WASHINGTON >> The CIA is pushing for expanded powers to carry out covert drone strikes in Afghanistan and other active war zones, a proposal that the White House appears to favor despite the misgivings of some at the Pentagon, according to current and former intelligence and military officials.
If approved by President Donald Trump, it would mark the first time the CIA has had such powers in Afghanistan, expanding beyond its existing authority to carry out covert strikes against al-Qaida and other terrorist targets across the border in Pakistan.
The changes are being weighed as part of a broader push inside the Trump White House to loosen Obama-era restraints on how the CIA and the military fight Islamist militants around the world. The Obama administration imposed the restrictions in part to limit civilian casualties, and the proposed shift has raised concerns among critics that the Trump administration would open the way for broader — and riskier — CIA strikes in such countries as Libya, Somalia and Yemen, where the United States is fighting the Islamic State, al-Qaida or both.
Until now, the Pentagon has had the lead role for conducting airstrikes — with drones or other aircraft — against militants in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, such as Somalia and Libya and, to some extent, Yemen. The military publicly acknowledges its strikes, unlike the CIA, which for roughly a decade has carried out its own campaign of covert drone strikes in Pakistan that were not acknowledged by either country.
But the CIA’s director, Mike Pompeo, has made a forceful case to Trump in recent weeks that the Obama-era arrangement needlessly limited the United States’ ability to conduct counterterrorism operations, according to the current and former officials, who would not be named discussing internal debates about sensitive information. He has publicly suggested that Trump favors granting the CIA greater authorities to go after militants, though he has been vague about specifics, nearly all of which are classified.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not resisted the CIA proposal, administration officials said, but other Pentagon officials question the expansion of CIA authorities in Afghanistan or elsewhere, asking what the agency can do that the military cannot. Some Pentagon officials also fear that U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan could end up bearing the burden of any CIA strikes that accidentally kill civilians, because the agency will not publicly acknowledge those attacks.