Amid Afghan Chaos, a C.I.A. Mission That Will Persist for Years



WASHINGTON — Because the Afghanistan battle wound down, the C.IA. had anticipated to regularly shift its main focus away from counterterrorism — a mission that reworked the company over twenty years right into a paramilitary group centered on manhunts and killing — towards conventional spycraft in opposition to powers like China and Russia.

However a pair of lethal explosions on Thursday have been the newest in a collection of quickly unfolding occasions because the collapse of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban takeover of the nation which have upended that plan. Like a black gap with its personal gravitational pull, Afghanistan may draw the C.I.A. again into a posh counterterrorism mission for years to return.

American officers are remodeling plans to counter threats that might emerge from Afghanistan’s chaos, in response to present and former officers: negotiating for brand new bases in Central Asian nations; figuring out how clandestine officers can run sources within the nation with out the navy and diplomatic outposts that offered cowl to spies for twenty years; and determining from the place the C.I.A. may launch drone strikes and different Afghanistan operations.

Thursday’s assaults on the Kabul airport, which killed greater than a dozen U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians, have been proof that terrorist teams are already working to sow additional chaos within the nation and will hope to make use of it as a base for assaults exterior Afghanistan.

Hours later, President Biden pledged to search out these answerable for the bombings. “We are going to reply with pressure and precision at our time, on the place we select and in the intervening time of our selecting,” he mentioned.

The US and its allies need to hold Afghanistan from devolving right into a terrorist haven akin to Syria a decade in the past and Afghanistan earlier than Sept. 11, when the chaos of battle lured a hodgepodge of terrorists and new extremist teams have been born. Probably the most pressing menace in Afghanistan is the native Islamic State group, American officers mentioned. Leaders of Al Qaeda may additionally attempt to return to the nation. And whereas the Taliban might not need both group in Afghanistan, they could be incapable of preserving them out, present and former American officers mentioned.

“It’s going to get rather a lot tougher,” mentioned Don Hepburn, a former senior C.I.A. officer who served in Afghanistan. “The company is being drawn in lots of, many instructions.”

Mr. Biden’s willpower to finish the navy’s involvement in Afghanistan implies that, beginning subsequent month, any American presence within the nation would most certainly be a part of a clandestine operation that’s not publicly acknowledged.

The C.I.A.’s new mission will probably be narrower, a senior intelligence official mentioned. It no will longer have to assist defend hundreds of troops and diplomats and can focus as a substitute on looking terrorist teams that may assault past Afghanistan’s borders. However the speedy American exit devastated the company’s networks, and spies will most certainly must rebuild them and handle sources from overseas, in response to present and former officers.

The US will even must cope with troublesome companions like Pakistan, whose unmatched capability to play either side of a combat annoyed generations of American leaders.

William J. Burns, the company’s director, has mentioned that it is able to gather intelligence and conduct operations from afar, or “over the horizon,” however he advised lawmakers within the spring that operatives’ capability to collect intelligence and act on threats will erode. “That’s merely a reality,” mentioned Mr. Burns, who traveled to Kabul this week for secret talks with the Taliban.

Challenges for the C.I.A. lie forward in Afghanistan, the senior intelligence official acknowledged, whereas including that the company was not ranging from scratch. It had lengthy predicted the collapse of the Afghan authorities and a Taliban victory, and since not less than July had warned that they may come prior to anticipated.

Within the days after the Sept. 11 assaults, C.I.A. officers have been the primary to fulfill with Afghan militia fighters. The company went on to notch successes in Afghanistan, ruthlessly looking and killing Qaeda operatives, its main mission within the nation after Sept. 11.

It constructed an unlimited community of informants who met their company handlers in Afghanistan, then used the knowledge to conduct drone strikes in opposition to suspected terrorists. The company prevented Al Qaeda from utilizing Afghanistan as a base to mount a large-scale assault in opposition to the US because it had on Sept. 11.

However that chapter got here with a value in each life and repute. Not less than 19 personnel have been killed in Afghanistan — a demise toll eclipsed solely by the company’s losses in the course of the Vietnam Warfare. A number of company paramilitary operatives would later die preventing the Islamic State, an indication of how far afield the unique mission had strayed. The final C.I.A. operative to die in Afghanistan was a former elite reconnaissance Marine, killed in a firefight in Could 2019, a grim bookend to the battle.

And one of many company’s clandestine officers was practically prosecuted for the 2002 torture demise of a detainee at a C.I.A. black web site often known as the Salt Pit. Raids by C.I.A.-trained Afghan models killed a lot of Afghan civilians, growing Taliban assist in components of the nation.

Because the battle dragged on in Afghanistan, veteran company officers started to see that the battle was misplaced. One among them was Greg Vogle, a former high company officer who escorted Hamid Karzai into the nation in 2001 and twice ran the C.I.A.’s sprawling station in Kabul in subsequent years. Mr. Vogle has advised colleagues that the primary time he went into Afghanistan, the US was successful the battle. By the second time, it was a tie. By the third time, he mentioned, the US was dropping.


In latest days in the course of the frantic withdrawal, the C.I.A. has been concerned in secret rescue missions, in response to a senior American official, who declined to element the efforts.

The company expects its mission forward in Afghanistan will probably be “extra centered” on monitoring the event of terrorist teams decided to assault the US, the senior U.S. intelligence official mentioned.

The American covert operation in Afghanistan may very well be carried out by both C.I.A. operatives or Particular Operations navy troops appearing below “Title 50” authority — just like when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on a mission run by the spy company. Such episodes of placing the navy below C.I.A. authority turned extra widespread within the post-9/11 period because the strains blurred between troopers and spies.

However the narrower mission poses its personal exams, together with recovering from the harm to the C.I.A.’s supply networks brought on by the abrupt exit from Afghanistan.

Rebuilding America’s info assortment will rely partly on digital eavesdropping and partly on constructing new networks of human sources, this time from afar, in response to former authorities officers. American officers predicted that Afghan opponents of the Taliban will most certainly emerge who will need to assist and supply info to the US.

And with out a big American navy presence in Afghanistan, any drone strike in opposition to an Islamic State or Qaeda goal there should depart, for now, from the Persian Gulf. Such lengthy flights scale back the period of time the planes must hunt targets, growing the chance of errors and missed targets. Or they may require a big, and costly, fleet of drones for use.

The State Division has but to safe entry to bases in Central Asian states that have been as soon as a part of the Soviet Union, and it’s unclear whether or not that can occur.

Russia has made clear it opposes any American presence in Central Asia. Whereas the previous Soviet states typically attempt to stability Moscow’s affect with agreements with the People, Russia exerts much more management than it did 20 years in the past, when the US received entry to bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the course of the early components of the battle in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan garnered little consideration throughout Mr. Burns’s affirmation hearings in February. The majority of questions from each Democrats and Republicans centered on the Biden administration’s plans to shift intelligence assets to the problem of China, which Mr. Burns recognized as a high precedence.

Not lengthy afterward, the White Home issued an interim nationwide safety technique that put new emphasis on the necessity to deal with “nice energy” competitors with Russia and China. Senior American officers mentioned that precedence has not modified, and whereas Afghanistan has a brand new urgency, American intelligence companies can deal with a number of priorities without delay.

However historical past exhibits that such multitasking will be troublesome, and that there are alternative prices. When the navy and the C.I.A. centered on the battle in Iraq, Afghanistan suffered from inattention. A brand new, extra adversarial authorities in China emerged as the US obsessed over the return of Russian aggression in Europe and the rise of the Islamic State.

“The entrance burner is crowded,” mentioned John E. McLaughlin, a former appearing director of the C.I.A. “The longer term holds a mixture of challenges. Inevitably, we’re in a world now the place China, Russia, nations have that magnitude and affect are going to be within the forefront, however you recognize lurking within the background, there’s the potential for terrorists regrouping.”

The potential for Afghanistan to evolve right into a hub for terrorist networks additionally carries its personal political dangers for the president.

Any terrorist assault originating from Afghanistan would expose Mr. Biden to fierce criticism from his political opponents that it was a results of his choice to tug American troops from the nation — one more issue that’s more likely to convey intense White Home stress on spy companies to maintain a laser deal with Afghanistan.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.


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