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US Officials at Odds Over Role of CIA in Afghanistan

US Officials at Odds Over Role of CIA in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – Senior White House advisers have proposed secretly expanding the presence of CIA in Afghanistan if international forces begin to withdraw from the country, according to American officials. But CIA and military officials have expressed reservations, prompting a debate in the administration that could complicate negotiations with the Taliban to end the war.
Some administration officials want CIA-backed militia forces in Afghanistan to serve as part of a counterterrorism force that would prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda as American military troops prepare to leave — in effect, an insurance policy.
But others are skeptical that the shadowy militias, many of which face accusations of brutality, can serve as a bulwark against terrorism without the support of the American military.
The CIA director, Gina Haspel, has raised logistical concerns about the plan with other administration officials, emphasizing that the agency operatives — who marshal the militias to hunt Taliban, Qaeda and Islamic State militants — largely depend on the military for airstrikes, overhead surveillance, medical support and bomb technicians.
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Skeptics have also noted that American intelligence agencies do not believe the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan justifies a vast increase in resources given limited budgets. The Islamic State’s affiliate there is not an immediate threat to the West, despite its regular attacks on Afghan civilians and continuing fight with the Taliban, according to intelligence officials.
The disagreement about the future of the CIA in Afghanistan underscores the fault lines within the administration between those who want a final withdrawal and those who fear it would expose the United States to terrorist threats. This article is based on interviews with a half-dozen current or former officials briefed on the administration’s discussions. The CIA declined to comment, and the White House declined to respond on the record to a request for comment.
The issue could pose an obstacle as American and Taliban negotiators seek a deal to end the longest war in United States history. The Taliban have made clear that they see little difference between American military troops and CIA officers, and they have insisted in the current peace talks in Qatar that the CIA must leave along with international military forces in the coming months or over the next few years.
The top American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said over the weekend that the two sides were on “the threshold of an agreement” after the latest round of negotiations. They have broadly covered the fate of the Afghan security forces but have not dealt directly with the militia groups, or American support for them, said a person familiar with the negotiations.
The Afghan government is not part of the negotiations, but the deal is expected to open a path for talks between the government and the Taliban.
Supporters of the plan to expand CIA support for the militias believe it could address the most potent critique of the peace talks: that a withdrawal of American forces would leave the United States with little ability to prevent terrorist groups from once again using Afghanistan as a base of operations.
“The high-end forces, including CIA-supported forces, are not going to win any war for you, but they may degrade the capability of terrorist groups,” said Seth G. Jones, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to the commanding general of American Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.
But like other former officials, Mr. Jones said that ramping up the operations of the militias while drawing down the American military would be impractical and ineffective.
A peace deal that pulls out American forces but does not disarm the Taliban would give it control of larger parts of Afghanistan, effectively creating a safe haven for terrorist groups that no increase in CIA support to the militias could counter, Mr. Jones warned.
CIA-supported militias operate across Afghanistan and are used by the United States and the Afghan government to target terrorist and insurgent cells.
(Sahar News)

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