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Opinion Inside the CIA’s desperate effort to rescue its Afghan allies

CIA headquarters. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Often the spy business is about betrayal. But for the CIA in Afghanistan, even amid the catastrophic U.S. withdrawal in August, the story in recent months has largely been about keeping faith with its local partners. Nearly every one of the agency’s secret allies got out safely, knowledgeable sources said.

The Afghanistan war was a painful failure for the United States, as our military commanders told Congress this week. The CIA’s role bookended that drama, at the dawn and sunset: The agency was first into Afghanistan after 9/11, working with tribal allies to topple the Taliban. And its officers and Afghan agents were among the last out, working undercover to evacuate as many Americans and Afghans as possible.

The CIA made its own terrible mistakes in the war on terror. The worst was torturing al-Qaeda prisoners, but two decades of drone attacks and other counterterrorism operations were corrosive and shocked consciences, at home and abroad. But among former officers, the rescue of so many Afghan allies has generated a quiet buzz of satisfaction. Two former officers who served in Afghanistan told me the agency had rescued more than 20,000 Afghan partners and their families. The agency refused to comment on numbers.

The CIA’s allies remained a cohesive force even as the Afghan military collapsed, the sources said. They provided security at Kabul airport during the evacuation. And they conducted covert missions “outside the wire,” sometimes posing as taxi drivers, to rescue Americans who were stranded or too frightened to make their way to the airport. The knowledgeable source said that through such operations, the CIA team managed to rescue 2,000 U.S. citizens, 4,000 local staff from the U.S Embassy, and 1,500 NGO workers and foreign journalists.

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George Tenet, who was CIA director when the war began, described the covert Afghan-American bond in an interview Thursday: “Agency officers who served in Afghanistan knew they had an immense debt to the Afghans who helped us stop al-Qaeda. The United States has not been attacked in 20 years. That’s no accident. When our Afghan partners needed us most, we had a sacred obligation to them and their families. The message is that the agency honors its commitments.”

The CIA’s Afghan partner force was recruited during the earliest days of the war. Initially, the operatives were known as the “Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams,” or CTPT. Hundreds of these recruits would operate from bases in southern and eastern Afghanistan under the command of a handful of CIA officers. They were sometimes known as the “tiger stripes,” because of their uniforms. Eventually, many of the Afghans became part of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Critics have charged that the NDS engaged in extra-judicial killings and other abuses.

Extricating the CIA’s allies after 20 years of war was a tricky business. Because they had worked so closely with the United States, they were especially vulnerable to retaliation. Some received threatening phone calls and email messages.

When President Biden decided in April that he would withdraw from Afghanistan, CIA Director William J. Burns made a secret trip to Kabul where he began laying the foundations to evacuate the covert partners. Afghan operatives in remote locations gradually moved toward the capital. By June, volunteers at CIA headquarters in Langley were preparing the paperwork for Special Immigrant Visas and plans for relocation.

As the Taliban advanced this summer, the danger increased. A team in Kandahar was rescued by plane just as the Taliban breached the airport perimeter. Other groups came by road, sneaking with their families toward Kabul.

A gathering point was the CIA’s secret “Eagle Base,” about three miles from the Kabul airport. This had been the agency’s hub during the war; now it was a transit point in the evacuation. Afghans and their families reached the base and then were transported, often by helicopter, to the airport. But their work wasn’t done.

With the fall of Kabul and the Afghan military’s collapse on Aug. 15, the U.S. military needed help securing the airport and conducting rescue operations. They turned in part to the CIA force. After the chaotic disaster on Aug. 16, when desperate Afghans clung to a departing C-17 and fell to their deaths, the CIA partner force helped U.S. troops clear panicked Afghans from the runways and restore order. They also helped secure several secret gates at the airport for covert entry.

Spy stories don’t usually have happy endings, and this one doesn’t really, either. The heroism of the evacuation is a source of pride. But Kabul is controlled today by the Taliban, and many decent Afghans feel like prisoners in their homes. For former CIA officers who served in Afghanistan alongside brave partners, though, this is about closing a circle — one that began and ended with trust.

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