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CIA has a new Afghan problem: How to spy, conduct ops in Afghanistan after US exit this year

An NYT report, titled ‘C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan’, talks about US spy agency’s search for ways to carry out intel & counter-terror ops in Afghanistan after military pullout.

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New Delhi: As the US plans to completely exit Afghanistan by 11 September, the American spy agency — the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — has been left “seeking ways to maintain its intelligence-gathering, war-fighting and counterterrorism operations in the country”, The New York Times reported on 6 June.

The report, titled “C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan”, talks about the spy agency’s search for ways to carry out its intelligence and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US military’s withdrawal. 

With the pullout, the CIA is facing the danger of losing its bases in some key locations in Afghanistan that were used to carry out combat missions and drone strikes against, as well as track and monitor the activities of, the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the report says. 

It then goes on to delve into the different options that are reportedly being considered, including a return to Pakistan or the former Soviet republics. The report subsequently quotes US officials as pointing out the challenges in pursuing these options. 

The report has been written by journalists Mark Mazzetti, a Washington-baed investigative correspondent and author of ‘The Way of the Knife: The C.I.A, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth’ and Julian E. Barnes, a national security reporter also based in the US capital and covering the intelligence agencies.

Citing several reports by the CIA as well as military intelligence, the NYT report says the Taliban and other militant outfits have gained ground in southern and eastern regions of the country. As it seeks to explain why US officials want continued intelligence-gathering presence in the country, the NYT report also talks about the warning in these reports, that Kabul “could fall to the Taliban within years and return to becoming a safe haven for militants bent on striking the West”.

“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,” it adds.

Also Read: US withdrawal from Afghanistan welcome, foreign forces can’t bring peace in this region: Iran

The options being considered

US President Joe Biden had announced in April that he will be going for a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 11 September this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and bringing an end to the war that began in its aftermath.

Referring to the military’s push to have all troops out by mid-July, the report says talks for securing bases for the CIA “close to Afghanistan for future operations” have not proven to be successful due to “thorny diplomatic negotiations”.   

One of the options US officials are considering is reinstating its base in Pakistan, from where it was “kicked out” in 2011 as relations between Washington and Islamabad started plummeting over several factors, including the raid that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

“Any deal now would have to work around the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan’s government has long supported the Taliban,” the report says, adding that, in recent talks between both sides, Islamabad has put forward a range of riders in return for granting the CIA permission to operate a base there.

Quoting three American officials familiar with such talks, the NYT report says the Pakistanis “have effectively required that they sign off on any targets that either the CIA or the military would want to hit inside Afghanistan”.

Another option US diplomats are reportedly considering is “regaining access” to its former bases in the former Soviet republics that have been used during the Afghanistan war, “although they expect that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would fiercely oppose this”.

In April, CIA Director William J. Burns highlighted the fact that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will lead to a loss in intelligence gathering, a point the NYT report also highlights.

The report, however, adds that Burns did not raise the issue of finding bases during his “unannounced” visit to Pakistan in “recent weeks” — a visit where he met Pakistan military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Faiz Hameed. 

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the report says, discussed the matter with the Pakistanis during his phone calls with Bajwa.

The report underlines that “Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban; it sees the group as a critical proxy force in Afghanistan against other groups that have ties to India”.  

Thus, it adds, Islamabad is unlikely to permit the CIA to launch an attack on the Taliban by using a base in their country.

Also Read: China slams ‘hasty’ withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, urges UN to play ‘due role’

‘Operations to become more expensive’ 

According to the NYT report, as a short-term arrangement, the US is exploring the option of using an aircraft carrier — deployed to launch fighters to aid the troop withdrawal exercise — and MQ-9 Reaper drones stationed in the Persian Gulf region for intelligence collection and strikes. 

However, some officials told the NYT that such a plan may prove to be “expensive” because it would “require plane and drones to fly as many as nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan”. 

The operations, in this case, can also prove to be “riskier because reinforcements needed for commando raids could not arrive swiftly during a crisis”.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Why the US shouldn’t withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq


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