With dramatis personae that include the CIA, Delta Force, DEVGRU, the Intelligence Support Activity, Pakistani Commandos, the Taliban, and spies from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), this story has the makings of a future Brad Thor bestseller. The only difference is, this story happened over the course of an eight-month period for a very small team of Army Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment.
It was early 2006. The place: Tarbela-Ghazi Airbase in Pakistan, headquarters for the Pakistani Commandos, officially identified as the Special Services Group—one of the premiere special-operations forces of the Pakistani military. Tarbela, a mere two-hour drive from the capital of Islamabad, also acts as the forward point of countless military offensive operations in Pakistan’s northwest frontier.
For the JSOC and CIA personnel who have been operating in this region for years, supporting both Operation Enduring Freedom and the war in northwest Pakistan, it was the war-fighting business as usual. For the seven Army Rangers chosen to embark on the unusually long eight-month deployment (Rangers typically deploy for three month at a time), it was a break from the monotony of direct-action missions throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
This wasn’t an ordinary operation for the men of the 75th Ranger Regiment, whose mandate in foreign internal defense/advising operations are practically nonexistent. The CIA and JSOC forces on the ground were incredibly busy hunting down al-Qaeda and senior Taliban commanders in the tribal regions, creating target packages for drone strikes—some of which originated out of the Tarbela airbase. What they needed was a capable ground force.
CIA-funded and trained paramilitary units such as the Counterterrorist Pursuit Team and the Khost Protection Force didn’t have the capability of operating so deep into Pakistan’s tribal regions—nor the political leverage to do so. What they needed were hunter-killers from the Pakistani Army who could conduct offensive operations from the east. The most obvious choice was the Special Services Group; these commandos, numbering anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000, were headquartered 60 miles from the tribal regions, and already had a solid foundation of combat training and experience.
With a ground plan in motion, the CIA sent a formal request to JSOC and the Department of Defense, specifically requesting senior members of the 75th Ranger Regiment to lead a 12-week train-up for the Pakistani commandos. The CIA needed their capabilities to mirror that of the Rangers’—quick, direct-action raids, advanced infantry maneuvers, and air assault/fast-roping infiltrations. What the CIA didn’t need were Delta/DEVGRU operators training the Pakistanis in counter-terrorism or hostage-rescue operations, nor Green Berets training them in basic infantry tasks.
The seven Rangers included squad leaders, platoon sergeants, tactical communicators, and reconnaissance specialists on assignment with the Regimental Headquarters—men who had spent years training Rangers newly assigned to the battalions. For that eight-month period, the Rangers were directly assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency. This granted the Rangers protection under ‘Title 50’—the U.S. code for undertaking covert warfare and espionage to include the judicial protection of those men who conduct it, which is normally exclusive to the CIA. This was as opposed to ‘Title 10’, under which the standard military falls. With that important distinction also came the financially lucrative CIA overseas per diem pay normally reserved for its case officers and the paramilitary personnel from the Special Activities Division.
The seven Rangers were now part of ‘CFT Tarbela’, or cross-functional team—a small U.S. force comprised of CIA personnel, Delta/DEVGRU operators, and regardless of the CIAs numerous petitions, members from the Intelligence Support Activity, whose contention and mutual loathing with the CIA has been raging since the unit’s inception. This clandestine task force would be directed by Operational Control Element Islamabad, or simply ‘OCE Ibad’, the main CIA strength in the country.
In that three-month training period, the Rangers ran the Pakistani commandos through the same type of train-up one could expect as a new member to the 75th right before a deployment. Live-fire exercises, fast-roping, direct-action raids, air assaults, detainee handling, sensitive-site exploitation, room clearing, night shooting, and countless other advanced light-infantry tactics.
The Rangers and JSOC personnel forward-deployed with the Pakistanis, conducting raids against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network. In retrospect and in consideration of the bigger picture, it was an extremely politically sensitive operation. U.S.-Pakistani relations were and still are mediocre at best. The two countries would share intelligence every so often, and occasionally the CIA would throw a target package their way to strike. But for the most part, the Pakistanis allowed—more-so tolerated, and never endorsed—U.S. intelligence and special-operations personnel to operate within their borders in exchange for our annual and overly-generous State Department financial aid.
Forward advising in the frontier provinces side-by-side, the way our forces have operated with Afghans and Iraqis, was virtually unheard of in Pakistan. To any reader, it sounds as if the program was a success both operationally and politically—bringing two rivals together. Unfortunately, this story concludes with an adverse finale. Spies, technically state-sponsored double agents from Pakistan’s ISI, clandestinely embedded themselves with the commandos during the Ranger-led training. CIA case officers discovered reliable intelligence that proved Pakistani ISI agents were traveling to Taliban training camps in Waziristan and Quetta and disseminating what they learned to the enemy.
The CIA pulled the plug on the Ranger-Commando program, and many of the U.S. personnel redeployed stateside. Agency personnel who were part of the drone program remained in Tarbela for years to come. In September 2007, months after the Ranger advisors left, an officer with the Ranger-trained Pakistani commandos walked into the Tarbela chow hall and detonated his explosive vest, killing 19 of his fellow commandos and injuring dozens more. Multiple CIA and NSA personnel were reported to have been present during the attack.