According to a report on October 22nd in the New York Times, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is set to accelerate its operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, breaking with its approach over the last 15-plus years of primarily directing the bulk of its efforts in targeting al-Qaeda, its leadership, and only the senior-most Taliban leaders.
This new approach is reportedly being pushed by CIA Director Michael Pompeo, an appointee of President Donald J. Trump, in keeping with the aggressive language President Trump has so far employed against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite a top-down push, however, it does not appear from the New York Times’ report that the new strategy is facing major pushback from the rank-and-file within the agency.
This author would surmise that many officials at the CIA likely support this new approach, although I cannot verify that claim. Some at the agency, however, might find it counterproductive and ultimately futile. After all, it will require more manpower and resources, and the record of great powers trying to crush local insurgencies across the globe is a spotty one at best. Nevertheless, it appears that the CIA is going to give it a go, and bring the hammer down on the Taliban.
For the benefit of those of out there who might be unclear about what this change in CIA strategy really means, what follows is an unclassified breakdown. Since September 11, 2001, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO – the CIA’s clandestine operations wing), and more specifically, the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) within the DO, has focused its energies on tracking down al-Qaeda operatives and leaders in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. In recent years, that focus has also no doubt expanded to include the Islamic State (also called IS, ISIS, or ISIL) in the region.
The Taliban, on the other hand, is an internal Afghan insurgency — that also spread to and found refuge in Pakistan — that abetted al-Qaeda pre-9/11, and refused to hand over Osama Bin Ladin in the weeks following the terrorist attacks in America. It thus came under American attack when the United States invaded the country in October of 2001. However, to a large degree the CIA — and specifically, CTC, charged with hunting down those responsible for the 9/11 attacks — never saw the Taliban as its primary focus in the region. The U.S. military was the primary authority for dealing with the Taliban.
That is not to say that in the course of its intelligence collection and operations in the region that the CIA did not report quite a bit on the Taliban and its senior leaders — it did and probably still does. It also had to deal with the Taliban and its various offshoots and allies from a force protection standpoint in country. However, generally that effort was secondary to targeting al-Qaeda, and the Taliban only came seriously into the CIA’s crosshairs generally when it crossed certain lines like targeting American civilians or CIA facilities. For the most part, from the CIA’s perspective, the Taliban was viewed as a U.S. military target.
That now appears to be changing according to the New York Times report. The Times is reporting that the CIA will now use the same infrastructure and operational capabilities that it has directed at al-Qaeda (and IS) over the last 16 years to target the Taliban.
Presumably, this means that the CIA will beef up its presence in country and begin to target Taliban middle managers, mid-level members, and cell leaders across the country. This would also presumably include IED-making cells and lower-level regional commanders. In other words, the target set for the CIA just got a whole lot larger in Afghanistan. The agency will need an increase in budget, manpower, and infrastructure to make this work.
As far as the merits of such a strategy, that is a highly debatable point. As a counter-terrorism purist, in that I would focus my efforts on transnational terrorist organizations that have established operational bases in the region. These are the groups that have attacked us at home and abroad, and at present are the gravest threat to America. The Taliban, on the other hand, while a severe threat to American military forces in Afghanistan, is a local insurgency and ultimately only our concern if we are 100 percent dedicated to the goal of making Afghanistan a stable and peaceful country.
In other words, the Taliban is a force protection issue in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, but only a secondary strategic issue for the nation if we are not committed to nation-building in Afghanistan. If, on the other hand, as the Times report seems to indicate, the goal is to drop the hammer on the Taliban with an eye to bringing them to the negotiating table to negotiate a lasting peace in the country, then such a strategy could work. It will take a commitment of ample time and resources, and it also assumes that the Taliban can be a good-faith negotiating partner over time. While the latter point has not proven to be the case to date in Afghanistan, perhaps it will become so after a significant drubbing by the CIA.
If our ultimate goal is not nation-building in Afghanistan, but rather, preventing it from again becoming a terrorist safe-haven by insuring a modicum of stability there, then spending time and resources targeting the Taliban is probably not going to prove highly beneficial in the long run.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.