May 27 2010
The US military is expanding covert operations in the Middle East, central Asia and the Horn of Africa, sending troops on undercover operations that were previously left mainly to the CIA and other civilian spy agencies.
Pentagon officials confirmed today that General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, signed the order in September to broaden the scope of surveillance and other undercover work in these regions.
It opens the way for clandestine operations more extensive than those approved under the Bush administration. There are few details in the order about specific operations, but US military teams have been variously reported to be active in Iran, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Special operations teams will work, sometimes alongside local forces, to penetrate and disrupt groups such as al-Qaida and prepare for future attacks, possibly against Iran.
The New York Times, which disclosed the existence of the new order, said it was aimed primarily at intelligence-gathering rather than the kind of offensive covert actions directed by Donald Rumsfeld while he was Bush’s defence secretary.
According to the Times, the focus of the intelligence-gathering is to identify militants and it would be carried out not only by American troops but by business workers, academics and others.
This revelation will increase the already existing suspicion in some of these countries of people travelling for business or study.
The order reflects the shift from traditional warfare between countries to combating groups such as al-Qaida. But it creates a potential hazard for troops, who would not be covered by the Geneva convention and would be treated as spies.
There has long been rivalry between the Pentagon and the CIA over intelligence-gathering, with the defence department complaining of too many gaps in knowledge.
A CIA spokesman insisted the order did not create tension between the military and the civilian agency and there was no inter-agency rivalry.
The order specifically says military involvement in undercover operations will only happen when intelligence-gathering cannot be accomplished by the CIA and other civilian agencies.
Military teams give approval for operations in allied countries, such as Saudi Arabia, as well as hostile ones.
The seven-page Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Executive Order appears to authorise operations in Iran but without any specifics.
Iran has repeatedly accused the US, Britain and other Western countries of sending in operatives to foment unrest among ethnic regional groups and of working with dissidents.
Western intelligence services have also been accused of trying to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme and trying to gather information that could be useful in the event of an attack on the country.
An example of the kind of operations the military is now involved in is Yemen, where the Pentagon took an increased interest after the failed Christmas plane bombing. The Pentagon has increased from $67m (£46m) to $150m funds to help Yemen forces take on al-Qaida.
Another example of the kind of operations they might be involved in was a raid, carried out two weeks before the order was signed, that saw Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of al-Qaida in Somalia, apparently killed in a raid in Somalia reportedly carried out by US Navy Seals.