The CIA finds job security in Afghanistan
On Sept. 30, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell made it clear that the objective of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy -- "to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al Qaeda" -- remains unchanged. According to Morrell, what is open for discussion among Obama senior advisors is "whether or not counterinsurgency is still the preferred means of achieving that end."
As I discussed last week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal thinks counterinsurgency is the right course and has asked for at least 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers to implement this approach. It is now up to Obama to assess the risk of McChrystal's strategy and weigh whether the costs measure up to the promised benefits.
While Obama and his team deliberate, other developments are underway that will either support McChrystal's request or perhaps create alternatives. On Sept. 20, the Los Angeles Times reported on another "surge" into Afghanistan, this one by the Central Intelligence Agency. According to the article, the CIA's head count in Afghanistan will increase to 700, led by increases in paramilitary officers, intelligence analysts, and operatives tracking the behavior of Afghan government officials.
The piece discussed how McChrystal, while in charge of special operating forces in Iraq, formed teams composed of CIA paramilitary officers and special operations personnel from the U.S. military. This fusion of capabilities is credited with improving intelligence collection and direct action operations against insurgent networks. McChrystal may now be using this same technique in Afghanistan.
But raising the CIA's presence in Afghanistan to a higher plateau might set the stage for alternative approaches to U.S. strategy. Popular discussions of U.S. alternatives for Afghanistan focus on three options: McChrystal's beefed-up counterinsurgency campaign; a counterterror campaign using special operations raids and drone strikes; and abandonment. In reality, there is an entire continuum of options formulated by U.S. planners to achieve Obama's stated objective. Some of these options would focus on training, equipping, and advising Afghanistan's official security forces. Others might focus on enhancing security at the local level through village and tribal militias. Still others might attempt to turn the clock back to 2001 and 2002, when the CIA and special operations forces essentially hired Afghan warlords to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. And there are many more options, all with varying degrees of plausibility.
One thing all of these options have in common is a requirement for greater CIA participation. Options that have fewer U.S. military forces directly providing security imply more Afghans providing security. This will require greater employment of U.S. liaison officers and advisors from both the U.S. military and the CIA's clandestine service.
If Obama chooses McChrystal's most military-intensive recommendation, it seems as if the CIA's role in Afghanistan will still increase both now and in the future. A successful military surge in Afghanistan will eventually be followed by a drawdown and a handoff to Afghan security forces. In the wake of this scenario, U.S. military advisors and CIA officers would maintain contact with Afghan security forces and keep watch on the residual al Qaeda threat.
Afghanistan seems bound to provide job security for the CIA.