No matter who's in charge, the special-operations units still would target militants on joint raids with Afghans and keep training Afghan forces to do the job on their own.
The idea floated by a senior defense intelligence official comes as U.S. defense chiefs try to figure out how to draw down troops fast enough to meet the White House's 2014 deadline. Pentagon staffers already have put forward a plan to hand over much of the war-fighting to special-operations troops.
This idea would take that plan one step further, shrinking the U.S. presence to fewer than 20,000 troops after 2014, according to four current and two former U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program involves classified operatives.
Pentagon spokesman George Little denied that the idea was being discussed. "Any suggestion that such a plan exists is simply wrong," he said Saturday. "United States special-operations forces continue to work closely with the intelligence community to confront a range of national security challenges across the world."
Reducing the U.S. presence faster would be a political boon for the White House and Afghan government, with Afghan sentiment raw over incidents ranging from civilian casualties from U.S. strike operations to the recent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.
But a CIA-run war would mean the U.S. public would not be informed about funding or operations, as they are in a traditional war. Oversight would fall to the White House, top intelligence officials, and a few congressional committees. Embedding journalists would be out of the question.
Two senior defense officials said neither the CIA nor Special Operations Command had officially sent the plan to Panetta. The other officials who said they had been part of discussions about the plan said it would require the assent of the White House and congressional oversight committees, and would be contingent upon Afghan government approval. The idea has not yet been presented at any of those levels, the sources said.
The CIA's intelligence and paramilitary elements regularly work alongside special-operations units, both in the war zone and in areas where militants operate.
On a case-by-case basis, elite special-operations units are assigned to the CIA for missions when the United States wants total deniability, usually in areas where the United States is operating without the local government's permission, as in the bin Laden raid.
The notion of longer-term assignments to the CIA does not sit well with some senior special-operations commanders, who want their units to remain autonomous in order to keep them under Defense Department legal parameters. If CIA-assigned troops are captured, for example, they would be treated as spies, who are not protected by the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war.