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After troops leave Afghanistan, U.S. will face challenges maintaining counterterrorism capability

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/18/2021 Missy Ryan, Shane Harris, Paul Sonne
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The military and intelligence agencies are racing to refine plans for countering extremist groups in Afghanistan following President Biden’s planned troop withdrawal, but current and former officials warn it will be far more difficult to head off threats to U.S. security from afar.

Biden said the United States would reposition personnel and equipment once the Pentagon pulls its forces out of Afghanistan ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” Biden said as he announced his decision, to end a war that is now America’s longest, a goal that has eluded earlier presidents.

Top Biden aides said the move, which came despite warnings from military and intelligence leaders that withdrawal could permit a diminished al-Qaeda to regroup, was necessary to comply with a 2020 withdrawal agreement President Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban, and to allow the United States to focus on more pressing challenges, like China’s military rise.

[Biden to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021]

But some officials cautioned that the trade-offs for American security, especially given the anemic state of peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, could be steep without the constellation of military bases, arsenal of weaponry and aircraft, and network of human sources the two-decade American effort in Afghanistan has accrued.

“The reason why al-Qaeda is pretty weak right now is that we’ve been putting pressure on them,” making it hard for them to attempt to regroup, said Lisa Curtis, who served as the top White House official for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Trump administration. Without an American presence, she said, “they’re going to have the freedom to do just that.”

Curtis’s warning echoed statements from CIA Director William J. Burns, who told lawmakers this week that the military departure would diminish the U.S. government’s ability to detect and respond to upticks in extremist threats, also including the Islamic State. “To be honest, there is a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition militaries withdraw,” he said.

Pentagon officials say that preliminary repositioning plans, drawn up during a policy review Biden kicked off after taking office and during earlier debates about U.S. options in Afghanistan, will be reworked and submitted to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for approval.

“We’re still working out what the future bilateral relationship is going to be with Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday. “It will not include a U.S. military footprint,” he said, with the exception of a Marine force assigned to protect the U.S. embassy.

Among the biggest challenges once troops are gone will be how to effectively surveil — and potentially strike — extremist groups in Afghanistan, which is landlocked and far from any major American base. U.S. aircraft could launch flights from al-Udeid, the sprawling air base outside the Qatari capital that is the main U.S. air hub in the Middle East. But the Gulf nation’s distance from Afghanistan, compounded by the need to fly around neighboring Iran, makes it an expensive option.

Fighter jets flying from Qatar to Afghanistan require substantial aerial refueling, which if scaled up could further strain the military’s stock of aging tanker planes. More significantly, those staffed flights would occur without the on-the-ground search-and-rescue backup they now have.

Flying unstaffed aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper from Qatar entails a six- to eight-hour round trip, reducing the time the drones can spend over Afghanistan. That means the military would need a high number of drones to attain 24-hour coverage over multiple areas of Afghanistan at a time when the Pentagon is seeking to shift surveillance resources to East Asia.

Current and former officials said the administration will likely consider closer options for drone operations, including Uzbekistan, whose Karshi-Khanabad base was a logistics hub for Afghanistan until Uzbek officials ousted the United States in 2005. While Uzbekistan is less under the sway of U.S. rival Russia than neighbors like Tajikistan, where U.S. officials say Moscow has positioned weaponry near the Afghan border, its dismal human rights record could make renewed cooperation unpalatable.

Also nearby is Pakistan, where the CIA once flew drone missions out of Baluchistan province’s Shamsi airfield until Islamabad closed it to American use during a 2011 dispute. While Pakistan has sought to show its support for Afghan peace talks, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who once led sit-ins against U.S. drone strikes, appears unlikely to approve such a move.

Pakistani leaders “want to be friends, but I don’t think there’s an eagerness to go back to old patterns,” said Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistani ambassador in Washington and is now a Hudson Institute fellow.

Current and former officials said that major advances in surveillance technology nevertheless means U.S. visibility would be far better in Afghanistan than it was before 9/11.

“But strike options will become more limited because we won’t have a team of JSOC who can go out and do a raid,” a former defense official said, referring to elite Joint Special Operations Command operatives who have carried out missions against militant leaders.

It’s not yet clear whether the Biden administration will, as other administrations have done in the past, seek to assign a small number of troops under embassy or intelligence authority in a way that could be seen as complying with the letter, if not the spirit, of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Some former officials pointed to the U.S. experience in Iraq following the Obama administration’s hurried 2011 withdrawal as a potential model. There, a contingent of roughly two dozen Special Operations forces stayed behind, placed under embassy control so they could continue to advise Iraq’s elite Counterterrorism Service, which U.S. troops had established after the 2003 invasion.

“That proved to be pretty decisive” when the Islamic State overran much of Iraq less than three years later, said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who served as head of U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command before retiring in 2019.

Votel said Biden faced “a really hard decision” in Afghanistan. “But I am concerned it may be one we come to regret,” he said.

The Biden administration has declined to publicly address how the withdrawal will impact intelligence agencies in Afghanistan, where they have played a shadowy but substantial role since 2001.

Burns and other top officials have pointed to the Taliban’s responsibility, under the terms of the 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal, for ensuring Afghanistan does not again become a launchpad for terrorist plots.

“Our expectation is they’re going to live up to their obligation and continue to ensure that al-Qaeda can’t again use Afghanistan as a platform to stage external attacks,” Burns told Congress.

But it remained unclear in the days following Biden’s announcement whether that intelligence presence, which in addition to traditional spycraft includes a paramilitary operation staffed in part by military personnel who partner with Afghan counterterrorism teams, can continue their work.

Simone Ledeen, who served as a Pentagon official for Special Operations during the Trump administration, said other U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan “are doing so off the DOD logistics backbone.”

“They’re going to be really challenged if they’re left behind, despite the fact they still have a fundamental mission to keep the homeland safe,” she said.

Mick Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer who also served as a top Pentagon official for the Middle East during the Trump administration, said he understood the desire to leave.

“We’ve reduced our exposure and we’ve significantly reduced our casualties,” he said. “I just don’t think the investment of 3,000 troops is too much to keep what we’ve gained in 20 years.”

A former intelligence official said while it may be possible for the CIA, which has its own aircraft, to press on, officials might also decide it is too risky without the medical support and far greater firepower the military can provide. “I have a feeling the new director is going to say, ‘Heck no. We can defend ourselves, but it’s going to be an Alamo situation,’ ’’ the former official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

The troop pullout is likely to make the job of recruiting intelligence agents more difficult, and some experts worry that Afghans who have spied for the Americans will become Taliban targets.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer, recalled being in Kandahar in early 2002 some time after scores of Afghans had been hanged by the Taliban in a soccer stadium. Among them was an Afghan CIA agent, he said.

“I very quietly slipped into the agent’s family compound, and through a curtain, as I was not permitted to make eye contact with the female family members, I passed them money that the U.S. government owed our former agent,” Polymeropoulos recalled.

“I fear such scenes — bodies hung in soccer stadiums — will repeat themselves with a precipitous full U.S. withdrawal, as the Taliban takes revenge on any and all Afghans who helped the U.S. government over the last two decades,” he said.

shane.harri@washpost.com

paul.sonne@washpost.com

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

a large passenger jet flying through a clear blue sky: An MQ-9 Reaper flies at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., in 2007. © Ethan Miller/Getty Images An MQ-9 Reaper flies at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., in 2007.
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