C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The speedy U.S. army withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating intense stress on the C.I.A. to search out new methods to collect intelligence and perform counterterrorism strikes in the nation, however the company has few good choices.

The C.I.A., which has been on the coronary heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan, will quickly lose bases in the nation from the place it has run fight missions and drone strikes whereas carefully monitoring the Taliban and different teams equivalent to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The company’s analysts are warning of the ever-growing dangers of a Taliban takeover.

United States officers are in last-minute efforts to safe bases near Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the persevering with battle has led to thorny diplomatic negotiations because the army pushes to have all forces out by early to mid-July, effectively earlier than President Biden’s deadline of Sept. 11, based on American officers and regional consultants.

One focus has been Pakistan. The C.I.A. used a base there for years to launch drone strikes towards militants in the nation’s western mountains, however was kicked out of the power in 2011, when U.S. relations with Pakistan unraveled.

Any deal now must work across the uncomfortable actuality that Pakistan’s authorities has lengthy supported the Taliban. In discussions between American and Pakistani officers, the Pakistanis have demanded quite a lot of restrictions in alternate for the usage of a base in the nation, and so they have successfully required that they log off on any targets that both the C.I.A. or the army would need to hit inside Afghanistan, based on three Americans aware of the discussions.

Diplomats are additionally exploring the choice of regaining entry to bases in former Soviet republics that had been used for the Afghanistan conflict, though they anticipate that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would fiercely oppose this.

Recent C.I.A. and army intelligence stories on Afghanistan have been more and more pessimistic. They have highlighted beneficial properties by the Taliban and different militant teams in the south and east, and warned that Kabul may fall to the Taliban inside years and return to turning into a protected haven for militants bent on hanging the West, based on a number of folks aware of the assessments.

As a consequence, U.S. officers see the necessity for a long-term intelligence-gathering presence — in addition to army and C.I.A. counterterrorism operations — in Afghanistan lengthy after the deadline that Mr. Biden has set for troops to depart the nation. But the scramble for bases illustrates how U.S. officers nonetheless lack a long-term plan to handle safety in a rustic the place they’ve spent trillions of dollars and misplaced greater than 2,400 troops over practically twenty years.

William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, has acknowledged the problem the company faces. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” he informed senators in April. “That is simply a fact.”

Mr. Burns made an unannounced go to in current weeks to Islamabad, Pakistan, to satisfy with the chief of the Pakistani army and the top of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the nation’s army intelligence company. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has had frequent calls with the Pakistani army chief about getting the nation’s assist for future U.S. operations in Afghanistan, based on American officers aware of the conversations.

Mr. Burns didn’t deliver up the bottom challenge throughout his journey to Pakistan, based on folks briefed on the assembly; the go to targeted on broader counterterrorism cooperation between the 2 international locations. At least a few of Mr. Austin’s discussions have been extra direct, based on folks briefed on them.

A C.I.A. spokeswoman declined to remark when requested about Mr. Burns’s journey to Pakistan.

William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, on the Capitol final month. He has made an unannounced go to to Pakistan in current weeks.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Two many years of conflict in Afghanistan have helped rework the spy company right into a paramilitary group: It carries out a whole lot of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trains Afghan commando models and maintains a big presence of C.I.A. officers in a string of bases alongside the border with Pakistan. At one level throughout President Barack Obama’s first time period, the company had a number of hundred officers in Afghanistan, its largest surge of personnel to a rustic for the reason that Vietnam War.

These operations have come at a price. Night raids by C.I.A.-trained Afghan models left a path of abuse that elevated help for the Taliban in components of the nation. Occasional errant drone strikes in Pakistan killed civilians and elevated stress on the federal government in Islamabad to dial again its quiet help for C.I.A. operations.

Douglas London, a former head of C.I.A. counterterrorism operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan, mentioned that the company was prone to depend on a “stay behind” community of informants in Afghanistan who would acquire intelligence on the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the steadiness of the central authorities and different matters. But with out a big C.I.A. presence in the nation, he mentioned, vetting the intelligence can be a problem.

“When you’re dealing offshore, you’re dealing with middlemen,” mentioned Mr. London, who will quickly publish a e book, “The Recruiter,” about his C.I.A. expertise. “It’s kind of like playing telephone.”

In the brief time period, the Pentagon is utilizing an plane service to launch fighter planes in Afghanistan to help the troop withdrawal. But the service presence is unlikely to be a long-term answer, and army officers mentioned it could in all probability redeploy not lengthy after the final U.S. forces depart.

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The United States is stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf area, plane that can be utilized by each the Pentagon and the C.I.A. for intelligence assortment and strikes.

But some officers are cautious of those so-called over the horizon choices that will require aircraft and drones to fly as many as 9 hours every means for a mission in Afghanistan, which might make the operations costlier as a result of they require extra drones and gasoline, and in addition riskier as a result of reinforcements wanted for commando raids couldn’t arrive swiftly throughout a disaster.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone at an Air Force base in Nevada. The army is stationing drones in the Persian Gulf area because it withdraws troops from Afghanistan.Credit…Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban; it sees the group as a essential proxy power in Afghanistan towards different teams which have ties to India. Pakistan’s spy company supplied weapons and coaching for Taliban fighters for years, in addition to safety for the group’s leaders. The authorities in Islamabad is unlikely to log off on any U.S. strikes towards the Taliban which are launched from a base in Pakistan.

Although some American officers imagine Pakistan desires to permit U.S. entry to a base so long as it may well management how it’s used, public opinion in the nation has been strongly towards any renewed presence by the United States.

Pakistan’s overseas minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, informed lawmakers final month that the federal government wouldn’t enable the U.S. army to return to the nation’s air bases. “Forget the past, but I want to tell the Pakistanis that no U.S. base will be allowed by Prime Minister Imran Khan so long he is in power,” Mr. Qureshi mentioned.

Some American officers mentioned that negotiations with Pakistan had reached an deadlock for now. Others have mentioned the choice stays on the desk and a deal is feasible.

The C.I.A. used the Shamsi air base in western Pakistan to hold out a whole lot of drone strikes throughout a surge that started in 2008 and lasted throughout the early years of the Obama administration. The strikes targeted totally on suspected Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, however in addition they crossed the border into Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s authorities refused to publicly acknowledge that it was permitting the C.I.A. operations, and in late 2011 it determined to halt the drone operations after a collection of high-profile occasions that fractured relations with the United States. They included the arrest of a C.I.A. contractor in Lahore for a lethal capturing, the key American commando mission in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and an American-led NATO airstrike on the Afghan border in November 2011 that killed dozens of Pakistani troopers.

The Americans and the Pakistanis “will want to proceed cautiously” with a brand new relationship, mentioned Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who’s now a senior fellow on the Hudson Institute. But, he mentioned, Mr. Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal “has the C.I.A. and the Defense Department, as well as Pakistanis, scrambling.”

American diplomats have been exploring choices to revive entry to bases in Central Asia, together with websites in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that housed American troops and intelligence officers throughout the conflict.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke this month together with his counterpart in Tajikistan, although it isn’t clear if base entry was mentioned throughout the name. Any negotiations with these international locations are prone to take appreciable time to work out. A State Department spokeswoman would say solely that Mr. Blinken was participating associate international locations on how the United States was reorganizing its counterterrorism capabilities.

After an explosion close to a college in Kabul, Afghanistan, final month. The C.I.A. faces challenges in gathering intelligence about threats in Afghanistan as soon as the U.S. army presence there ends.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Russia has opposed the United States utilizing bases in Central Asia, and that’s prone to make any diplomatic effort to safe entry to bases for the needs of army strikes a gradual course of, based on a senior American official.

While the C.I.A. in explicit has lengthy had a pessimistic view of the prospects of stability in Afghanistan, these assessments have been refined in current weeks because the Taliban has made tactical beneficial properties.

While army and intelligence analysts have beforehand had assessments at odds with each other, they now are in broad settlement that the Afghan authorities is prone to have bother holding on to energy. They imagine the Afghan safety forces have been depleted by excessive casualty charges in current years. The announcement of the U.S. withdrawal is one other psychological blow that would weaken the power.

Intelligence assessments have mentioned that with out continued American help, the Afghan National Security Forces will weaken and will presumably collapse. Officials are working to develop choices for persevering with that help remotely, however the Pentagon has not but give you a practical plan that officers imagine will work.

Some present and former officers are skeptical that distant advising or fight operations will succeed. Collecting intelligence turns into far tougher with out a big presence in Afghanistan, mentioned Mick P. Mulroy, a retired C.I.A. officer who served there.

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

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.