It was "High Noon" in Afghanistan. On the dusty main street of the border town of Orgun, a large crowd gathered as three US Special Forces soldiers confronted the corrupt local warlord.
Master Sgt. Mark Bryant positioned his men for a gunfight, then made the first move. "We pulled him and his guys out of the car, and told him 'Hey, you're on foot now. We're confiscating this car because it doesn't belong to you,' " he said.
After a tense standoff, warlord Zakim Khan backed down and left town, culminating months of effort by the Special Forces team to end his grip on the Orgun valley. But the hard-won progress in Orgun proved fleeting, Bryant says. Thanks to a $20,000 monthly CIA stipend intended to buy his loyalty, Mr. Khan survived his 2002 ouster and is now back in power. In fact, knowingly or not, the CIA sealed his comeback by abruptly cutting off US wages for a 300-man Afghan militia that the Special Forces had lured away from Khan and trained, a military official says.
"We don't control that money," Bryant says. "So now you have 300 [well-trained] fighters and you're just going to tell them: 'OK, guys, see ya. Have a nice day.' "
The story of Orgun illustrates how conflicting priorities between the CIA and elite US military units can sometimes hamper efforts to forge alliances with indigenous forces and tribes - relationships increasingly vital to uproot terrorist groups from lawless regions in Afghanistan and around the world.
For decades, the CIA has held the purse strings for foreign spies and paramilitaries to gather intelligence and conduct covert action, while the State Department has paid for military aid to sovereign states.
Now, Congress is advancing legislation that for the first time would grant the Pentagon broad authority for US Special Operations Forces (SOF) to directly pay and equip a wide range of foreign groups and individuals supporting military operations to combat terrorism. It aims to allow such troops to muster a local force quickly after infiltrating a country, supplying weapons, radios, night vision goggles, and other gear for joint operations. Over the next 20 years, Pentagon officials say that small teams of such troops are likely to work in up to a dozen countries pursuing terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda.
The legislation would address what Pentagon officials consider an old quandary: the 49,000-strong Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has the mission to conduct unconventional warfare that relies on foreign forces, but lacks the budget authority to execute it. "It's been a continuing problem for DOD since the command was created [in 1987]," says a Pentagon official. "It's cumbersome, it's not dependable, and we can't plan for it."
DOD officials say they want the same flexibility and agility the CIA has in working with foreign forces. "It will just be a DOD suitcase [full of money] and not an agency suitcase," says a Pentagon official.
Supporters of the legislation in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill charge that the CIA has at times used its control over funding foreign fighters to pressure Special Operations units to operate in areas that benefit agency goals. "It's in those areas where our interests don't converge that they [CIA agents] are using the funding as leverage to draw us together and get DOD to operate in certain areas and provide protection for them," the official says.
In other cases, officials say, the CIA withdraws funding for foreign forces when its intelligence goals shift, despite an ongoing US military mission. In Orgun, for example, the CIA stopped paying the 300-man US-trained militia after deciding Orgun harbored no more "high value targets." Yet this hurt the Special Forces' longer-range work of empowering local Afghans and improving security to keep terrorists and insurgents out, DOD officials say. "We've gone in, initiated contact, and begun to fight with a force that the CIA is paying for and equipping, but the CIA then goes elsewhere for their own intelligence objectives and there's no one to pay the foreign forces," says a Pentagon official.
The CIA declined to comment on either the legislation or the leverage issue, says agency spokesman Tom Crispell. Both the CIA and State Department have sought to rein in the new Pentagon authority, however, out of a concern over blurred roles and overlapping responsibilities.
The new legislation would allow US forces to pay foreign sources for information to support military operations, but specifically does not authorize covert action. "This is different from covert operations done by the CIA. Otherwise, there would be a lot more of a brouhaha," says Andrew Blotky, an aide to Rep. Jim Turner (D) of Texas. Mr. Turner offered the amendment to the FY 2005 Defense Department authorization bill, passed by the House on Thursday, that grants the new authority to spend up to $25 million each year through 2007.
Still, some CIA experts expressed skepticism. "Buying guys and paying them is just a slippery slope, one step away from covert action," says a former CIA officer. "Competitive collection always gets weird."
In an overall push by the Pentagon to improve the skills of Special Forces in gathering intelligence, training has recently been expanded from Fort Bragg, N.C., to a second location, according to a Pentagon official and a congressional staffer. "This is not high-tech spying," says one source. "It's gaining the kind of access we need."