WASHINGTON: The two-decade war in Afghanistan has given US spies a perch for keeping tabs on terrorist groups that might once again use the beleaguered nation to plan attacks against the US homeland. But that will end soon.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is leaving intelligence agencies scrambling for other ways to monitor and stop terrorists. They’ll have to depend more on technology and their allies in the Afghan government — even as it faces an increasingly uncertain future once US and NATO forces depart. “You may not be blind, but you’re 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 American forces would still be able to detect threats, they would have to respond with lesser intelligence and more complex operations from bases outside the country.
The Afghanistan withdrawal was ordered by President Joe Biden. He has said it’s time to end America’s longest war after two decades of a conflict that killed 2,200 US troops and 38,000 Afghan civilians, with a cost as much as $1 trillion. But that withdrawal comes with many uncertainties as a resurgent Taliban captures ground and fears mount that the country could soon fall into civil war. The US is still working on agreements to base counterterrorism forces in the region and evacuate thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped the American war effort.
CIA Director William Burns testified in April that fighters from al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are still operating in Afghanistan and “remain intent on recovering the ability to attack US targets.” “When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. He added that the CIA and other US agencies “retain a suite of capabilities” to monitor and stop threats.
Burns made a secret visit to Afghanistan in April and reassured Afghan officials that the US would remain engaged in counterterrorism efforts, according to two officials familiar with the visit. The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story.
The CIA has had a role in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, dating back to aiding rebels fighting the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. During the US war, it is said to have carried out strikes against terror targets and trained Afghan fighters in groups known as Counter Terrorism Pursuit Teams. Those 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 turn over control of those teams in six provinces to the Afghan intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security. The closure of posts near Afghanistan’s borders with Iran will make it harder to monitor hostile groups operating in those areas, and the withdrawal of Americans from Afghan agencies could worsen already troubling problems with corruption, experts said.