CIA’s Big Afghanistan Problem

Biden's withdrawal agreement likely leaves U.S. spies without an Afghan base

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This day was going to come—it had to come someday. Now the CIA can start ticking off the days to its eviction from Afghanistan, set cruelly for the 2Oth anniversary of the 9/11 calamity that brought it there in the first place. 

Judging by the withdrawal plan President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday, the CIA won’t have anybody reliable to protect itself come September. All U.S. troops will be gone on September 11, leaving the future of a CIA presence in Afghanistan—and a check on a resurgent al-Qaeda—in grave doubt and, for ever how long the spy agency remnants try to hang on, to the mercy of the Taliban, the Islamic State and assorted outfits like the vicious Haqqani network.

Once U.S. troops leave, CIA operators hunkered down in Kabul and Bagram air base can’t count on the beleaguered, largely corrupt Afghan army or police forces to defend them. Afghan security forces "remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020," according to a national intelligence report released Tuesday.

"The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield," it added, cautioning that "the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support."

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. U.S. strategists worry that the looming departure of the last troops and U.S. special forces counter-terror teams will fling open the doors to a collapse of the Kabul government, leaving the chaotic country just as they found it when they led a patchwork army of northern Afghani warriors to a rout of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. 

The options for preventing their reestablishment of bases to attack the West again are next to nothing, experts say.

“One US option is to place ‘offshore’ counter-terrorism forces in Central Asia or Pakistan,” Asfandyar Mir,  a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, told The Economist. “But the politics of this type of basing remains enormously complicated and the administration hasn't figured out a workable arrangement.”

That’s an understatement. Central Asia is under pressure from Russia and China, who see Afghanistan as a way to weaken the United States. Pakistan, a treacherous U.S. “ally,” has long sheltered the Taliban and not-so-covertly aided its fighters against the U.S.-led NATO coaltion since it arrived. At least some of Pakistani officials protected Osama Bin Laden at his Abbotabad hideout until the CIA and U.S. Navy SEALs tracked him down and killed him there on May 2, 2011. His successor Ayman al-Zawahiri is suspected of hiding out there under the protection of Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence agency (ISI) today.

“I never heard what the strategy was to deal with the Taliban and the AQ sanctuary in Pakistan,” Colin P. Clarke, a leading Middle East  terrorism expert at The Soufan Group, tells SpyTalk. “In 20 years, we've never figured out how to deal with Pakistani support for the Taliban.  It was always mentioned, but I never once heard a realistic plan to prevent the ISI from offering the Taliban and AQ sanctuary and other critical forms of external support.”

So Pakistan is almost certainly out as a new base—or effective base, in the event—for undermining the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The ISI would be on it like an anteater.

Then there’s the idea of using off-shore bases with U.S. allies across the Gulf or U.S. Navy warships, to try to keep al-Qaeda and Islamic State forces at bay with cruise missiles and drones. The prospect of success with those tools is no better than it has been for the last 25 years.

“Sure, we used drones to go after AQ leadership in FATA”(Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas), says Clarke, author of After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & the Future Terrorist Diaspora, “but it was, to use the hackneyed phrase, just whack-a-mole.”

The NATO coalition in Afghanistan—some 7,000 NATO and non-NATO troops in all—is collapsing along with the U.S. withdrawal, to begin in earnest May 1.  The U.K., which has about 750 troops in non-combat roles in Afghanistan, “is likely to largely withdraw in parallel with the U.S.,” a senior defense official told The Guardian.  “If they go, we’ll all have to go. That’s the reality of it,” one British source told the paper.

The Taliban spit on Biden’s delay-of-game withdrawal scheme and said it would start attacking U.S. and NATO forces if they’re not out by May 1, the date former President Trump agreed to. 

Whichever the timetable, the looming withdrawal threatens the viability of the corruption-infested Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani.

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"The consensus view is an abrupt withdrawal would lead to a collapse of the government," Laurel Miller, a former State Department acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me in 2018. A U.S. withdrawal “would have a huge morale impact in Afghanistan among both Afghans and the government at large—almost a near panic if the U.S. were to decide to leave, because its major backer is gone,” Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., also said then.

The prospect of such a scenario conjures up nightmarish memories of the apocalyptic debacles in Saigon and Mogadishu.

Imagine some 30,000 Afghans—in particular the women we have empowered— storming the airports to escape or, barring that,  trying to make it overland to neighboring countries under Taliban attack, an intelligence officer told me when the prospect of an emergency exit was just a scary thought: There are no rivers to sail “boat people” into a nearby sea, like when Saigon collapsed in 1975—nor helicopters to wing desperate U.S. diplomats, CIA people and their Afghan friends from the American embassy to the safety of aircraft carriers offshore.  The 38-mile drive from Kabul to Bagram air base has long been such a Taliban shooting gallery that U.S. personnel opt for helicopters. If it wants, the Islamist guerrillas can presumably pour mortar and rocket fire down on the airfield and transport planes. 

Once a nightmare, a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan is now an all too real possibility. It’s not clear whether U.S. leaders have truly grasped that.  They’ve been kidding themselves about victory in Afghanistan for two decades now.

“The Americans have the watches,” the Taliban is fond of saying, “but we have the time.”

And now that time has come.