WASHINGTON – The U.S. military’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan is putting heavy pressure on the CIA. 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 conducted 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 constantly growing 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 C.I.A. 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 any targets that either the C.I.A. or the military would want to strike in Afghanistan, according to three Americans 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.
Current C.I.A. and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have become 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, U.S. officials see the need for a long-term intelligence gathering presence – in addition to military and C.I.A. Counter-terrorism operations – in Afghanistan long after Mr Biden set the deadline for troops to leave. 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 C.I.A. Director, recognized the challenge the agency is facing. “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 telephoned the Pakistani military chief frequently for the country’s aid for future US operations in Afghanistan, according to US 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 briefed on them.
A C.I.A. The 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 C.I.A. Officers in a number 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, the largest increase in any country since the Vietnam War.
These operations come at a price. Night attacks by C.I.A. trained Afghan units 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 show its silent support for C.I.A. call back. Operations.
Douglas London, former head of C.I.A. Counter-terrorism operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan said the agency will likely rely on a “stay-behind” network of informants in Afghanistan to gather information on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, central government stability and other issues would. But without a big C.I.A. Presence in the country, he said verifying 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, on his C.I.A. 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.
The United States is deploying MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region, aircraft used by both the Pentagon and the C.I.A. can be used. for secret service procurement and strikes.
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 is a longtime 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 for Taliban fighters, as well as protection for the group’s leaders. 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 is 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,” Qureshi said.
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 C.I.A. 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 agents in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, but also crossed the border into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government publicly refused to acknowledge that it was the C.I.A. and in late 2011 it decided to cease drone operations after a series of high profile events that broke ties with the United States. This included the arrest of a C.I.A. Contractors in Lahore for a deadly shootout, the secret American command mission in Pakistan to kill 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 the C.I.A. and the Ministry of Defense and Pakistanis are crawling. “
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 C.I.A. In particular, the prospects for stability in Afghanistan have long been pessimistic, but 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. Information gathering becomes much more difficult without a large presence in Afghanistan, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired C.I.A. Officer who served there.
“It doesn’t matter whether you can drop ordnance,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.”
Eric Schmitt Reporting contributed.