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The CIA is fighting for a new approach in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – The rapid withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan is putting strong pressure on the CIA to find new ways to gather intelligence and conduct counter-terrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has few good options.

The CIA, which underpins a 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country, from where it has conducted combat missions and drone strikes, while closely monitoring the Taliban and other groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The agency’s analysts warn of the ever-increasing risks of Taliban takeovers.

U.S. officials are working at the last minute to secure bases near Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the ongoing conflict has led to thorny diplomatic talks as the military insists all forces be withdrawn by early to mid-July, long before President Biden’s September 11 deadline, according to US officials and regional experts.

One of the tricks is Pakistan. The CIA used a base there for years to launch unmanned strikes against fighters in the country’s western mountains, but was expelled from the facility in 2011 when US relations with Pakistan unraveled.

Any deal will now have to circumvent the unpleasant reality that the Pakistani government has long supported the Taliban. In discussions between U.S. and Pakistani officials, Pakistanis demanded various restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country and virtually asked to sign for any targets the CIA or military would like to strike inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the discussions. .

Diplomats are also exploring the possibility of restoring access to bases in former Soviet republics used for the war in Afghanistan, although they expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to vehemently oppose it.

Recent CIA and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan are becoming increasingly pessimistic. They highlighted the gains of the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within years and return to become a safe haven for fighters seeking to strike the West, according to several people familiar with ratings.

As a result, US authorities see the need for a long-term presence to gather intelligence – in addition to CIA military and counterterrorism operations – in Afghanistan long after the deadline Biden has set for leaving the country. But the struggle for bases illustrates how US officials still do not have a long-term plan to tackle security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops in nearly two decades.

William J. Burns, the CIA’s director, acknowledged the challenge the agency faces. “When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to gather and act on threats will diminish,” he told senators in April. “It’s just a fact.”

Mr Burns paid an unexpected visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, in recent weeks to meet with the head of the Pakistani military and the head of the country ‘s Interdepartmental Intelligence Directorate. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has had frequent talks with Pakistan’s military chief to help the country with future US operations in Afghanistan, according to US officials familiar with the talks.

Mr Burns did not raise the main issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to people familiar with the meeting; the visit focused on broader counter-terrorism co-operation between the two countries. At least some of Mr. Austin’s discussions were more direct, according to people familiar with them.

A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on a question about Mr Burns’ trip to Pakistan.

Two decades of war in Afghanistan have helped turn the spy agency into a paramilitary organization: it has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trained Afghan commandos and maintained a large CIA presence at a number of bases along the border with Pakistan. At one time, during President Barack Obama’s first term, the agency had several hundred officers in Afghanistan, the largest influx of personnel in a country since the Vietnam War.

These operations are worth it. Night raids by CIA-trained Afghan forces have left a trail of abuse that has increased support for the Taliban in some parts of the country. Occasional unmanned airstrikes in Pakistan have killed civilians and increased pressure on the government in Islamabad to regain its quiet support for CIA operations.

Douglas London, a former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the agency was likely to rely on a network of informants in Afghanistan to gather intelligence on the Taliban, al Qaeda, the stability of the central government and other topics. But without a large CIA presence in the country, he said, intelligence verification would be a challenge.

“When you’re offshore, you’re dealing with middlemen,” said Mr London, who will soon be publishing the book The Recruiter about his CIA experience. “It’s kind of like a phone game.”

In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter jets into Afghanistan in support of the withdrawal. But the carrier’s presence is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials said they were likely to redeploy soon after the last US force left.

The United States has deployed MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Gulf region, aircraft that can be used by both the Pentagon and the CIA to gather intelligence and strike.

But some officials are wary of these so-called over-the-horizon options, which require planes and drones to fly up to nine hours in the direction of a mission in Afghanistan, which would make operations more expensive as they require more drones and fuel. more risky, as reinforcements needed for commando attacks could not arrive quickly during a crisis.

Pakistan has long been a patron of the Taliban; she sees the group as a critical proxy force in Afghanistan against other groups with ties to India. The Pakistani spy agency has been providing weapons and training to Taliban fighters for years, as well as protecting the group’s leaders. The government in Islamabad is unlikely to sign any US strikes against the Taliban, launched from a base in Pakistan.

Although some US officials believe that Pakistan wants to allow the United States access to the base, as long as it can control the way it is used, public opinion in the country is strongly opposed to the renewed presence of the United States.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmud 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 Prime Minister Imran Khan does not have a permit to base in the United States while he is in power,” Mr Qureshi said.

Some US officials have said talks with Pakistan have reached a dead end so far. Others say the option remains on the table and a deal is possible.

The CIA used Shamsi Air Base in western Pakistan to carry out hundreds of drone strikes during a wave that began in 2008 and continued in the early years of the Obama administration. The strikes focused mainly on suspected Qaeda operators in Pakistan’s mountainous tribes, but they also crossed the border into Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has refused to publicly acknowledge that it allows CIA operations, and in late 2011 decided to suspend drone operations following a series of high-profile events that disrupted relations with the United States. These include the arrest of a CIA executor in Lahore for the deadly shooting, the US command’s secret mission in Pakistan to assassinate Osama bin Laden, and the US-led NATO air strike across the Afghan border in November 2011 that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers. .

The Americans and Pakistanis “will want to proceed cautiously” with a new relationship, said Hussein Hakani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But, he said, Mr Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal “makes the CIA and the Department of Defense, as well as the Pakistanis, quarrel.”

U.S. diplomats are exploring options to restore access to bases in Central Asia, including sites in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that housed U.S. troops and intelligence during the war.

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken spoke with his counterpart in Tajikistan this month, although it is unclear whether access to the base was discussed during the conversation. Negotiations with these countries are likely to take considerable time to develop. A State Department spokeswoman would only say that Mr Blinken has engaged partner countries on how the United States is reorganizing its counter-terrorism capabilities.

Russia has opposed the United States using bases in Central Asia, and this is likely to slow down diplomatic efforts to secure access to bases for military strikes, according to a senior US official.

While the CIA in particular has long had a pessimistic view of the prospects for stability in Afghanistan, these assessments have been refined in recent weeks as the Taliban have achieved tactical success.

While military and intelligence analysts previously had conflicting assessments, they now agree that the Afghan government is likely to have trouble retaining power. They believe the Afghan security forces have been exhausted by the high death toll in recent years. The announcement of the US withdrawal is another psychological blow that could weaken the forces.

Intelligence estimates show that without continued US support, Afghan national security forces will weaken and eventually collapse. Officials are working to develop opportunities to continue this remote support, but the Pentagon has not yet come up with a realistic plan that staff believe will work.

Some current and former employees are skeptical that remote counseling or combat operations will succeed. Gathering intelligence becomes much more difficult without a large presence in Afghanistan, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired CIA officer who served there.

“It doesn’t matter if you can drop ammunition,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.”

Eric Schmidt contributed reporting.

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