The CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan, marking the start of a drawdown from a region that transformed the agency from an intelligence service struggling to emerge from the Cold War to a counterterrorism force with its own prisons, paramilitary teams and armed Predator drones.
The pullback represents a turning point for the CIA as it shifts resources to other trouble spots. The closures were described by U.S officials as preliminary steps in a plan to reduce the number of CIA installations in Afghanistan from a dozen to as few as six over the next two years — a consolidation to coincide with the withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from the country by the end of 2014.
Senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials said the reductions are overdue in a region where U.S. espionage efforts are now seen as out of proportion to the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s diminished core leadership in Pakistan.
The CIA faces an array of new challenges beyond al-Qaeda, such as monitoring developments in the Middle East and delivering weapons to rebels in Syria. John O. Brennan, the recently installed CIA director, has also signaled a desire to restore the agency’s focus on traditional espionage.
“When we look at post-2014, how does the threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan measure against the threat in North Africa and Yemen?” said a senior administration official who spoke on
the condition of anonymity to discuss government deliberations. “Shouldn’t our resources reflect that?”
U.S. officials stressed that the CIA is expected to maintain a significant footprint even after the pullback, with a station in Kabul that will remain among the agency’s largest in the world, as well as a fleet of armed drones that will continue to patrol Pakistan’s tribal belt.
The timing and scope of the CIA’s pullback are still being determined and depend to some extent on how many U.S. troops President Obama decides to keep in the country after 2014. The administration is expected to reduce the number from 63,000 now to about 10,000 after next year but recently signaled that it is also considering a “zero option,” in part because of mounting frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The CIA may be in a unique position to negotiate with Karzai, who has publicly acknowledged accepting bags of money from the agency for years. The CIA also has provided much of the budget and training for the Afghan intelligence service. The agency wants to maintain the strength of those ties.
Even so, a full withdrawal of U.S. troops would probably trigger a deeper retrenchment by the CIA, which has relied on U.S. and allied military installations across the country to serve as bases for agency operatives and cover for their spying operations. The CIA’s armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad.
The CIA’s presence in the country has already dropped well below the peak levels of several years ago, when more than 1,000 case officers, analysts and other employees had been deployed to support the war effort and hunt al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
The CIA declined to comment on the withdrawal plans.
“Afghanistan fundamentally changed the way the agency conducts business,” said Richard Blee, who served as the CIA’s senior officer in Afghanistan and Pakistan before he retired in 2007. “We went from a purely espionage organization to more of an offensive weapon, a paramilitary organization where classic spying was less important.”
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.
Administration deliberations over troop levels could also determine where the agency operates its drones. During the early years of the campaign, the aircraft were flown from Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan, but the agency moved most of its fleet to Jalalabad as public opposition to strikes mounted in Pakistan and relations with the government broke down.
The tempo of the CIA’s drone campaign has already tapered off. The 17 strikes this year in Pakistan are far off the peak pace of 2010, when there were 117 strikes, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks drone attacks. Over the past decade, the campaign has killed as many as 3,000 militants and dozens if not hundreds of civilians, according to independent estimates.
U.S. officials said that preferred troop-level options would allow U.S. forces to remain at Jalalabad, in part so that the CIA’s flights could continue. But officials said the drones could also be shifted to airstrips at Bagram or Kandahar. The latter has already served as a base for stealth drones used to conduct secret surveillance flights during the bin Laden raid and over Iran.
This year, President Obama approved new counterterrorism guidelines that call for the military to take on a larger role in targeted killing operations, reducing the involvement of the CIA.
But the guidelines included carve-outs that gave the agency wide latitude to continue armed Predator flights across the border and did not ban a controversial practice known as “signature strikes,” in which the agency can launch missiles at targets based on patterns of suspicious behavior without knowing the identities of those who would be killed.
The senior Obama administration official said the United States may propose a shift to military drone flights inside Pakistan as part of the discussions with Afghanistan and Islamabad over U.S. troop levels.
The negotiations are seen as the “one shot you have” to raise the issue, the official said, adding that it was doubtful but “not impossible” that Pakistan would consent. Islamabad has never formally acknowledged its cooperation on the drone program and is seen as unlikely to allow a covert — if not exactly secret — CIA operation to give way to an overt campaign involving U.S. military flights.
Despite the pullout of U.S. troops and CIA operatives, officials said the drone campaign in Pakistan and elsewhere is expected to continue for years. Mike Sheehan, the assistant defense secretary for Special Operations, testified recently that such counterterrorism operations will probably last an additional 10 years or more.
The administration official said others believe the end is closer. The strikes will probably last “some period of years,” the official said. “But I don’t think you can project out five or 10.”