and the Afghan government, with Afghan sentiment raw over incidents ranging from civilian casualties from US strike operations to the recent burning of the holy Quran by US troops.

But a CIA-run war would mean that the US public would not be informed about funding or operations, as they are in a traditional war. Oversight would fall to the White House, top intelligence officials, and a few congressional committees. Embedding journalists would be out of the question.

Two senior defence officials said that neither the CIA nor Special Operations Command has put this plan forward officially to Panetta. The other officials who said they have been part of discussions about the plan say it would require the assent of the White House and congressional oversight committees, and would be contingent upon the approval of the Afghan government. The idea has not yet been presented at any of those levels, the sources said.

The CIA's intelligence and paramilitary elements regularly work alongside special operations units, both in the war zone and in areas where terrorist operate. On a case-by-case basis, elite special operations units are assigned to the CIA for missions when the US wants total deniability, usually in areas where the US is operating without the local government's permission, as in the bin Laden raid.

The notion of longer-term assignments to the CIA does not sit well with some senior special operations commanders, who want their units to remain autonomous in order to keep their troops under Defence Department legal parameters. If CIA-assigned troops are captured, for example, they are treated like spies, not protected by the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war.

But putting special operations troops in the CIA's employ in Afghanistan could be attractive to the Afghan government because it would make the troops less visible and give Afghan President Hamid Karzai the added bonus of being able to say US troops had withdrawn from his country.

End.

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