Some of the bases being closed served as important intelligence-gathering nodes during the escalation of the agency’s drone campaign, raising the risk that U.S. counterterrorism capabilities could deteriorate and perhaps allow remnants of al-Qaeda to regenerate.
U.S. officials played down that danger. “There’s an inherent imbalance,” the administration official said. “The effectiveness of our operations has reduced the threat to the point that it’s entirely appropriate that we have a smaller counterterrorism footprint.”
White House officials have been weighing a shift of some of those resources to other regions, including Yemen and North Africa, where al-Qaeda affiliates are now seen as more dangerous than the network’s base. The White House discussions have been part of the overall deliberations over U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
The CIA drawdown coincides with Afghanistan-related personnel moves. The agency recently appointed a new station chief in Kabul, a selection that raised eyebrows among some because the veteran officer is known mainly for his tours in Latin America and had not previously served in Afghanistan.
The top military post at CIA headquarters is also changing hands. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, who was in charge of Special Operations units in Afghanistan, is set to begin serving as associate CIA director for military support in September, replacing an Air Force general with drone expertise.
Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the agency’s plans said they call for pulling most agency personnel back to the CIA’s main station in Kabul, plus a group of large regional bases — known as the “big five” — in Bagram, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.
“The footprint being designed involves six bases and some satellite [locations] out of those,” said a former senior CIA officer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. The agency may also rely on “mobile stations” in which a small number of operatives move temporarily into remote locations “where they trust the tribal network,” the former officer said. “Protection issues are going to be critical.”
The base closures involve compounds along the Pakistan border, part of a constellation used by CIA operatives and analysts to identify drone targets in Pakistan. The bases, including locations in the provinces of Zabul, Paktika and Khost, have relied heavily on U.S. military and medical evacuation capabilities and were often near larger military outposts.
Among them is Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost, where seven CIA employees were killed by a suicide bomber posing as a potential informant in 2009. It is unclear whether the CIA will pull its personnel out of Chapman, which remained active even after that attack.