CIA fights for new approach in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – The rapid US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is putting intense pressure on the CIA to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has little good options.

The CIA, which has been at the heart of the 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country from where it has conducted combat missions and drone strikes while closely monitoring the Taliban and d ‘other groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Agency analysts warn of the ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover.

US officials are making last-minute efforts to secure bases near Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the ongoing conflict has led to thorny diplomatic negotiations as the military strives to withdraw all forces from early to mid-July, well ahead of President Biden’s September 11 deadline, according to President Biden. US officials and regional experts.

One of the focal points has been Pakistan. The CIA used a base there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the mountains of the west of the country, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011, when relations between the United States and Pakistan collapsed.

Any deal should now bypass the uncomfortable reality that the Pakistani government has long supported the Taliban. In talks between US and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis demanded various restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country, and they effectively demanded that they approve any targets the CIA or the military would like. struck inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the talks.

Diplomats are also exploring the possibility of regaining access to bases in the former Soviet republics that were used for the war in Afghanistan, although they expect Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to fiercely oppose it. .

Recent CIA and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan are increasingly pessimistic. They highlighted the gains of the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall into Taliban hands within years and once again become a haven for militants determined to strike the West. , according to several people familiar with the ratings.

As a result, US officials see the need for a long-term intelligence gathering presence – in addition to CIA military and counterterrorism operations – in Afghanistan well past Mr. Biden’s deadline for troop departure. from the country. But the rush to the bases illustrates how US officials still lack a long-term plan to ensure security in a country where they have spent billions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops in nearly two decades.

William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, acknowledged the challenge the agency faces. “When the time is right for the US military to withdraw, the ability of the US government to collect and respond to threats will diminish,” he told senators in April. “This is simply a fact.”

Mr Burns has unexpectedly visited Islamabad, Pakistan in recent weeks to meet with the Pakistani military chief and the CEO of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s military intelligence agency. . Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has had frequent calls with the Pakistani military leader for the country’s assistance for future US operations in Afghanistan, according to US officials familiar with the conversations.

Mr Burns did not raise the basic issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to those briefed at the meeting; the visit focused on broader counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. At least some of Mr Austin’s discussions have been more direct, according to people who have been briefed.

A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about Mr. Burns’ trip to Pakistan.

Two decades of war in Afghanistan helped transform the spy agency into a paramilitary organization: it carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trained Afghan commando units and maintained a strong presence of military officers. the CIA at a series of bases along the border with Pakistan. At one point during President Barack Obama’s first term, the agency had several hundred officers in Afghanistan, its largest increase in personnel in any country since the Vietnam War.

These operations come at a cost. Nighttime raids by CIA-trained Afghan units left a trail of abuses that increased support for the Taliban in parts of the country. Occasional drone strikes in Pakistan have killed civilians and increased pressure on the Islamabad government to withdraw its quiet support for CIA operations.

Douglas London, former CIA counterterrorism operations chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the agency would likely rely on a network of informants in Afghanistan who would gather intelligence on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the stability of central government and other matters. But without a large CIA presence in the country, he said, verifying intelligence would be a challenge.

“When you deal overseas, you deal with middlemen,” said London, soon to be publishing a book, “The Recruiter,” about his CIA experience. “It’s kind of like playing on the phone.”

In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter jets into Afghanistan to support the troop withdrawal. But the presence of the aircraft carrier is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials have said it will likely redeploy soon after the last US forces leave.

The United States is stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region, planes that can be used by both the Pentagon and the CIA for intelligence gathering and strikes.

But some officials are wary of these so-called options on the horizon that would require the plane and drones to fly up to nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan, making operations more expensive because they require more. drones and fuel, and also more risky because the reinforcements needed for commando raids could not arrive quickly in a crisis.

Pakistan has been a longtime patron of the Taliban; he views the group as a critical proxy force in Afghanistan against other groups with links to India. The Pakistani spy agency has provided arms and training to Taliban fighters for years, as well as protection for the group’s leaders. The Islamabad government is unlikely to approve US strikes against the Taliban launched from a base in Pakistan.

Although some US officials believe Pakistan wishes to allow US access to a base as long as it can control its use, public opinion in the country has strongly opposed any renewed US presence.

Pakistani 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 Pakistanis that no US base will be authorized by Prime Minister Imran Khan while he is in power,” Qureshi said.

Some US officials have said negotiations with Pakistan have so far been deadlocked. Others said the option remained on the table and a deal was possible.

The CIA used Shamsi Air Base in western Pakistan to carry out hundreds of drone strikes in a wave that began in 2008 and lasted through the early years of the Obama administration. The strikes mainly focused on suspected Qaeda operatives in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, but they also crossed the border into Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has refused to publicly acknowledge that it authorizes CIA operations and, in late 2011, decided to halt drone operations after a series of high-profile events that severed relations with the United States. . They included the arrest of a CIA subcontractor in Lahore for a fatal shooting, the secret mission of an American commando in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and a NATO air strike led by the United States. at the Afghan border in November 2011 which killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers.

Americans and Pakistanis “will want to proceed with caution” in a new relationship, said Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But, he said, Mr. Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal “makes the CIA and the Defense Ministry scramble, as well as the Pakistanis.”

U.S. diplomats have explored options to restore access to bases in Central Asia, including sites in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that housed U.S. troops and intelligence officers during the war.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with 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 probably take a considerable amount of time. A State Department spokeswoman is said to have only said that Blinken was engaging partner countries on how the United States was reorganizing its counterterrorism capabilities.

Russia has opposed the use of bases in Central Asia by the United States, which will likely slow any diplomatic effort to secure access to the bases for the purpose of military strikes, according to a senior US official.

While the CIA in particular has long had a pessimistic view of the prospects for stability in Afghanistan, these assessments have been refined in recent weeks as the Taliban have made tactical gains.

While military and intelligence analysts once had conflicting assessments, they now largely agree that the Afghan government is likely to struggle to hang on to power. They believe the Afghan security forces have been exhausted by high casualty rates in recent years. The announcement of the US withdrawal is another psychological blow that could weaken the force.

Intelligence assessments have indicated that without the continued support of the United States, the Afghan national security forces will weaken and possibly collapse. Officials are working to develop options to continue this remote support, but the Pentagon has yet to come up with a realistic plan that officials say will work.

Some current and former officials are skeptical of the success of remote or combat advisory operations. Intelligence gathering becomes much more difficult without a significant presence in Afghanistan, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired CIA officer who served there.

“It doesn’t matter if you can drop the order,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.”

Eric schmitt contributed reports.

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