Since 2001, the United States has cooperated extensively with many state and non-state forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. The forms of cooperation have varied as have the mechanisms and components of the U.S. government used to train and support these forces.
These forces, and the means to support them, have been important but not widely understood. Yet gaining an accurate picture of U.S. involvement with partner and proxy forces is essential since these forces have trade-offs in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Some host nation forces are partners, who work for their own government and therefore may have interests that diverge from those of the United States. Others are proxies, paid directly by the United States and therefore working primarily for it. Yet proxies may lack the authority and legitimacy of host nation partner forces. Without a clear way to think about these trade-offs, policymakers will be unable to effectively compare and contrast forces to choose the best host nation force (or set of forces) for a particular counterterrorism challenge.
This article is intended to provide an overview of some of these efforts and a framework for comparing and contrasting the different forms that counterterrorism cooperation can take. It concludes with a specific focus on Afghanistan.
Framing Counterterrorism Cooperation
Counterterrorism cooperation can broadly be divided into three categories. The first is intelligence sharing and legal coordination between the United States and other countries, which includes such efforts as thwarting terrorist financing through improved sharing of financial intelligence. The second is assistance from the United States, which includes the provision of equipment and training to military and security services of a host-nation. The exemplar here is the State Department’s Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance, which assesses a state’s needs for law enforcement capabilities for counterterrorism and then provides appropriate training. The third is operational cooperation, where U.S. personnel work alongside forces from a host-nation in the actual conduct of counterterrorism operations.
This article focuses on the third category, where U.S. personnel are present in at least a direct support role—at a minimum, providing intelligence and planning assistance alongside those forces if not actually accompanying them on missions. It further focuses on the subset of that category where the United States is substantially paying for the host nation forces in question (in other words, a substantial assistance mission along with operational cooperation). This subset is still expansive, including crucial operations against al-Qa`ida and its affiliates in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
There are two principal types of forces within this subset of host nation forces that U.S. personnel directly support and for which the U.S. Treasury pays. The first is a partner force, which can be defined as a regular component of the host nation’s military or security services that conducts combined operations with U.S. personnel. Partner forces for counterterrorism operations will likely be working with U.S. special operations forces (SOF), although non-SOF may be involved as well (such as intelligence specialists). While the operations of these units may be classified, their existence is generally acknowledged as they do represent a component of the host nation’s military or security forces.
Partner forces are frequently paid directly out of Department of Defense (DoD) funds due to modifications to post-2001 defense appropriations bills. Most notable has been the so-called “1206 authority” named for Section 1206 of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, which gave DoD the authority to train and equip foreign forces for counterterrorism operations. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen there have been additional specific authorizations to fund security forces, some or all of which have been used to support counterterrorism partner forces.
The second type is a proxy force, which is defined as an irregular force that is not a component of the host nation’s regular security force and works principally (though perhaps not exclusively) for the United States. Proxy forces will likely be working with either Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers or U.S. SOF. Unlike partner forces, the existence of proxy forces will seldom be acknowledged openly.
Until recently, such proxy forces would principally have been paid for with CIA funds under the authority of a presidential finding for covert action. The first finding supporting covert action for counterterrorism was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and has no doubt been modified and updated extensively since 2001. Since 2005, however, an additional source of funding has (at least potentially) been the Department of Defense under “1208 authority.” 1208 authority, also named for the relevant section of an authorization act, allows use of funds to support “foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals” who work with SOF for counterterrorism purposes. The limit of 1208 funding has risen from $25 million annually to $45 million annually in FY11.
The change in how partner and proxy forces are paid since 2001 is significant as it represents a shift of authority from the State Department and CIA to DoD. As Congressional Research Service analyst Nina Serafino notes, “…DOD generally has trained and equipped foreign military forces under State Department Title 22 authority and through State Department programs…Section 1206 is the first DOD global train-and-equip authority since the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which placed oversight for military assistance with the Secretary of State.” In other words, DoD gained the ability to support partners directly rather than via a mechanism under State Department authority. Similarly, 1208 authority gives DoD an authority to support proxy forces that has previously been primarily under the CIA. Further, 1208 authority does not appear to acquire the high level oversight involved in CIA covert action program, such as a presidential finding.
There are positives and negatives to both partner and proxy forces. Partner forces have the advantage of being recognized elements of a host nation security apparatus, which gives them authorization to conduct approved operations in that host nation. Depending on the laws and policies of the host nation, this can provide them with broad powers of arrest, surveillance, and the use of lethal force. They can also call on other elements of the host nation government to support their operations (at least potentially).
Partner forces, however, have the drawback of being controlled by the host nation government. If there is substantial alignment in host nation and U.S. interests, this is not a major problem, but if the two diverge it can lead to serious difficulties. Moreover, the close association with U.S. personnel may make the host nation government suspicious of the partner force.
Iraq provides an unfortunate example of this drawback in the form of General Nomon Dakhil, the commander of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s elite Emergency Response Brigade. General Dakhil’s unit was a major partner force for U.S. SOF conducting counterterrorism operations in Iraq. They had a high opinion of the general, who one SOF commander noted was “an outstanding partner.” The general, however, was arrested in 2011 on corruption charges, which some have deemed more political than actual, after his unit targeted Shi`a extremists in southern Iraq. After his arrest, targeting of Shi`a militias by his unit decreased while attacks on U.S. forces by those militias are reported to have increased.
Proxy forces, conversely, owe loyalty not to the host nation government but to themselves and to the United States, in that order. This makes them potentially more responsive to U.S. direction if they are well managed, advised, and paid. The negative, however, is that they lack the clear authorization to use force or collect intelligence that host nation security forces have. This can cause friction with the host nation. Indeed, there is potential for conflict between host nation security forces and the proxy force if the United States is unable to effectively manage that relationship.
Iraq presents examples of this drawback as well. Beginning in 2005, U.S. personnel began to support tribesmen and former Sunni insurgents against al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI). These irregulars came to be called the sahwa (awakening), or Sons of Iraq. While they were effective in combating AQI in some instances, they were themselves targeted as terrorists by Iraqi security forces.
An additional advantage to proxy forces is plausible deniability if they are used for politically sensitive missions. An example of this would be cross-border action into a third country where terrorists have sought haven. If the proxy force is discovered, it at least does not have the direct overt ties to the United States of either U.S. personnel or a U.S. partner force.
Partners and Proxies in Afghanistan
According to unclassified sources, the United States is making extensive use of both partners and proxies for counterterrorism in Afghanistan. In terms of partner forces, the first is known as the Afghan Partner Unit (APU) to U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Little has been publicly revealed about this unit, but in Senate testimony former JSOC commander Admiral William McRaven described it as an Afghan special operations unit “…that went on target with the JSOC forces forward to ensure that we had an Afghan that was, if you will, going through the door first, that was making first contact with the locals, in order to make sure that we kind of protected the culturally sensitive issues or items that were on target.”
While the capabilities of the APU are not known, Admiral McRaven rated them as “top notch.” This is reinforced by the fact that operators from the APU were apparently aboard the helicopter carrying JSOC personnel that was shot down in Wardak Province in August 2011. This was alleged to be an immediate reaction force (IRF) responding to other JSOC personnel in an intense ground engagement. It is unlikely that APU personnel would be brought along on such a mission if they were not well regarded by JSOC.
In addition to the APU, U.S. SOF have partnered with Afghan National Army Commandos and Ministry of Interior Provincial Response Companies (PRCs) to conduct counterterrorism operations. These units are regionally or provincially focused and conduct operations other than just counterterrorism. Both are regarded as highly capable for counterterrorism operations. Finally, the Afghan National Directorate of Security’s Counterterrorism Department 90 (DET 90) is reported to partner with international special operations forces to conduct counterterrorism operations.
In terms of proxy forces, the United States has not acknowledged the existence of any inside Afghanistan. The CIA, however, has been widely reported to operate proxy forces inside Afghanistan, allegedly known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. These teams have been described as “one of the best fighting forces in Afghanistan” and are alleged to be both well paid and well motivated.
Yet the problems with both partner and proxy forces observed in Iraq and elsewhere appear to be present in Afghanistan. Partner forces face ongoing protests about their use in so-called “night raids,” operations conducted at night to detain terrorist suspects. These raids are perceived by many Afghans as unjust or at least poorly informed, which results in needless civilian deaths and detentions. In the future, the Afghan government could reduce or suspend partner force cooperation with the United States as a result. Conversely, the United Nations has severely criticized DET 90 treatment of detainees, which may make it politically difficult for U.S. leaders to continue cooperation with it in the future.
Proxy force problems, such as friction with host nation security forces, have also apparently occurred. In 2009, a unit known as the Kandahar Strike Force—allegedly supported by the CIA—confronted the police in Kandahar city after one of the brothers of a strike force member was arrested. The confrontation turned violent and the Kandahar provincial chief of police was killed.
Both partners and proxies are likely to be necessary in the continuing campaign against al-Qa`ida, particularly in troubled regions like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In Afghanistan particularly, the drawdown timeline laid out by President Barack Obama means that these forces will assume even greater importance. Policymakers must be cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of these two different modes of operational cooperation. Overreliance on one at the expense of the other can mean that the U.S. government will lack options as situations rapidly evolve (such as the political landscape in a host nation). At the same time, coordination between these different forces (and their U.S. partners) must be vigorously maintained to prevent the emergence of friction and potentially fratricide between them.
Austin Long is an Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a Member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He was previously an Associate Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. While at RAND, he served in Iraq as an analyst and adviser to Multinational Force-Iraq’s Task Force 134/Detention Operations and the I Marine Expeditionary Force (2007-2008). In 2011, he served in Afghanistan as an analyst and adviser to Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan.
 For general problems with partner forces, see Daniel Byman, “Friends Like These: Counterinsurgency and the War on Terrorism,” International Security 31:2 (2006).
 See the discussion in Nina Serafino, “Security Assistance Reform: ‘Section 1206’ Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2011.
 These are the Iraqi Security Forces Fund, the Afghan Security Forces Fund, and Section 1205 of the FY11 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes support to Yemeni Ministry of Interior counterterrorism forces.
 On the original finding, see Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2004).
 See Section 1201 of the FY11 National Defense Authorization Act.
 Tim Durango, Duraid Adnan, and Yasir Ghazi, “U.S. Loses Ally as Iraqi General Waits for Trial,” New York Times, July 27, 2011.
 See, for example, Richard Oppel, “Mistrust as Iraqi Troops Encounter New U.S. Allies,” New York Times, July 16, 2007.
 William McRaven, transcript of U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee meeting, June 28, 2011.
 Sean Naylor, “NSW Source: Crash ‘Worst Day in our History,” Army Times, August 6, 2011.
 See, for example, “Commandos from the ‘Sun’ Graduate,” press release, International Security Assistance Force, May 10, 2010; Debra Richardson, “COIN in Practice,” Infantry 99:2 (2010).
 “Treatment of Conflict Related Detainees in Afghan Custody,” United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan, October 2011.
 Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010) was the first and most detailed account.
 Luis Martinez, “US Official Confirms CIA’s 3,000 Man Army in Afghanistan,” ABC News, September 22, 2010.
 Dion Nissenbaum, “Afghanistan War: US Night Raid Sparks Protest Over Civilian Deaths,” McClatchy Newspapers, April 29, 2010.
 “Treatment of Conflict Related Detainees in Afghan Custody.”
 Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan Leader Said to Be Paid by C.I.A.,” New York Times, October 27, 2009.