Afghan withdrawal forces American spies to reorient themselves in the fight against terrorism

WASHINGTON (AP) – The two-decade war in Afghanistan has allowed American spies to keep an eye out for terrorist groups who may once again use the besieged nation to plan attacks on the American homeland. But it will end soon.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan leaves intelligence agencies scrambling to find other ways to monitor and stop terrorists. They will have to rely more on technology and their allies in the Afghan government, even as it faces an increasingly uncertain future once US and NATO forces leave.

“You may not be blind, but you are 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 U.S. forces would still be able to detect threats, they would have to respond with less intelligence and more complex operations from bases outside the country.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was ordered by President Joe Biden. He said it was time to end America’s longest war after two decades of conflict that killed 2,200 American soldiers and 38,000 Afghan civilians at a cost of up to $ 1,000 billion.

But with that pullout comes plenty of uncertainty as a resurgent Taliban gains ground and fears grow that the country may soon fall into civil war. The United States is still working on agreements to base counterterrorism forces in the region and evacuate thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who aided the American war effort.

CIA Director William Burns said in April that fighters from al-Qaida and the Islamic State group were still operating in Afghanistan and “remained committed to regaining the capacity to attack US targets.”

“When the time is right for the US military to withdraw, the ability of the US government to collect and respond to threats will diminish. It’s just a fact, ”Burns said. He added that the CIA and other US agencies “retain a set of capabilities” to monitor and stop threats.

Burns made a secret visit in Afghanistan in April and reassured Afghan officials that the United States would remain engaged in counterterrorism efforts, according to two officials familiar with the visit.

The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on this story.

The CIA has played a role in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, dating back to assisting rebels fighting the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. During the American War, it reportedly carried out strikes against terrorist targets and trained Afghan fighters in groups. known as Counter Terrorism Teams. These 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 hand over control of these teams in six provinces to the Afghan intelligence service, known as the National Security Directorate. The closure of posts near Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Pakistan will make it more difficult to monitor hostile groups operating in those areas, and the withdrawal of Americans from Afghan agencies could exacerbate already troubling corruption problems, said experts.

Washington has long struggled to gather intelligence, even from its allies in Afghanistan. In the early years of the conflict, the United States was drawn into rivalries that resulted in goals determined by the settling of scores among the country’s factions.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2017 to 2020, said U.S. authorities may be able to replace part of their lost footprint with intercepted communications as well as accessible information to the public published online, especially with the growth of the cell phone. networks compared to the 90s. And while Afghan forces have faltered against the Taliban, they can also provide valuable information, Ashley said.

“We shouldn’t overlook their ability to understand their truth on the ground,” said Ashley, now deputy senior researcher at the Center for New American Security. “It’s their nature, it’s their culture, it’s their language.

Former intelligence officials and experts have noted that the CIA and other agencies must already work without a military presence in other countries where militant groups threaten Americans.

Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said human sources in Afghanistan are already limited and the United States now has surveillance capabilities it needs. did not have two decades ago.

“It will still be very robust,” Crow said. “When you don’t have boots on the pitch it’s definitely more difficult, but we have abilities and things that allow us to take on that challenge. It just gets a little harder.

Crow and Waltz are part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who pushed the White House to swiftly process visas for thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped American forces. Over 18,000 requests are pending. Senior U.S. officials have said the administration plans to conduct an evacuation later this summer, but has not focused on one or more countries for what will likely be a temporary relocation.

Failure to protect visa-pending Afghans could have “a huge deterrent effect on people working with us in the future,” Waltz said.

Analysts differ on what to expect from the Taliban if they consolidate their 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 may moderate its conduct slightly over time,” motivated in part by international attention and the proliferation of telephones.

But Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, said he expected the Taliban to continue harboring al-Qaida and worried about a possible insurgency that could embolden extremists and become a regional conflict similar to what happened in Iraq after the US withdrawal. the.

“I want us to withdraw from Afghanistan in theory and be safe,” he said. “That’s just not in my analysis what’s going to happen.”


Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed to this report.

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