WASHINGTON — On a sweltering day earlier this summer, operatives with the Central Intelligence Agency gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to bury two of their own. Brian Ray Hoke and Nathaniel Patrick Delemarre, elite gunslingers who worked for the C.I.A.’s paramilitary force, were laid to rest after a firefight with Islamic State militants near Jalalabad in Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan.
There had been scant mention of Mr. Hoke’s death in local news reports in Leesburg, Va., his home, and nothing at all about Mr. Delemarre in news accounts in the Florida Panhandle, where his family lives. Their deaths this past October were never acknowledged by the C.I.A., beyond two memorial stars chiseled in a marble wall at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va.
Today there are at least 18 stars on that wall representing the number of C.I.A. personnel killed in Afghanistan — a tally that has not been previously reported, and one that rivals the number of C.I.A. operatives killed in the wars in Vietnam and Laos nearly a half century ago.
The deaths are a reflection of the heavy price the agency has paid in a secret, nearly 16-year-old war, where thousands of C.I.A. operatives have served since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The deaths of Mr. Hoke, 42, and Mr. Delemarre, 47, show how the C.I.A. continues to move from traditional espionage to the front lines, and underscore the pressure the agency faces now that President Trump has pledged to keep the United States in Afghanistan with no end in sight.
“We are going to be fighting this war for a very long time,” said Ken Stiles, a former C.I.A. counterterrorism analyst who worked closely with paramilitary officers in Afghanistan and who lost three friends in the war.
The Makings of Secret Gunslingers
Mr. Hoke grew up in Park River, S.D., played violin and football in high school, graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in oceanography and in 1997 passed the grueling test to become a member of the Navy SEALs. He was deployed to the Middle East and Europe, and in 2004 joined the C.I.A.
At the agency’s training facility in Virginia, known as the Farm, Mr. Hoke learned how to recruit and handle spies and the art of crafting secret messages. He stood out, a classmate recalled, as among the best in the class. Mr. Hoke moved on to the agency’s advanced training course, held at a secret location in the southeastern United States, and was soon part of the agency’s paramilitary arm, the Special Activities Division.
Like Mr. Hoke, many of those in the Special Activities Division came from the SEALs, the Army’s Delta Force and other elite military units.
During his 12 years in the C.I.A., Mr. Hoke played the role of both commando and spy. He deployed to Iraq and other hot spots but also posed as a foreign service officer — the agency’s typical cover for a covert officer — in Greece and Denmark. The agency had Mr. Hoke serve outside war zones to broaden his experiences, friends said.
Mr. Hoke, like his colleagues, knew there were great risks. In a desk drawer at home in Leesburg, he kept a clipping of a newspaper article about another C.I.A. operative, Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, a Marine officer and fellow Naval Academy graduate known as the “Lion of Falluja,” who was killed in Iraq in 2007.
In 2008, Mr. Hoke was deployed in Afghanistan when he was called on to reinforce a group of C.I.A. operatives who had been ambushed by the Taliban. One of the operatives, Donald Barger, 40, a former Ranger and Green Beret who earned the Bronze Star, was dead by the time Mr. Hoke arrived at the scene, former agency officers said.
Friends say that Mr. Hoke turned to painting to help decompress after his tours.
In an email exchange, Mr. Hoke’s wife, Christy, described her husband as “the kind of person movies are made about, as are most of his colleagues. Unbelievable human beings.”
“He lived by a code that I will not break for anything. Even writing this email feels like a small betrayal,” she said.
Mr. Hoke left behind three children.
Little is known about Mr. Delemarre’s service in the C.I.A. According to military records, he spent roughly a dozen years as a radio operator in the Marine Reserves, where he was a lance corporal. Friends willing to talk about him said he joined the C.I.A. following the Sept. 11 attacks and later shifted to the Navy Reserves — a commitment he maintained while also working at the spy agency — where he became a commissioned officer.
Mr. Delemarre’s wife declined to be interviewed. He left behind two daughters.
The C.I.A. in Afghanistan
Since 2001, as thousands of C.I.A. officers and contractors have cycled in and out of Afghanistan targeting terrorists and running sources, operatives from the Special Activities Division have been part of some of the most dangerous missions. Overall, the division numbers in the low hundreds and also operates in Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines and other areas of conflict.
C.I.A. paramilitary officers from the division were the first Americans in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, and they later spirited Hamid Karzai, the future president, into the country. Greg Vogle, an agency operative who took Mr. Karzai into Afghanistan, went on to run the paramilitary division and became the top spy at the C.I.A.
The first American killed in the country, Johnny Micheal Spann, was a C.I.A. officer assigned to the Special Activities Division. He died in November 2001 during a prison uprising
In the years since, paramilitary officers from the Special Activities Division have trained and advised a small army of Afghan militias known as counterterrorism pursuit teams. The militias took on greater importance under President Barack Obama, who embraced covert operations because of their small footprint and deniability.
The militias, and their C.I.A. handlers, were at times accused by Afghan officials and others of acting as a law unto themselves, running roughshod over civilians and killing innocents. Raids by C.I.A. paramilitary officers and militia fighters also resulted in airstrikes that killed Afghan civilians.
In 2009, in the worst loss for the agency in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest and killed seven C.I.A. employees — none were from the Special Activities Division — at a forward operating base in Khost, on the Pakistan border.
At the same time, the C.I.A. helped build the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, which has long faced accusations of torturing suspected militants.
The C.I.A. also spent more than a decade financing a slush fund for Mr. Karzai. Every month, agency officers would drop off cash in suitcases, backpacks and even plastic shopping bags. Mr. Karzai’s aides would use the cash to run a vast patronage network, paying off warlords, lawmakers and others they wanted to keep on their side.
The slush fund, which was exposed in 2013, was seen by many American diplomats and other officials and experts as fueling the rampant corruption that has undermined the American effort to build a functioning democracy in Afghanistan.
An Assault and a Funeral of Two Friends
On Oct. 21, 2016, Mr. Hoke and Mr. Delemarre were shot in an assault on an Islamic State compound in Jalalabad, where the militant group has made inroads in recent years.
Details are sparse. Friends say that as Mr. Hoke made his way around a wall, a militant shot him. Mr. Hoke radioed that he was down, Mr. Delemarre heard his close friend’s voice, left his position of safety and ran to Mr. Hoke’s aid, but Mr. Hoke soon died. Mr. Delemarre was wounded in his attempt to help and was evacuated to Germany, where he died shortly after his wife arrived.
The two were awarded stars at the C.I.A. in May, when the agency held its annual memorial for officers who died in the line of duty. A third C.I.A. paramilitary officer, George A. Whitney, 38, who was killed in December in the Jalalabad area, also received a star. As a Marine captain, Mr. Whitney served with the 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion in Anbar province in Iraq. Relatives of Mr. Whitney, who studied classics and played fullback on the football team at Bates College in Maine, declined to comment.
Other C.I.A. operatives killed in Afghanistan since 2001 include Dario Lorenzetti, a West Point graduate and former Ranger, who died in 2012 after a member of the Afghan intelligence service detonated a suicide vest in an insider attack; Jay Henigan, 61, a contractor and plumber who was gunned down in Kabul in 2011 during an attack; a pair of paramilitary officers killed in 2003 while tracking terrorists in southeastern Afghanistan; and Nathan Ross Chapman, a Green Beret who was detailed to a C.I.A. paramilitary team in Afghanistan when he was shot to death hunting Al Qaeda in January 2002.
The seven C.I.A. employees killed by a suicide bomber in 2009 in Khost were at Forward Operating Base Chapman, which had been named for him.
The ranks of C.I.A. operatives aren’t easily replaced, said Mr. Stiles, the former counterterrorism analyst.
“That’s going to be one of the challenges for the government,’’ he said. “How do we maintain the level of experience and expertise in a war that is going to last for another 20 or 30 years or longer?”
At the Arlington funeral of Mr. Hoke and Mr. Delemarre on July 14 — long delays before interment are common — heavily muscled men with beards and sunglasses sweated through their suit jackets as a Navy honor guard played taps and performed a rifle salute. Mr. Vogle, the C.I.A. operative who took Mr. Karzai into Afghanistan, stood among the mourners.
A program from the service shows a smiling Mr. Hoke in a tuxedo and a grinning Mr. Delemarre on the beach. On the back of the program is a quote from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz: “They fought together as brothers in arms; they died together and now they sleep side by side.”