U.S. officials say that the CIAs massive stations in Kabul and Baghdad will… (Alex Wong/Getty Images )
The CIA is expected to maintain a large clandestine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan long after the departure of conventional U.S. troops as part of a plan by the Obama administration to rely on a combination of spies and Special Operations forces to protect U.S. interests in the two longtime war zones, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said that the CIA’s stations in Kabul and Baghdad will probably remain the agency’s largest overseas outposts for years, even if they shrink from record staffing levels set at the height of American efforts in those nations to fend off insurgencies and install capable governments.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December has moved the CIA’s emphasis there toward more traditional espionage — monitoring developments in the increasingly antagonistic government, seeking to suppress al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country and countering the influence of Iran.
In Afghanistan, the CIA is expected to have a more aggressively operational role. U.S. officials said the agency’s paramilitary capabilities are seen as tools for keeping the Taliban off balance, protecting the government in Kabul and preserving access to Afghan airstrips that enable armed CIA drones to hunt al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.
As President Obama seeks to end a decade of large-scale conflict, the emerging assignments for the CIA suggest it will play a significant part in the administration’s search for ways to exert U.S. power in more streamlined and surgical ways.
As a result, the CIA station in Kabul — which at one point had responsibility for as many as 1,000 agency employees in Afghanistan — is expected to expand its collaboration with Special Operations forces when the drawdown of conventional troops begins.
Navy Adm. William McRaven, the Special Operations commander who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year, signaled the transition during remarks Tuesday in Washington. “I have no doubt that Special Operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan,” McRaven said.
The CIA declined to comment. But current and former intelligence officials quibbled with the accuracy of McRaven’s assertion.
“I would say the agency will be the last to leave,” said a CIA veteran with extensive experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We were the first to get there” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the former official said.
Force size evolving
U.S. officials said the size of the agency’s presence in Afghanistan over the next several years has not been determined, and the CIA’s assignment is likely to be adjusted as the administration’s troop withdrawal plans evolve.
In some scenarios, teams of CIA and Special Operations troops could divide territory and lists of Taliban targets with Afghan forces, although officials said there will probably be extensive collaboration and overlap.
CIA paramilitary operatives were the first U.S. personnel to enter Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, linking up with Northern Alliance fighters weeks before U.S. military commandos arrived. More than a decade later, the CIA still has extensive paramilitary assets there.
“Like Special Forces, the intelligence community is used to doing a lot with a small footprint, using its agility to address a host of national security concerns,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The agency controls counterterrorism pursuit teams made up of dozens of Afghan fighters funded and trained by the CIA. The CIA has largely bankrolled and built the Afghan intelligence service. And the agency maintains a constellation of bases along the border with Pakistan.
Some of those sites are likely to be closed, current and former officials said. The 2010 death of seven CIA employees and contractors in a suicide bombing by a double agent at a CIA base in Khost province underscored the vulnerability of such remote outposts. As conventional forces depart, officials said, the agency will probably concentrate more of its remaining employees at compounds in Kabul and at the Bagram air base north of the capital.
As a result, more territory may be ceded to the Taliban. “We can lose the countryside, but I don’t think we’re going to lose Kabul and Bagram,” said the former senior CIA officer, who added that the agency could end up adding paramilitary personnel in Afghanistan as the size of the U.S. military deployment shrinks.
The Obama administration has said it plans to pull about 22,000 troops out of Afghanistan by September, reducing the overall U.S. force to 68,000. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta fanned speculation that the drawdown could be accelerated by saying last week that the United States hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013.