KABUL, Afghanistan — The spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that the CIA was responsible for calling in an airstrike on April 7 that left 17 Afghan civilians dead, 12 of them children, and that the secret Afghan militias that the agency controls behaved as if they were “responsible to no one.”
“It was a CIA operation using a security structure that was in full service of the CIA and run by the CIA,” said the spokesman, Aimal Faizi, who said his remarks reflected the views of the Afghan president. Faizi also criticized the agency and U.S. Special Operations troops for running numerous similar militias elsewhere in Afghanistan, with similar problems.
The criticism from Faizi and other Afghan officials pulled aside a curtain on a clandestine operation that went badly awry in the rugged mountains of eastern Kunar province, killing an American CIA employee and seriously wounding three other Americans working for the agency. The American who died had been in charge of a group of undercover paramilitaries known as the 0-4 Unit, a Counterterrorist Pursuit Team, according to Afghan investigators.
Afghan reaction to the episode challenges the core assumptions in negotiations with the Afghan government about the nature of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014. The military wants a mission with two main goals: training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism raids against groups like al-Qaida. Special Operations forces and irregular forces like the militias run by the CIA are a crucial part of the effort, U.S. officials say.
But Karzai has been deeply suspicious about the activity of irregular forces in his country, and in March he banned U.S. Special Operations forces from operating in Wardak province. Now, the CIA is the focus of his ire.
A spokesman for the CIA would not comment about the case.
A spokesman for the U.S. military, Col. Thomas Collins, declined to comment on the raid in Kunar province or to discuss the military’s investigation into it. He said only that the operation was run by the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency.
“There was a battle going on, this NDS unit was under grave pressure,” Collins said. “But as to what caused the civilian casualties, that’s still under investigation.”
Faizi said that after Karzai received a report from his own investigation, he fired the head of the National Directorate of Security in Kunar province, whom others identified as Gen. Saadullah. (He uses only one name.)
But Faizi said the 0-4 Unit, a roughly 1,200-member force, was not truly under the control of the Afghan security agency, asserting instead that U.S. intelligence officials were solely responsible for the unit. “It was a joint op at most in name,” he said, “but really in fact a CIA-run parallel security structure, and such structures have been a factor of insecurity themselves.”
Faizi said Karzai had ordered a review throughout the country of all Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, which are mostly used in the east and the south, and of similar irregular forces run by the CIA or by U.S. Special Operations units.
“We are informed five minutes before they are conducting an operation,” Faizi said, “and our security agencies do not have authority over them.”
A U.S. official familiar with the events disagreed with that characterization. “The Afghan unit involved in this prolonged firefight with the Taliban was under Afghan government control — rumors of a rogue unit or Americans commanding the team reflect internal power struggles in Kabul,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Details about the fighting in Kunar were scant in the days afterward. Karzai appointed a delegation to go there and investigate, and he later said he blamed both the Taliban and international forces for causing the civilian deaths, although at the time he did not mention the CIA by name.