WASHINGTON — Because the Afghanistan warfare wound down, the C.IA. had anticipated to progressively shift its main focus away from counterterrorism — a mission that remodeled the company over 20 years right into a paramilitary group centered on manhunts and killing — towards conventional spycraft towards powers like China and Russia.
However a pair of lethal explosions on Thursday have been the newest in a sequence of quickly unfolding occasions for the reason that 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 fancy counterterrorism mission for years to come back.
American officers are remodeling plans to counter threats that might emerge from Afghanistan’s chaos, based on present and former officers: negotiating for brand new bases in Central Asian international locations; figuring out how clandestine officers can run sources within the nation with out the army and diplomatic outposts that supplied cowl to spies for 20 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 accountable for the bombings. “We’ll reply with power and precision at our time, on the place we select and in the intervening time of our selecting,” he mentioned.
The USA and its allies need to preserve 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 warfare lured a hodgepodge of terrorists and new extremist teams have been born. Probably the most pressing risk 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 might be incapable of holding them out, present and former American officers mentioned.
“It’s going to get quite a bit 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 dedication to finish the army’s involvement in Afghanistan signifies that, beginning subsequent month, any American presence within the nation would most certainly be a part of a clandestine operation that isn’t publicly acknowledged.
The C.I.A.’s new mission can be narrower, a senior intelligence official mentioned. It no will longer have to assist shield 1000’s of troops and diplomats and can focus as a substitute on searching terrorist teams that may assault past Afghanistan’s borders. However the speedy American exit devastated the company’s networks, and spies will most certainly should rebuild them and handle sources from overseas, based on present and former officers.
The USA may even should cope with troublesome companions like Pakistan, whose unmatched skill to play either side of a battle pissed off 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 instructed lawmakers within the spring that operatives’ skill to assemble 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 a minimum of July had warned that they might come earlier than 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 searching and killing Qaeda operatives, its main mission within the nation after Sept. 11.
It constructed an enormous community of informants who met their company handlers in Afghanistan, then used the data to conduct drone strikes towards suspected terrorists. The company prevented Al Qaeda from utilizing Afghanistan as a base to mount a large-scale assault towards the US because it had on Sept. 11.
However that chapter got here with a value in each life and popularity. Not less than 19 personnel have been killed in Afghanistan — a loss of life toll eclipsed solely by the company’s losses throughout the Vietnam Battle. 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 Might 2019, a grim bookend to the battle.
And one of many company’s clandestine officers was practically prosecuted for the 2002 torture loss of life of a detainee at a C.I.A. black website referred to as the Salt Pit. Raids by C.I.A.-trained Afghan items killed numerous Afghan civilians, growing Taliban assist in elements of the nation.
Because the battle dragged on in Afghanistan, veteran company officers started to see that the warfare was misplaced. Certainly one of them was Greg Vogle, a former prime 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 instructed colleagues that the primary time he went into Afghanistan, the US was successful the warfare. By the second time, it was a tie. By the third time, he mentioned, the US was shedding.
In latest days throughout the frantic withdrawal, the C.I.A. has been concerned in secret rescue missions, based on a senior American official, who declined to element the efforts.
The company expects its mission forward in Afghanistan can 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 army troops appearing beneath “Title 50” authority — much like when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on a mission run by the spy company. Such episodes of placing the army beneath C.I.A. authority turned extra frequent within the post-9/11 period because the traces blurred between troopers and spies.
Perceive the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who’re the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that got here after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, together with floggings, amputations and mass executions, to implement their guidelines. Right here’s extra on their origin story and their report as rulers.
However the narrower mission poses its personal checks, together with recovering from the injury 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, based on 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 army presence in Afghanistan, any drone strike towards 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 should hunt targets, growing the chance of errors and missed targets. Or they might 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 may 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 Individuals, Russia exerts way more management than it did 20 years in the past, when the US obtained entry to bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan throughout the early elements of the warfare 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 sources to the problem of China, which Mr. Burns recognized as a prime precedence.
Not lengthy afterward, the White Home issued an interim nationwide safety technique that put new emphasis on the necessity to concentrate on “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 businesses can deal with a number of priorities directly.
However historical past reveals that such multitasking will be tough, and that there are alternative prices. When the army and the C.I.A. centered on the warfare 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 long run holds a mixture of challenges. Inevitably, we’re in a world now the place China, Russia, international locations have that magnitude and affect are going to be within the forefront, however you understand lurking within the background, there’s the potential of 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 drag American troops from the nation — one more issue that’s more likely to convey intense White Home strain on spy businesses to maintain a laser concentrate on Afghanistan.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.