KABUL, Afghanistan – Western espionage agencies are evaluating and soliciting regional leaders outside the Afghan government who may be able to provide intelligence on terrorist threats long after U.S. forces have withdrawn, according to current and former American, European and Afghan officials.
The effort represents a turning point in the war. Instead of one of the largest multinational military training missions of all time, informants and intelligence agencies are now being sought. Despite diplomats saying the Afghan government and its security forces will be able to go into business for themselves, the move signals that Western intelligence agencies are focusing on the possible – or even probable – collapse of the central government and an inevitable return to civil war to prepare.
Court officials in Afghanistan recall the 1980s and 1990s when the country was controlled by the Soviets and then turned into a factional conflict between regional leaders. The West was often dependent on opposing warlords – and at times supported them financially through relationships that were at odds with the Afghan people. As a result of such actions, the United States in particular was often indebted to brokers who had outrageously committed human rights abuses.
Candidates considered today for intelligence gathering include the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous Afghan fighter who led fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s and against the Taliban for the following decade as head of the Northern Alliance . The son – Ahmad Massoud, 32 – has tried in recent years to revive his father’s work by assembling a coalition of militias to defend northern Afghanistan.
Afghans, American and European officials say there is no formal cooperation between Mr Massoud and Western intelligence services, although some have held preliminary meetings. It is true that within the C.I.A. and France’s D.G.S.E. Since he could provide information, opinions differ as to whether Mr Massoud, who has not been tested as a leader, would be able to order an effective resistance.
The appeal of developing relationships with Mr Massoud and other regional brokers is obvious: Western governments distrust the Taliban’s lukewarm commitments to keep terrorist groups out of the country in the years to come, and fear that if they do not, the Afghan government could collapse Peace settlement is achieved. The Second Resistance, as Mr Massoud now calls his armed insurgent force, is a network that opposes the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or any extremist group that rises in their shadow.
Top C.I.A. Officials including William J. Burns, the agency’s director, have confirmed that they will be looking for new ways to gather information in Afghanistan once American forces have withdrawn and that their ability to gather information about terrorist activities will be limited is.
But Mr Massoud’s organization is still in its infancy, desperate for support and legitimacy. It is supported by about a dozen militia commanders who have fought against the Taliban and the Soviets in the past, as well as several thousand fighters in the north. Mr Massoud says his ranks are occupied by those insulted by the government and he believes Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, much like the Taliban, has exceeded his greeting.
“We are ready, even if it takes my own life,” said Massoud in an interview.
Even the symbols at Mr. Massoud’s events date back to the time of the Civil War: old flags of the Northern Alliance and the old national anthem.
But despite all the excitement of Mr Massoud at the recent rallies and ceremonies, the idea would follow that the Northern Alliance could be renamed and that its former leaders – some of whom have now become ambassadors, vice presidents and top military commanders in the Afghan government – would follow someone who is half his age and has little battlefield experience seems unrealistic right now, security analysts have said.
Supporting any kind of insurrection or building a resistance movement presents real challenges today, said Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. Analyst who has done extensive work on Afghanistan.
“The concern is what would the second resistance involve and what would our goals be?” She said. “I’m afraid people are proposing a new proxy war in Afghanistan. I think we learned that we can’t win. “
Even considering that an unproven militia leader for possible counter-terrorism assurances upon withdrawal of international forces is undermining the last two decades of state-building, security analysts say, practically turning the idea of an impending civil war into an expected reality by further strengthening anti-government forces . Such divisions are widespread for exploitation by the Taliban.
The United States had a close relationship with the Northern Alliance, which made it difficult to gather information in the country. The French and British both supported high-ranking Massoud in the 1980s, while the Americans instead focused primarily on groups linked to Pakistani intelligence. The C.I.A. Links with Mr Massoud and his group were limited until 1996 when the agency began providing logistical assistance in exchange for information about al-Qaeda.
One of the reasons the C.I.A. Keeping Massoud at a distance was his track record of unreliability, drug trafficking, and war atrocities in the early 1990s, when Mr. Massoud’s forces shelled Kabul and massacred civilians as other warlords did.
Now, different allied governments and officials have different views on Mr. Massoud and the viability of his movement. The French, who were devoted supporters of his father, see his efforts as promising to put up real resistance to the control of the Taliban.
David Martinon, the French ambassador in Kabul, said he had been watching Mr Massoud closely for the past three years and nominated him for a trip to Paris to meet with French leaders, including the president. “He’s smart, passionate, and a man of integrity who is dedicated to his country,” said Martinon.
Washington is more divided, and some government analysts do not believe Mr Massoud would be able to build an effective coalition.
Eighteen months ago, Lisa Curtis, then a National Security Council official, met with Mr. Massoud along with Zalmay Khalilzad, the leading US diplomat who led the peace effort with the Taliban. She described him as charismatic and said he spoke convincingly about the importance of democratic values. “He’s very clear and talks about the importance of maintaining the progress made over the past 20 years,” she said.
In Afghanistan, some are more skeptical of Mr Massoud’s power to influence a resistance.
“Practical experience has shown that no one can be like his father,” said Lieutenant General Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a former deputy minister in the Ministry of the Interior. “His son lives in a different time and does not have the experience that his father matured.”
Other members of the Afghan government see Mr Massoud as a nuisance, someone who has the potential to create problems for his own interests in the future.
While opinions differ on his organizational skills, there is broad consensus that Mr Massoud can help act as eyes and ears for the West – as his father did 20 years ago.
Mr. Massoud, who was trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, UK, returned to Afghanistan in 2016. He spent the next three years quietly building support before becoming more public in 2019 through rallies and recruiting campaigns across the north.
In recent months, Mr Massoud’s rhetoric has grown tougher when he recently attacked Mr Ghani during a ceremony in Kabul and his efforts to secure international support became more aggressive. Not only has Mr. Massoud reached the US, UK and France, but also courted India, Iran and Russia, according to people familiar with his activities. Afghan intelligence documents show that Mr Massoud is buying weapons from Russia through an intermediary.
But Europe and the United States see him less as a bulwark against a rising Taliban than as a potentially important observer of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. A generation ago, Mr. Massoud’s father was open about the burgeoning terrorist threats in the country. And even if the son cannot command the same armed forces as his father, he may be able to issue similar warnings.
As a young diplomat, Mr Martinon recalls Massoud’s late warning to the world during his visit to France in April 2001.
“What he said was caution, caution,” recalled Mr. Martinon. “The Taliban are hosting Al-Qaeda and preparing something.”
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington. Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi reported from Kabul.