WASHINGTON – As the Afghanistan war ended, the CIA had expected to gradually shift its main focus away from counter-terrorism – a mission that over two decades transformed the agency into a paramilitary organization focused on manhunts and killings – towards more traditional Espionage against powers like China and Russia.
But two deadly explosions on Thursday were the latest in a series of events that have developed rapidly since the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took over the country that undermined that plan. Like a black hole with its own pull, Afghanistan could pull the CIA back into a complex anti-terror mission for years to come.
American officials revise plans to counter threats emerging from the chaos of Afghanistan, say current and former officials: Negotiating new bases in Central Asian countries; determine how secret officers can operate sources in the country without the military and diplomatic outposts that covered spies for two decades; and figure out where the CIA might launch drone strikes and other Afghanistan operations.
Thursday’s attacks on Kabul airport that killed more than a dozen US soldiers and numerous Afghan civilians, was evidence that terrorist groups are already working to sow further chaos in the country and hope to use it as a base for attacks outside Afghanistan.
Hours later, President Biden promised to find those responsible for the bombings. “We will respond with force and precision at our time, in the place of our choice and at the moment of our choice,” he said.
The United States and its allies want to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven of terror, much like Syria a decade ago and Afghanistan before 9/11, when the chaos of war attracted a hodgepodge of terrorists and new extremist groups emerged. The most pressing threat in Afghanistan is the local Islamic State group, American officials said. Al-Qaeda leaders could also try to return to the country. And while the Taliban may not want either group in Afghanistan, they may not be able to keep them out, current and former American officials said.
“It will be much more difficult,” said Don Hepburn, a former senior CIA officer who served in Afghanistan. “The agency is being pulled in many, many directions.”
Mr Biden’s determination to end the military’s involvement in Afghanistan means any American presence in the country starting next month will most likely be part of a covert operation that will not be publicly recognized.
The CIA’s new mission will be closer, said a senior intelligence official. It will no longer have to help protect thousands of soldiers and diplomats, but will concentrate on hunting down terrorist groups that can attack beyond the borders of Afghanistan. But the U.S.’s quick exit has ravaged the agency’s networks, and spies will most likely have to rebuild them and manage overseas sources, current and former officials said.
The United States will also face difficult partners like Pakistan, whose unmatched ability to play both sides of a battle has frustrated generations of American leaders.
William J. Burns, the agency’s director, said it was ready to gather information and conduct operations remotely or “over the horizon,” but told lawmakers this spring that the agents’ ability to gather information and react to threats are eroding. “It’s just a fact,” said Mr Burns, who had traveled to Kabul this week for secret talks with the Taliban.
The CIA was facing challenges in Afghanistan, the senior intelligence official admitted, adding that the agency had not started from scratch. She had long predicted the collapse of the Afghan government and a victory for the Taliban, and since July at the latest, she has been warning that they might come earlier than expected.
In the days following the 9/11 attacks, CIA officials were the first to meet with Afghan militia fighters. The agency celebrated successes in Afghanistan, ruthlessly hunting down and killing al-Qaeda agents, its main mission in the country after 9/11.
It built a huge network of informants who met their agents in Afghanistan and then used the information to carry out drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The agency prevented al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for a large-scale attack against the United States, as it did on September 11th.
But this chapter cost both lives and reputation. At least 19 people were killed in Afghanistan – a death toll only dwarfed by the agency’s losses during the Vietnam War. Several of the agency’s paramilitary agents later died fighting the Islamic State, a sign of how lost the original mission was. The last CIA agent to die in Afghanistan was a former elite reconnaissance marine who was killed in a gun battle in May 2019, a dire bookend to the conflict.
And one of the agency’s secret agents was almost charged with the torture death of a detainee in 2002 at a CIA black site called Salt Pit. Large numbers of Afghan civilians were killed in raids by CIA-trained Afghan units, increasing support for the Taliban in parts of the country.
As the conflict dragged on in Afghanistan, seasoned agency officers began to realize that the war was lost. One of them was Greg Vogle, a former top officer who escorted Hamid Karzai into the country in 2001 and twice headed the CIA’s sprawling station in Kabul in the following years. Mr. Vogle has told his colleagues that the United States won the war when he first invaded Afghanistan. The second time it was a draw. The third time, he said, the United States would lose.
In the past few days, during the hectic retreat, the CIA has been involved in clandestine rescue missions, said a senior American official who refused to elaborate on the effort.
The agency believes its mission in Afghanistan will be “more focused” on tracking the evolution of terrorist groups determined to attack the United States, the senior US intelligence official said.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.
The American covert operation in Afghanistan could either be carried out by CIA agents or military troops from Special Operations under the authority of the “Title 50” – similar to the killing of Navy SEALs Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as part of a mission by the espionage agency. Such episodes, in which the military was placed under the authority of the CIA, became more common in the post-9/11 era as the lines between soldiers and spies blurred.
But the closer mission represents its own tests, including recovering from the damage to the CIA’s source networks caused by the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Rebuilding America’s information collection will depend in part on electronic wiretapping and in part on building new networks of human sources, this time remotely, according to former government officials. American officials predicted that there is a high likelihood that Afghan opponents of the Taliban will show up to help and provide intelligence to the United States.
And without a large American military presence in Afghanistan, any drone attack against a target of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda must initially start in the Persian Gulf. Such long flights reduce the time the planes have to chase targets and increase the risk of errors and missed targets. Or they need a large and expensive fleet of drones.
Access to bases in Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union has yet to be secured by the Foreign Ministry, and it is unclear whether this will happen.
Russia has made it clear that it opposes any American presence in Central Asia. While the former Soviet states sometimes try to offset Moscow’s influence through agreements with the Americans, Russia wields far more control than it did 20 years ago when the United States gained access to bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan received little attention at Mr Burns’ hearings in February. Most of the questions from both Democrats and Republicans have centered on the Biden administration’s plans to shift intelligence resources to China’s challenge, which Mr Burns identified as a top priority.
Not long after, the White House released a preliminary national security strategy that emphasized the need to focus on the competition of the “great power” with Russia and China. Senior American officials said the priority has not changed, and while Afghanistan has a new urgency, American intelligence agencies can handle multiple priorities at once.
However, history shows that multitasking like this can be difficult and there are opportunity costs. When the military and the CIA focused on the war in Iraq, Afghanistan suffered from inattentiveness. A new, more hostile government in China emerged when the United States became obsessed with the return of Russian aggression in Europe and the rise of Islamic State.
“The front burner is crowded,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. “The future holds a mixture of challenges. We are now inevitably in a world where China, Russia and countries of this size and influence will be in the foreground, but in the background there is the possibility of terrorists regrouping. “
The development of Afghanistan into a hub for terrorist networks also harbors its own political risks for the president.
Any terrorist attack in Afghanistan would subject Mr Biden to harsh criticism from his political opponents as it was the result of his decision to withdraw American troops from the country – another factor that is likely to put heavy pressure on intelligence agencies from the White House to keep a laser focus on Afghanistan.
Eric Schmitt Reporting contributed.