Of the many implications of ending a 20-year war in Afghanistan, there’s one that U.S. spies believe could haunt Americans for years to come: a massively deteriorated intelligence-gathering operation in the Middle East.
Former CIA directors for the region and counterterrorism experts told The Daily Beast that intelligence ground operations would obviously suffer from the absence of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which could have implications for the U.S. government’s ability to keep tabs on terrorist threats.
It’s not impossible to run espionage operations in the country. But it makes it so that whatever intelligence spies are able to collect is that much muddier and more suspect, as the government will be less able to assess source motivations and agendas for sharing information.
It’s also more dangerous. U.S. spies on the ground will have fewer options to escape to safety if their cover is blown.
”We’ve lost two things: we’ve lost our embassy—and the embassy of course is where we would have had intelligence collection ability—and we also lost our partner, which is the Afghanistan Intelligence Service,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who was the base chief in Afghanistan between 2011-2012, told The Daily Beast. “They run spies as well to penetrate terrorist groups. On the human side we really are degraded.”
The degraded state of intelligence operations could leave the U.S. flying blind at the worst possible time—just as terrorism threats resurge in the region, says Daniel Hoffman, the CIA’s former chief of the Near East division.
“It’s going to be much more challenging for us—but the mission is the same and it’s even taken on a heightened importance because we’re leaving Afghanistan pretty much as a terrorist state,” Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “So it’s never been more important for us to recruit spies, get secrets, detect the threats way left of boom before they come to visit us on our shores.”
Hoffman added that “the last thing” the Biden administration would want to admit is that Americans were more at risk because the military had pulled out of Afghanistan.
“But we are,” he said.
Of course, it’s not particularly surprising that U.S. intelligence officials would be the ones warning of worsening intelligence-gathering conditions. The intelligence community has been heavily invested in monitoring the region for decades, even as some openly admit they’re pleased that the administration has pulled the U.S. back from military involvement.
But it’s difficult to argue that, with U.S. forces gone from Afghanistan, the lives of the spies that have remained just got a lot more complicated.
As these intelligence operators work to continue feeding information about the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, or ISIS-K back to the U.S. government, they do so without the traditional kinds of protection, Douglas London, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, told The Daily Beast.
”It’s always been dangerous—our agents are working under the noses of our adversaries… they’re risking their lives and concerned with protecting their secret activity and finding secure opportunities to communicate what they have learned,” London said, adding that getting out compromised spies might be increasingly difficult in the days ahead.
“That’s always hard,” he continued, “but there’s going to be less safe places for them to be and fewer opportunities for privacy or the ability to be rescued by the cavalry if things go bad.”
According to London, human intelligence operations aren’t the only ones that will be degraded; technical collection on groups on the ground just got a lot trickier as well.
“It doesn’t work in a vacuum. It’s very codependent,” London said, adding that if you didn’t have good human intelligence, the government wouldn’t be able to as effectively and accurately direct technical collection.
“Technical collection is dependent on leads and start points derived from agents on the ground who tell us where and when to look, what to listen in terms of if it’s a radio frequency, if it’s a cellphone handset, if it’s a computer, and identify for whom they’re looking [or] pictures, physical description, and time and place [of] where they’re going to be,” he said.
“I think what you’re going to see is as time goes on the quality of the timeliness of the intelligence is going to decrease and our options for actioning it will be limited,” said London, whose memoir, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, comes out this fall. “The best we could hope for is that we’ve obtained a degree of certainty that we’re at least striking who we believe is in that car, or who we believe the individual is that is a terrorist threat.”
Already, civilians have taken on the deadly toll of the withdrawal—the deadly drone attack the U.S. government conducted Sunday to ostensibly target a suicide bomber on their way to the airport in Kabul killed five children.
“The intel won’t be as good as it was, it won’t be as reliable as it was, and we really don’t have a local partner to act on that intelligence,” London said. “There’s going to be consequences in limited insight and less certainty that will detract from confidence in decision making, especially when contemplating kinetic strikes.”
U.S. intelligence and military officials have been warning for months that there would be challenges to intelligence collection once U.S. forces departed Afghanistan. CIA Director William Burns warned earlier this year the withdrawal would make it harder to counteract threats from terrorists.
Even before the withdrawal, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted intelligence collection on the ground was already shrinking: “My knowledge of what’s going on in Afghanistan is not nearly what it was 180 days ago,” McKenzie said in July.
But the stark realities of diminished intelligence collection on the ground will play out in weeks and months ahead for spies in the country. Already, U.S. intelligence leaders have been shifting resources to other nations in recent years, like China and Russia.
But intelligence officials will now be forced to do a U-turn and reassess their earlier shift away from beating back terrorists, says Polymeropoulos.
"That’s the shame of this all: Where we do need to shift to China and Russia, all of a sudden we’re going to be stuck doing counterterrorism again,” Polymeropoulos told The Daily Beast. “Everyone knows that great power competition is where we have to be. All of a sudden, we had this added mission that three weeks ago we did not expect to have.”
That refocusing, of course, won’t mean that the U.S. will abandon its counterintelligence operations in China or Russia.
”There still has to be some balance and you can’t neglect counterterrorism, you can’t make a 180 degree switch or simply dismiss the threat,” London told The Daily Beast.
But there’s increasing concern of a resurgence of terrorist threats in the Middle East. Shortly after the Taliban captured Bagram Air Base this month, they released between 5,000 and 7,000 prisoners, including ISIS and al Qaeda operatives, and that has raised eyebrows in the intelligence community.
“There’s nothing more of a nightmare scenario for a counterterrorism personnel, like what I used to do, than to see prisoners released,” Polymeropoulos said.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, told senators earlier this month that the timeline the Pentagon had assessed for how long it would take terrorists to make a comeback had been moved up.
For now, the U.S. intelligence community is likely to rely on partners in the region to collect intelligence.
One such partnership could include Ahmad Massoud, who is working to lead resistance against the Taliban in Panjshir province alongside fighters, pilots, and Afghanistan’s former vice president. But relying on their information poses challenges as well, according to London.
”Even working with these groups is tricky right now because [of] the way the government collapsed,” London said. “They’re also in a difficult position to try to create and run intelligence networks… That also creates other problems logistically and in terms of validity of the intelligence.
He noted that obtaining information second-hand or even third-hand could lead the U.S. to sources trying to deceive or influence the U.S., and he said the more distant the government was to the sources of information, “the harder it becomes to evaluate the reliability, like how messages become distorted in a game of telephone.”
Just hours into the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it’s too early to tell if the country would become a black hole for intelligence collection moving forward. But just because the U.S. military no longer has a presence in the country, that doesn’t mean it’d give up on an intelligence presence there.
“There’s no such thing as a denied area for CIA,” Hoffman said. “We’ll go in and collect intelligence and we’ll do what we’ve always done.”
He added that the withdrawal mostly meant that the U.S. just doesn’t own “the battlespace” anymore. “The CIA has to come up with a new plan.”