CIA scrambles for new approach in Afghanistan

People inspect the area after an explosion near a school in Kabul on May 8, 2021.
People inspect the area after an explosion near a school in Kabul on May 8, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The rapid American military withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating intense pressure on the United States' Central Intelligence Agency to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counter-terrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has few good options.

The CIA, which has been at the heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country from where it has run combat missions and drone strikes while closely monitoring the Taleban and other groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. The agency's analysts are warning of the ever-growing risks of a Taleban takeover.

US officials are in last-minute efforts to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the continuing conflict has led to thorny diplomatic negotiations as the military pushes to have all forces out by early to mid-July, well before US President Joe Biden's deadline of Sept 11, according to US officials and regional experts.

One focus has been 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 unravelled.

Any deal now would have to work around the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan's government has long supported the Taleban.

In discussions between US and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis have demanded a variety of restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country, and they have effectively required that they sign off on any targets that either the CIA or the military would want to hit inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the discussions.

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

Recent CIA and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have been increasingly pessimistic. They have highlighted gains by the Taleban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall to the Taleban within years and return to becoming a safe haven for militants bent on striking the West, according to several people familiar with the assessments.

As a result, US officials see the need for a long-term intelligence-gathering presence - in addition to military and CIA counter-terrorism operations - in Afghanistan long after the deadline that Mr Biden has set for troops to leave the country.

But the scramble for bases illustrates how US officials still lack a long-term plan to address security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops over nearly two decades.

Mr William Burns, the CIA director, has acknowledged the challenge the agency faces. "When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish," he told senators in April. "That is simply a fact."

Mr Burns made an unannounced visit in recent weeks to Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet with the chief of the Pakistani military and the head of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country's military intelligence agency. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has had frequent calls with the Pakistani military chief about getting the country's help for future US operations in Afghanistan, according to US officials familiar with the conversations.

Mr Burns did not bring up the base issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to people briefed on the meeting; the visit focused on broader counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries. At least some of Mr Austin's discussions have been more direct, according to people briefed on them.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment when asked about Mr Burns' travel to Pakistan.

Two decades of war in Afghanistan have helped transform the spy agency into a paramilitary organisation: It carries out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trains Afghan commando units and maintains a large presence of CIA officers in a string of bases along the border with Pakistan. At one point during US President Barack Obama's first term, the agency had several hundred officers in Afghanistan, its largest surge of personnel to a country since the Vietnam War.


CIA director William Burns arrives for a closed briefing at the US Capitol in Washington on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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

In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter planes in Afghanistan to support the troop withdrawal. But the carrier presence is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials said it would probably redeploy not long after the last US forces leave.

The US is stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region, aircraft that can be used by both the Pentagon and the CIA for intelligence collection and strikes.

But some officials are wary of these so-called over the horizon options that would require plane and drones to fly as many as nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan, which would make the operations more expensive because they require more drones and fuel, and also riskier because reinforcements needed for commando raids could not arrive swiftly during a crisis.

Pakistan is a long-time patron of the Taleban; it sees the group as a critical proxy force in Afghanistan against other groups that have ties to India. Pakistan's spy agency provided weapons and training for Taleban fighters for years, as well as protection for the group's leaders. The government in Islamabad is unlikely to sign off on any US strikes against the Taleban that are launched from a base in Pakistan.

Although some US officials believe Pakistan wants to allow America access to a base as long as it can control how it is used, public opinion in the country has been strongly against any renewed presence by the US.

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 no US base will be allowed by Prime Minister Imran Khan so long he is in power," Mr Qureshi said.

Some US officials said that negotiations with Pakistan had reached an impasse for now. Others have said the option remains on the table and a deal is possible.

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

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke this month with his counterpart in Tajikistan, though it is not clear if base access was discussed during the call. Any negotiations with those countries are likely to take considerable time to work out.

A State Department spokesman would say only that Mr Blinken was engaging partner countries on how the US was reorganising its counter-terrorism capabilities.

Russia has opposed the US using bases in Central Asia, and that is likely to make any diplomatic effort to secure access to bases for the purposes of military strikes a slow process, according to a senior US official.