WASHINGTON: The two-decade war in Afghanistan has given U.S. spies a perch for keeping tabs on terrorist groups that might once again use the beleaguered nation to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland. But that will end soon.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is leaving intelligence agencies scrambling for other ways to monitor and stop terrorists. They’ll have to depend more on technology and their allies in the Afghan government — even as it faces an increasingly uncertain future once U.S. and NATO forces depart.
“You may not be blind, but you’re going to be legally blind,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican and Green Beret who served in Afghanistan. Waltz said in an interview that while he believed American forces would still be able to detect threats, they would have to respond with lesser intelligence and more complex operations from bases outside the country.
The Afghanistan withdrawal was ordered by President Joe Biden. He has said it's time to end America's longest war after two decades of a conflict that killed 2,200 U.S. troops and 38,000 Afghan civilians, with a cost as much as $1 trillion.
But that withdrawal comes with many uncertainties as a resurgent Taliban captures ground and fears mount that the country could soon fall into civil war. The U.S. is still working on agreements to base counterterrorism forces in the region and evacuate thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped the American war effort.
CIA Director William Burns testified in April that fighters from al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are still operating in Afghanistan and “remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets."
“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. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. He added that the CIA and other U.S. agencies “retain a suite of capabilities” to monitor and stop threats.
Burns made a secret visit to Afghanistan in April and reassured Afghan officials that the U.S. would remain engaged in counterterrorism efforts, according to two officials familiar with the visit.
The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story.
The CIA has had a role in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, dating back to aiding rebels fighting the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. During the U.S. war, it is said to have carried out strikes against terror targets and trained Afghan fighters in groups known as Counter Terrorism Pursuit Teams. Those teams are feared by many Afghans and have been implicated in extrajudicial killings of civilians.
The Associated Press reported in April that the CIA was preparing to turn over control of those teams in six provinces to the Afghan intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security. The closure of posts near Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan will make it harder to monitor hostile groups operating in those areas, and the withdrawal of Americans from Afghan agencies could worsen already troubling problems with corruption, experts said.
Washington has long struggled to gather intelligence even from its allies in Afghanistan. In the early years of the conflict, the U.S. was drawn into rivalries that resulted in targets that were driven by score-settling among factions in the country.
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2017 to 2020, said U.S. authorities may be able to replace some of their lost footprint with intercepted communications as well as publicly available information posted online, particularly with the growth of cellphone networks compared with the 1990s. And while Afghan forces have faltered against the Taliban, they can also provide valuable information, Ashley said.
“We shouldn’t discount their ability to understand their ground truth,” said Ashley, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s their nature, it’s their culture, it’s their language.”
Former intelligence officials and experts noted that the CIA and other agencies already have to work without a military presence in other countries where militant groups threaten Americans.
Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said human sources in Afghanistan were already limited and the U.S. has monitoring capabilities today that it didn't have two decades ago.
“It's still going to be very robust,” Crow said. “When you don’t have boots on the ground, it’s certainly more challenging, but we have capabilities and things that allow us to meet that challenge. It just becomes a little more difficult.”
Crow and Waltz are among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have pushed the White House to quickly process visas for thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped American forces. More than 18,000 applications are pending. Senior U.S. officials have said the administration plans to carry out an evacuation later this summer but has not settled on a country or countries for what would likely be a temporary relocation.
Failing to protect Afghans waiting for visas could have “a huge chilling effect on people working with us going forward,” Waltz said.
Analysts differ on what to expect from the Taliban if it were to consolidate control over the country. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported in May that the Taliban's “desires for foreign aid and legitimacy might marginally moderate its conduct over time," driven in part by international attention and the proliferation of phones.
But Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, said he expected the Taliban to continue harboring al-Qaida and worried of a possible insurgency that could embolden extremists and become a regional conflict similar to what happened in Iraq after the American withdrawal there.
“I want us to pull out of Afghanistan in theory and be safe," he said. "That’s just not from my analysis what’s going to happen.”