One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.
It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban.
But no matter what happens this year the larger issue remains: what kind of military and intelligence footprint will the U.S. have in Afghanistan post-2014? The two are more intimately connected than proponents of a military drawdown find it comfortable to acknowledge. Many of those opposed to keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops after this year, as recommended by General Joe Dunford, imagine that we could keep a smaller Special Operations force solely to chase al-Qaeda’s remnants.
Leave aside the issue of whether we can afford to focus on al-Qaeda alone when other jihadist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban present just as big a threat to American interests. The point I want to emphasize here is that there is no way to maintain the intelligence networks we need to effectively target terrorists (whether al-Qaeda or Haqqani or Taliban) unless there is a substantial military presence in place to provide logistics and security. The Los Angeles Times quotes one “former CIA operator who has spoken to current officers about the pullback” as saying: “There is no stomach in the building for going out there on our own. We are not putting our people out there without U.S. forces.”
So if we want to maintain “situational awareness” of terrorist plots emanating not just from Afghanistan but also from Pakistan, then we need to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in order to support intelligence personnel who can generate “actionable” intelligence and Special Operations Forces who can act on it. If President Obama keeps fewer than 10,000 troops, the military will pull back to Kabul and Bagram Air Base just north of it, dramatically decreasing our ability to uncover and disrupt terrorist machinations in other parts of the country–especially in the still-volatile east and south.