C.I.A. Scrambles for New Strategy in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON – The U.S. military’s swift withdrawal from Afghanistan is putting heavy pressure on the CIA to find new ways to gather intelligence and launch counterterrorism attacks in the country, but the agency has few good options.
The CIA, which is at the heart of America’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose its bases in the country from where it carried out combat operations and drone strikes while defending the Taliban and other groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State . The agency’s analysts warn of the ever-increasing risks of a Taliban takeover.
US officials are making last minute efforts to secure bases near Afghanistan for future operations. However, the complexity of the ongoing conflict has resulted in delicate diplomatic negotiations as the military presses to remove all forces by early to mid-July, well before President Biden’s September 11 deadline, according to American officials and regional experts.
One focus was Pakistan. The CIA used a base there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the country’s western mountains, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011 when US relations with Pakistan began to falter.
Any deal now would have to circumvent the uncomfortable reality that the Pakistani government has long supported the Taliban. In talks between American and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis called for a variety of restrictions in return for using a base in the country, effectively demanding that they sign off any targets that either the CIA or the military wanted hit in Afghanistan, three Americans say are familiar with the discussions.
Diplomats are also examining the possibility of regaining access to bases in former Soviet republics that were used for the Afghan war, although they expect President Vladimir V. Putin would vehemently oppose it.
Recent CIA and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have been increasingly pessimistic. They highlighted the achievements of the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east and warned that within years Kabul could fall to the Taliban and become a safe haven for militants who want to attack the West, according to several people working with of assessments.
As a result, US officials see the need for a long-term presence of intelligence information – in addition to the military and CIA counter-terrorism operations – in Afghanistan long after Mr Biden has set for troops to leave the country. But the scramble for bases shows how US officials are still lacking a long-term plan to tackle security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 soldiers over nearly two decades.
William J. Burns, the CIA director, has recognized the challenge the agency faces. “When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and respond to threats will decline,” he told Senators in April. “It’s just a fact.”
Mr. Burns made an unannounced visit to Islamabad, Pakistan in the past few weeks to meet with the head of the Pakistani military and the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence service. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has made frequent phone calls to the Pakistani military chief for the country’s aid for future US operations in Afghanistan, according to American officials familiar with the talks.
Mr Burns did not raise the grassroots issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to those briefed on the meeting; The visit focused on the two countries’ broader counter-terrorism cooperation. At least some of Mr. Austin’s discussions were more direct, according to the people who were informed of them.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about Mr Burns’ trip to Pakistan.
Two decades of war in Afghanistan have helped transform the espionage agency into a paramilitary organization: it carries out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trains Afghan commandos, and maintains a large presence of CIA officers in a number of bases along the border to Pakistan. At one point during President Barack Obama’s first term, the agency had several hundred officers in Afghanistan, the largest increase in any country since the Vietnam War.
These operations come at a price. Night strikes by CIA-trained Afghan forces left a trail of abuse that increased support for the Taliban in parts of the country. Occasional misdirected drone strikes in Pakistan killed civilians and increased pressure on the Islamabad government to withdraw its silent support for CIA operations.
Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the agency will likely rely on a network of informants in Afghanistan to gather information on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the stability of the central government would government and other issues. But without a large CIA presence in the country, he said, scrutiny of the intelligence services would be a challenge.
“When you do business offshore, you are dealing with middlemen,” said Mr. London, who is about to publish a book, The Recruiter, about his CIA experience. “It’s like playing the phone.”
In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter planes in Afghanistan to help with the withdrawal of troops. However, the porter presence is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials said they would likely be re-deployed not long after the last of the U.S. forces were withdrawn.
June 4, 2021, 7:27 p.m. ET
The United States is deploying MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Arabian Gulf region, aircraft that both the Pentagon and the CIA can use for intelligence gathering and attacks.
However, some officials are wary of these so-called over-the-horizon options, which require planes and drones to fly up to nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan, which would make operations more expensive because they require more drones and fuel. and also riskier because reinforcements needed for command raids cannot arrive quickly during a crisis.
Pakistan has long been a patron saint of the Taliban; she sees the group as a critical proxy in Afghanistan vis-à-vis other groups with ties to India. For years, the Pakistani espionage agency provided weapons and training to Taliban fighters and protected the leaders of the group. The government in Islamabad is unlikely to sign US attacks against the Taliban launched from a base in Pakistan.
Although some American officials believe that Pakistan will allow the US access to a base as long as it can control its use, public opinion in the country has been firmly against a renewed US presence.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told lawmakers last month that the government would not allow the US military to return to the country’s air bases. “Forget the past, but I want to tell the Pakistanis that Prime Minister Imran Khan won’t allow a US base while he’s in power,” said Qureshi.
Some American officials said negotiations with Pakistan had reached an impasse for the time being. Others have said the option remains on the table and a deal is possible.
The CIA used the Shamsi Air Force Base in western Pakistan to carry out hundreds of drone strikes during a surge that began in 2008 and continued through the early years of the Obama administration. The attacks were primarily focused on suspected al-Qaida activists in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, but also crossed the border into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government refused to publicly acknowledge that it allowed CIA operations and decided in late 2011 to suspend drone operations after a series of high profile events that destroyed relations with the United States. These included the arrest of a CIA contractor in Lahore for shooting unarmed civilians, the secret American command mission in Pakistan to assassinate Osama bin Laden, and an American-led NATO air strike on the Afghan border in November 2011 that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers .
Americans and Pakistanis will “be cautious” with a new relationship, said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But, he said, Mr Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal “has embarrassed the CIA and the Department of Defense as well as Pakistanis”.
American diplomats have been looking for ways to restore access to bases in Central Asia, including locations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that housed American troops and intelligence officers during the war.
Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken spoke to his counterpart in Tajikistan this month, although it is not clear whether access to the base was discussed during the call. Any negotiations with these countries will likely take a long time. A State Department spokeswoman would only say that Mr Blinken is involving partner countries in reorganizing the United States’ counter-terrorism capabilities.
Russia has spoken out against the United States’ use of bases in Central Asia and this will likely make any diplomatic effort to secure access to bases for military strikes a slow process, according to a senior American official.
While the CIA in particular has long been pessimistic about the prospects for stability in Afghanistan, these assessments have been refined in recent weeks by the tactical advances made by the Taliban.
While military and intelligence analysts previously had conflicting assessments, they now largely agree that the Afghan government is likely to struggle to stay in power. They believe that the Afghan security forces have been exhausted from high casualties in recent years. The announcement of the US withdrawal is another psychological blow that could weaken power.
According to intelligence reports, the Afghan National Security Forces will be weakened without continued American support and could potentially collapse. Officials are working to develop options for continuing that remotely support, but the Pentagon has yet to come up with a realistic plan that officials believe will work.
Some current and former officials are skeptical that remote counseling or combat operations will be successful. Without a large presence in Afghanistan, it will be much harder to gather information, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired CIA officer who served there.
“It doesn’t matter if you can drop regulations,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.”
Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.