“Nobody believes in it. You’re like, ‘Fuck this,’” a former Green Beret says of America’s covert and clandestine programs to train and arm Syrian militias. “Everyone on the ground knows they are jihadis. No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”

“I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans,” the Green Beret added. A second Special Forces soldier commented that one Syrian militia thdey had trained recently crossed the border from Jordan on what had been pitched as a large-scale shaping operation that would change the course of the war. Watching the battle on a monitor while a drone flew overhead, “We literally watched them, with 30 guys in their force, run away from three or four ISIS guys.”

Another militia commander came back to Jordan to be debriefed by CIA case officers stationed at Damascus X, the exiled CIA station now located in Amman, Jordan, since departing Syria’s capital after the civil war began. The Syrian proxy broke down saying that he might as well join ISIS—something the case officer had to talk him out of.

But perhaps this was a step in the right direction from a the recent past, when the commander of the now-defunct Syrian Revolutionary Front came in for a debriefing, telling his CIA handler that a helicopter was shot down and destroyed some of his equipment but he also claimed that he had an expensive suit onboard the aircraft that the CIA also needed to replace.

While the press has reported extensively on the over 100 armed groups within Syria vying for control, and the occasional report comes out about U.S. special operations troops in Syria and wasteful spending on covert action programs, the wider story about the U.S. Special Forces arming Syrian anti-ISIS forces while the CIA conducts a parallel program to arm anti-Assad regime forces has yet to be told—until now. It is a story of fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as bureaucratic infighting and a disgusting excess, which has only contributed to perpetuating the Syrian conflict.

The CIA underestimates the threat

After the 2009 withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraq, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center’s presence also became a pale shadow of what it had once been during the heyday of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the height of the war, the CIA could deploy targeting officers to Iraq and assign them regionally, so a targeting officer would work Mosul and focus on the leadership elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which later became ISIS), but several years after the withdrawal, the CIA was unable to tap into U.S. special operations units as a force multiplier.

In 2011 and 2012, Delta Force would deploy a single operator to Iraq as a counterterrorism liaison, but the CIA’s chief of station (CoS) in Baghdad made it clear that Delta was not welcome in Iraq. However, U.S. Army Special Forces were able to deploy by working for the State Department and training Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). In the years leading up to the rise of ISIS, the commander’s in-extremis force, a specialized counterterrorist element in each Special Forces group, would deploy in small numbers in an advisory capacity. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Iraq (CTC/I) was mostly focused on combating Shia militias.

CTC/I become CTC/SI, recognizing the transnational threat of ISIS, which now sprawled across two countries. Although some believed that CTC/SI had to switch its focus to targeting mid-level Baath party leaders within ISIS who guided the group on strategy, tactics, and propaganda, the leadership of CTC/SI and the newly formed Syrian Task Force consisted of only 10 targeting officers who were constantly forced to shift gears as the agency’s senior leadership would have them focus on ISIS, al-Nusra, the Khorosan Group, Shia militias, and Ahrar al-Sham.