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 US 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 US military forces from the country by the end of 2014, Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
Senior US intelligence and administration officials said the reductions were overdue in a region where US espionage efforts were now seen as out of proportion to the threat posed by al Qaeda’s diminished core leadership in Pakistan.
“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?”
US officials stressed that the CIA was expected to maintain a significant footprint even after the pullback, with a station in Kabul that would remain among the agency’s largest in the world, as well as a fleet of armed drones that would 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 US 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 was 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 US troops would probably trigger a deeper retrenchment by the CIA, which has relied on US 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.
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 US counterterrorism capabilities could deteriorate and perhaps allow remnants of al Qaeda to regenerate.
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 US troop levels in Afghanistan.
Current and former US officials familiar with the agency’s plans said they called 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 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 US military and medical evacuation capabilities and were often near larger military outposts.
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.
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.
The senior Obama administration official said the US might propose a shift to military drone flights inside Pakistan as part of the discussions with Afghanistan and Islamabad over US troop levels.