An exclusive Daily Beast report emerged on Sunday describing the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) deliberate draw-down in Afghanistan. According to the report, the CIA is “dismantling its frontline Afghan counterterrorist forces in south and east Afghanistan.” As a result, U.S. officials fear that the Taliban and al Qaeda will seize the opportunity this security vacuum provides to regroup and stage a concerted attack against Kabul during its time of political transition.
In the CIA’s view, its draw-down in Afghanistan needed to occur in tandem with the broader U.S. troop presence in the region. While the United States will likely end up signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the next Afghan President, be it Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, the remaining troop number in the country will be capped at no more than 10,000. Those troops staying behind will participate in limited counter-terrorism operations and train Afghan forces. According to the Daily Beast, the CIA “doesn’t want to face another high-risk situation like Benghazi, Libya, where militants attacked both the U.S. diplomatic outpost and the CIA base.”
The CIA’s draw-down from Afghanistan is visible because the Agency has been using Afghan paramilitary groups on its payroll to fight the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan. While the exact number of these militias is not known, the Beast report suggests that these fighters number in the “thousands,” with one unit referred to in the report from Paktika province containing 900 men alone. These groups were formed shortly following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and have a reputation for efficiency against the Taliban and other opponents. Tallying the numbers provided in the Beast‘s report, almost 5,000 militia members are being dropped from the CIA payroll imminently.
The Afghan government reportedly had no prior warning of the CIA’s plans for these militias. According to Aimal Faizi, spokesman for the outgoing Hamid Karzai government, the government of Afghanistan attempted to fill the security vacuum by deploying the Afghan National Army to those locations where CIA-backed militias had already been disbanded. Additionally, the government tried to recruit members of these militias to its own payroll with little luck. “We tried to hire those militia for the same pay as the CIA … but only a 100 or so said yes,” notes Faizi.
The Afghan government fears that the mercenary nature of these militias might mean that some of these fighters that just left the CIA payroll might end up fighting for the Taliban. One senior Afghan official, according to the Beast, noted that these fighters “were fired with no notice, given a severance payment, two rifles and told to leave.” Despite recent optimism about the preparedness of the Afghan National Army (mainly fostered by the relative success of the elections), most officials are skeptical that Afghanistan’s existing security forces can fill the vacuum left by these CIA-backed militias.
The CIA’s draw-down from Afghanistan became apparent as early as last summer when major U.S. media outlets reported that the Agency had begun to shut down major facilities in Afghanistan as it prepared to pull out with the broader U.S. military presence. In essence, the notion that the CIA was pegging its presence in Afghanistan to the broader U.S. and NATO troop presence in the country was not a surprise. Back then, however, there was little talk of these CIA-backed militias — all that was known was that the agency was decreasing its bureaucratic capacity in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the New York Times‘ David Sanger reported on the CIA’s interest in maintaining its presence in Afghanistan for strategic reasons outside of the immediate security situation in Afghanistan, including its drone strikes against high-value targets in Pakistan. Much of what was reported then remains true today; the Agency and the Obama administration see value in using Afghanistan as a point-of-origin for Pakistan-bound drone missions. The Bilateral Security Agreement, if and when it gets signed, will add clarity to the future of the United States’ drone strikes in Pakistan.
The CIA ceasing support to militia groups adds uncertainty to the delicate security equation in Afghanistan as external actors continue to prepare to take their own action to counter the negative security effects of the U.S. draw-down. India, for instance, has a vested interest in keeping the Taliban at bay to prevent Pakistani military interests from being represented in Afghan politics. To this end, it recently signed an agreement with Russia under which the latter would provide arms to Afghan security forces that would be paid for by India.
It remains to be seen if India will attempt to covertly support anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan. In the late-1990s, India supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Regardless, the greater the U.S.-made security vacuum in Afghanistan, the more regional powers like Russia, India, China and Iran will strive to influence Afghan affairs post-2014.