The Washington Post has an excellent front page story by Greg Miller today, “CIA digs in as Americans withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan.” The title largely sums up the story. As uniformed military forces depart each of those theatres, the CIA will remain behind. To do what?
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.
This seems to me the right strategy, particularly for addressing transnational terrorism, and in any case is almost certainly where the center of American public opinion stands with regards to both conflicts. But we should probably add two things. First, in Afghanistan – the strategically more important theatre – the CIA’s role is likely to be much more than simply gathering intelligence and engaging in paramilitary strikes, either using drones or its agents and Special Forces teams. It is likely to be deeply involved in the coordination and funding of various local Afghanistan forces – in something that I suspect will look, in terms of the Agency’s historical role, much more like reversion to the mean. Proxy forces integrated with gathering intelligence that enable drone and special ops strikes, but also utilized a forces able to help prevent consolidation of a regime that might provide safe haven for transnational terrorist groups, resurgent Al Qaeda or offshoots.
Second, it cannot be repeating sufficiently that the highly successful strategy of drone strikes and special ops owes its conversion from merely a tactic – and one that risked the “whack a mole” weakness of a tactic repeated serially – into a genuine strategy to the role of dense, often ground-level and human intelligence. Leaving the CIA behind is a way of preserving that vital intelligence network, in addition to its paramilitary capabilities. As someone once described it, the CIA in Afghanistan will be like the French Foreign Legion – last one to leave, if ever; the force that covers the rear of a strategic retreat under fire. Or, going back to Miller’s article, as Navy Adm. William McRaven, remarked Tuesday, “I have no doubt that Special Operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan.” I have no doubt, either.
(By the way, I am looking forward to reading Michael A. Innes’ new book on proxy warfare when it appears in May, Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates and the Use of Force, with a forward by the eminent national security law scholar William C. Banks.)