Adapting Intelligence to the New Afghanistan
Amid the broader debate over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, policymakers should remain focused on one crucial fact: terrorist groups in Afghanistan now have greater freedom to operate. To monitor this threat, Washington should re-posture its intelligence assets in the region. Otherwise, its ability to mitigate the terrorist threat through over-the-horizon strikes or other means will be substantially degraded.
To effectively re-posture, the United States and its allies should use diplomacy and economic incentives to gain basing rights in the region that will enable intelligence collection. Defense and intelligence community leaders should then allocate resources to address the emerging risk. This may be difficult as emphasis shifts to great-power competition, but with a Taliban government in Kabul, it is now vital. Both the threat in Afghanistan and the U.S. level of access have changed — the intelligence strategy should change, too.
Today, the CIA counts 14 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. In June, the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Team assessed that much of the al-Qaeda leadership resides in Afghanistan and is aligned with the Taliban. Finally, the Aug. 26 attack that killed 13 Americans is evidence that the Islamic State is still viable. America’s Aug. 29 strike on civilians in Kabul who were misidentified as members of the Islamic State also demonstrated the difficulty the United States will have keeping international terrorists at bay without a presence in the country.
Even if the Taliban leadership honors its pledge to disassociate with terrorist groups, it is unlikely they could enforce this decision. Many Taliban never stopped partnering with al-Qaeda and have family ties to its members. The Taliban will run a decentralized government — they are capable of little else — and the population in many parts of the country will welcome these terrorist groups. Influential Taliban, notably the Haqqani family, have a well-documented relationship with al-Qaeda. This includes records of al-Qaeda and Haqqani cooperation on attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan recovered in the Bin Laden files. The Haqqanis were prominent during the negotiations with the United States and now hold top leadership positions in the Taliban government. As a consequence, al-Qaeda’s presence will grow in many parts of Afghanistan under Taliban rule even if some senior Taliban leaders seek to avoid that outcome.
As the chief of staff of the intelligence directorate for Operation Resolute Support from summer 2019 to summer 2020, I managed much of the drawdown of the military intelligence enterprise in Afghanistan and watched the national agency footprint — the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — shrink to nearly nothing there. The decreased situational awareness quickly became apparent. For example, the intelligence team stopped producing its annual district assessment in late 2019 because we no longer knew who was in control in Afghan districts where intelligence collection had formerly been pervasive. The coalition had pulled back from many bases and the U.S. Joint Staff had moved essential collection platforms out of the region. We knew al-Qaeda was present and observed Afghan commandos conduct raids on its leaders, but struggled to quantify the depth of its influence.
Despite this, some commentators are optimistic that Washington can still maintain awareness of terrorist threats without a presence in Afghanistan. However, absent a significant change in strategy, this optimism may prove dangerous.
For example, some have asked why the United States cannot simply continue to collect human intelligence through its source network built over the last 20 years.
The answer is that without a presence in Afghanistan, running a reliable human intelligence network is difficult. Face-to-face conversations now require sending U.S. agents covertly into Afghanistan or having sources transit to a neighboring country. Human interaction still matters when building trust, especially when someone is risking their life to provide information on terrorists. Agents can run sub-source networks using trusted Afghans in the country, but it is simply not as effective. Further, many of the Afghans with whom the United States has relationships have left or are hiding from the Taliban.
Furthermore, every sub-source put between the agent and the source increases the chance of error and bias. Think of the childhood game Telephone. You whisper a message down a line of people to see how it changes in the process. In intelligence too, a longer source chain will have the same distorting effect, only magnified because the participants will be financially motivated to satisfy their pay agent’s desires. Finally, the degradation of the other intelligence disciplines makes it challenging to validate source reporting. For example, previously the United States could use imagery or signal intercepts from aircraft to confirm that a source was telling the truth or had traveled to a location. It is much harder to do that now.
And what about the U.S. airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet? My question is: Where will the United States launch and recover these aircraft from? Iran? China? Maybe they can be launched from Pakistan in limited volume, but the Pakistanis are not likely to permit a large U.S. footprint for their own political reasons. Looking to the north, the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan asked the United States to leave bases in their countries in 2005 and 2014 under pressure from Russia. News outlets reported in July that Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted to U.S. President Joseph Biden that he might allow intelligence assets back into the Central Asian states in exchange for information-sharing. But a heavy load of diplomacy is necessary before this could become a reality.
What is more, weather and geography pose challenges when flying out of the Central Asian states. Unpredictable weather inhibits the takeoff and landing of unmanned aerial vehicles. Terrorist groups operate primarily in the southern, Pashtun-dominated parts of Afghanistan. Crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range in central Afghanistan requires gas and decreases station time. Finally, the entire U.S. short-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance fleet is no longer available to collect on terrorist targets. Most of these predominately army aircraft have limited range. If launched from neighboring states, they could hardly reach targets in Afghanistan before turning back for fuel. Further, this small fleet is in great demand in other theaters as the United States shifts its global focus. Space-based assets, if dedicated, could help close the gap but they lack many of the capabilities aircraft once provided. As a result, I estimate that the United States now has one-quarter of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to hunt terrorists in Afghanistan that it had just over a year ago.
I am not advocating returning to Afghanistan to rebuild the former intelligence collection capability. Instead, I recommend adapting America’s global posture to the new reality in the region. U.S. political and military leaders must first acknowledge the risk, then dedicate resources to mitigating that risk. This means repositioning existing assets and using diplomacy to develop new ones.
The U.S. intelligence community and Joint Staff have shifted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms away from the U.S. Central Command — including Afghanistan — in great numbers over the last two years to support competition with China and Russia. It is time to readdress the global allocation of these assets in response to the new threat. This could require returning some of the long-range collection platforms to Central Command. As the Biden administration builds its new National Defense Strategy, it must consider changes to the situation in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration’s emphasis on diplomacy makes sense. In time, having diplomatic representation in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would improve situational awareness. In the meantime, American diplomats should induce Afghanistan’s neighbors to allow U.S. bases for intelligence collection. Washington’s diplomatic and economic leverage with Pakistan should increase now that it no longer relies on Pakistani ground routes to support U.S. troops. Though not ideal, the United States will need new airbases in Central Asia, which means working with Russia. India, a long-time U.S. ally in the region, could influence Russia and the Central Asian States to help with basing rights. The United States should continue to work closely with India and its European allies that bring collection capability and share concerns about terrorists and drugs emanating from Afghanistan. The Taliban may welcome the Europeans back in the country before they allow the United States. The U.S. relationship with its European allies in Afghanistan held strong for 20 years but suffered during the difficult withdrawal from Kabul. It deserves diplomatic rehabilitation. The State Department should work with European countries to apply diplomatic and economic pressure to the states surrounding Afghanistan in order to secure basing rights.
The U.S. intelligence mission in Afghanistan needs to adapt to new realities. Political and military leaders should recognize the terrorist threat, acknowledge the likelihood it will grow under Taliban rule, and rethink America’s collection posture accordingly. These efforts should include a heavy dose of diplomacy and economic incentives throughout the region to pave the way for positioning intelligence resources. Americans should remember that Afghanistan is where terrorists planned their attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole in Yemen, and New York and Washington on Sept. 11. Preventing future attacks requires good intelligence. And good intelligence requires re-posturing.
Col. Thomas Spahr is an assistant professor in the department of military strategy, planning and operations at the U.S. Army War College. He deployed to Afghanistan four times in 2001, 2004, 2011, and 2019. He has a Ph.D. in history from the Ohio State University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.