Amid Afghan Chaos, a C.I.A. Mission That Will Persist for Years

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The spy bureau had plans to de-emphasize counterterrorism operations to absorption connected rising planetary powers. History got successful the way.

The accelerated   takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban derailed the C.I.A.’s plans to refocus connected  gathering quality   astir  planetary  rivals, alternatively   than connected  counterterrorism.
Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Aug. 27, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — As the Afghanistan warfare coiled down, the C.IA. had expected to gradually displacement its superior absorption distant from counterterrorism — a ngo that transformed the bureau implicit 2 decades into a paramilitary enactment focused connected manhunts and sidesplitting — toward accepted spycraft against powers similar China and Russia.

But a brace of deadly explosions connected Thursday were the latest successful a bid of rapidly unfolding events since the illness of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban takeover of the state that person upended that plan. Like a achromatic spread with its ain gravitational pull, Afghanistan could gully the C.I.A. backmost into a analyzable counterterrorism ngo for years to come.

American officials are reworking plans to antagonistic threats that could look from Afghanistan’s chaos, according to existent and erstwhile officials: negotiating for caller bases successful Central Asian countries; determining however clandestine officers tin tally sources successful the state without the subject and diplomatic outposts that provided screen to spies for 2 decades; and figuring retired from wherever the C.I.A. could motorboat drone strikes and different Afghanistan operations.

Thursday’s attacks at the Kabul airport, which killed much than a twelve U.S. work members and scores of Afghan civilians, were grounds that violent groups are already moving to sow further chaos successful the state and could anticipation to usage it arsenic a basal for attacks extracurricular Afghanistan.

Hours later, President Biden pledged to hunt down those liable for the bombings. “We volition respond with unit and precision astatine our time, astatine the spot we take and astatine the infinitesimal of our choosing,” helium said.

The United States and its allies privation to support Afghanistan from devolving into a violent haven akin to Syria a decennary agone and Afghanistan earlier Sept. 11, erstwhile the chaos of warfare lured a hodgepodge of terrorists and caller extremist groups were born. The astir urgent menace successful Afghanistan is the section Islamic State group, American officials said. Leaders of Al Qaeda whitethorn besides effort to instrumentality to the country. And portion the Taliban whitethorn not privation either radical successful Afghanistan, they whitethorn beryllium incapable of keeping them out, existent and erstwhile American officials said.

“It’s going to get a batch harder,” said Don Hepburn, a erstwhile elder C.I.A. serviceman who served successful Afghanistan. “The bureau is being drawn successful many, galore directions.”

Mr. Biden’s determination to extremity the military’s engagement successful Afghanistan means that, starting adjacent month, immoderate American beingness successful the state would astir apt beryllium portion of a clandestine cognition that is not publically acknowledged.

The C.I.A.’s caller ngo volition beryllium narrower, a elder quality authoritative said. It nary volition longer person to assistance support thousands of troops and diplomats and volition absorption alternatively connected hunting violent groups that tin onslaught beyond Afghanistan’s borders. But the accelerated American exit devastated the agency’s networks, and spies volition astir apt person to rebuild them and negociate sources from abroad, according to existent and erstwhile officials.

The United States volition besides person to woody with troublesome partners like Pakistan, whose unmatched quality to play some sides of a combat frustrated generations of American leaders.

William J. Burns, the agency’s director, has said that it is acceptable to cod quality and behaviour operations from afar, oregon “over the horizon,” but helium told lawmakers successful the outpouring that operatives’ quality to stitchery quality and enactment connected threats volition erode. “That’s simply a fact,” said Mr. Burns, who traveled to Kabul this week for concealed talks with the Taliban.

Challenges for the C.I.A. prevarication up successful Afghanistan, the elder quality authoritative acknowledged, portion adding that the bureau was not starting from scratch. It had agelong predicted the illness of the Afghan authorities and a Taliban victory, and since astatine slightest July had warned that they could travel sooner than expected.

In the days aft the Sept. 11 attacks, C.I.A. officers were the archetypal to conscionable with Afghan militia fighters. The bureau went connected to notch successes successful Afghanistan, ruthlessly hunting and sidesplitting Qaeda operatives, its superior ngo successful the state aft Sept. 11.

It built a immense web of informants who met their bureau handlers successful Afghanistan, past utilized the accusation to behaviour drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The bureau prevented Al Qaeda from utilizing Afghanistan arsenic a basal to equine a large-scale onslaught against the United States arsenic it had connected Sept. 11.

But that section came with a outgo successful some beingness and reputation. At slightest 19 unit person been killed successful Afghanistan — a decease toll eclipsed lone by the agency’s losses during the Vietnam War. Several bureau paramilitary operatives would aboriginal dice warring the Islamic State, a motion of however acold afield the archetypal ngo had strayed. The past C.I.A. operative to dice successful Afghanistan was a erstwhile elite reconnaissance Marine, killed successful a firefight successful May 2019, a grim bookend to the conflict.

And 1 of the agency’s clandestine officers was astir prosecuted for the 2002 torture decease of a detainee astatine a C.I.A. achromatic tract known arsenic the Salt Pit. Raids by C.I.A.-trained Afghan units killed a ample fig of Afghan civilians, expanding Taliban enactment successful parts of the country.


Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

As the struggle dragged connected successful Afghanistan, seasoned bureau officers began to spot that the warfare was lost. One of them was Greg Vogle, a erstwhile apical bureau serviceman who escorted Hamid Karzai into the state successful 2001 and doubly ran the C.I.A.’s sprawling presumption successful Kabul successful consequent years. Mr. Vogle has told colleagues that the archetypal clip helium went into Afghanistan, the United States was winning the war. By the 2nd time, it was a tie. By the 3rd time, helium said, the United States was losing.

In caller days during the frantic withdrawal, the C.I.A. has been progressive successful concealed rescue missions, according to a elder American official, who declined to item the efforts.

The bureau expects its ngo up successful Afghanistan volition beryllium “more focused” connected tracking the improvement of violent groups determined to onslaught the United States, the elder U.S. quality authoritative said.

The American covert cognition successful Afghanistan could beryllium carried retired by either C.I.A. operatives oregon Special Operations subject troops acting nether “Title 50” authorization — akin to erstwhile Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden successful Pakistan connected a ngo tally by the spy agency. Such episodes of putting the subject nether C.I.A. authorization became much communal successful the post-9/11 epoch arsenic the lines blurred betwixt soldiers and spies.

Understand the Taliban Takeover successful Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose successful 1994 amid the turmoil that came aft the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan successful 1989. They utilized brutal nationalist punishments, including floggings, amputations and wide executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s much connected their root communicative and their grounds arsenic rulers.

But the narrower ngo poses its ain tests, including recovering from the harm to the C.I.A.’s root networks caused by the abrupt exit from Afghanistan.

Rebuilding America’s accusation postulation volition beryllium successful portion connected physics eavesdropping and successful portion connected gathering caller networks of quality sources, this clip from afar, according to erstwhile authorities officials. American officials predicted that Afghan opponents of the Taliban volition astir apt look who volition privation to assistance and supply accusation to the United States.

And without a ample American subject beingness successful Afghanistan, immoderate drone onslaught against an Islamic State oregon Qaeda people determination volition person to depart, for now, from the Persian Gulf. Such agelong flights trim the magnitude of clip the planes person to hunt targets, expanding the hazard of errors and missed targets. Or they could necessitate a large, and expensive, fleet of drones to beryllium used.

The State Department has yet to unafraid entree to bases successful Central Asian states that were erstwhile portion of the Soviet Union, and it is unclear whether that volition happen.


Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Russia has made wide it opposes immoderate American beingness successful Central Asia. While the erstwhile Soviet states sometimes effort to equilibrium Moscow’s power with agreements with the Americans, Russia exerts acold much power than it did 20 years ago, erstwhile the United States got entree to bases successful Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan during the aboriginal parts of the warfare successful Afghanistan.

Afghanistan garnered small attraction during Mr. Burns’s confirmation hearings successful February. The bulk of questions from some Democrats and Republicans focused connected the Biden administration’s plans to displacement quality resources to the situation of China, which Mr. Burns identified arsenic a apical priority.

Not agelong afterward, the White House issued an interim nationalist information strategy that enactment caller accent connected the request to absorption connected “great power” contention with Russia and China. Senior American officials said that precedence has not changed, and portion Afghanistan has a caller urgency, American quality agencies tin grip aggregate priorities astatine once.

But past shows that specified multitasking tin beryllium difficult, and that determination are accidental costs. When the subject and the C.I.A. focused connected the warfare successful Iraq, Afghanistan suffered from inattention. A new, much adversarial authorities successful China emerged arsenic the United States obsessed implicit the instrumentality of Russian aggression successful Europe and the emergence of the Islamic State.

“The beforehand burner is crowded,” said John E. McLaughlin, a erstwhile acting manager of the C.I.A. “The aboriginal holds a premix of challenges. Inevitably, we’re successful a satellite present wherever China, Russia, countries person that magnitude and power are going to beryllium successful the forefront, but you cognize lurking successful the background, there’s the anticipation of terrorists regrouping.”

The imaginable for Afghanistan to germinate into a hub for violent networks besides carries its ain governmental risks for the president.

Any violent onslaught originating from Afghanistan would exposure Mr. Biden to fierce disapproval from his governmental opponents that it was a effect of his determination to propulsion American troops from the state — yet different origin that is apt to bring aggravated White House unit connected spy agencies to support a laser absorption connected Afghanistan.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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