It has been almost 14 years since the attacks of 9/11/2001, and during that time, America’s intelligence professionals at the CIA, mostly from the Counterterrorism Center and the Near East Division — though from the other Divisions within the National Clandestine Service, as well — have been on the front lines of the War on Terror in Afghanistan, as well as other widespread theaters of this Long War.
Throughout the duration of this conflict, the CIA has maintained a constellation of bases in Afghanistan, from which the agency has launched the majority of its operations against the terror network. The bases fall under the leadership of Kabul Station.
A steady and long stream of officers have passed through these stations and bases during the War on Terrorism, belying the depiction of Hollywood movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” which tend to portray the war as having been (and still being) fought by a small number of Agency personnel. Make no mistake, these operations have been carried out by an infinitesimal percentage of the American public — much less than the oft-cited “1%” who have served in the military in these campaigns — but within the agency, many officers have had their turn in the barrel, operating in the sand box.
For the great majority of Americans who have never served in the war zone, there may be a certain curiosity as to what daily life is like at these stations and bases. Please allow me to shed some light, or at least, as much light as the agency will allow me to shed. The following is a somewhat sanitized account of typical day at a CIA base in this fraught region of the world, over the course of the U.S.’ War on Terrorism:
0700: Wake up, brush teeth, splash water on face, and throw on the uniform of the day. This might be cargo pants, boots, and a t-shirt, in the summer; and a fleece or sweatshirt in the winter. No need to shave. Beards are encouraged for “fitting in,” culturally speaking, with the populace. This is often mistaken by civilians as trying to “blend in,” but it is not (usually) that. It is more like wearing a suit if you work on Wall Street. If you work in Pashtun country, a beard is your suit.
0715: Head over to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC; read: secure room with secure computer terminals) and read cable traffic. Go through the day’s intel reports and operational cables, and from these, prepare to respond to any taskings for the day. The tasks may come from Headquarters or Kabul Station, or really, from ANY station in the world that might need a base in Afghanistan to render assistance with, or weigh in on, an operation.
0800: Head over to the chow hall and grab some breakfast. This is undoubtedly whatever a local cook has whipped up, from rations sent by either the big USMIL, or from Kabul Station. Drink a lot of coffee. Drink a few Rip It energy drinks.
0830: Have a morning meeting with the Chief of Base, all the Case Officers and other agency officers located on the base, the security detail leader, and select USMIL reps that might be there representing various U.S. Special Operations personnel on the base.
0900: For those with the portfolio to do so, meet with representatives from the local, indigenous security services, to get updates on what is going on in the local area, and to pass off agency tips/leads, as necessary to provide situational awareness for both sides.
1000: Write, write, write, and write some more. Daily cable writing is a huge chunk of the work done at the bases, again, belying the typical Hollywood depiction of life in the CIA. “If you do not write it in cable traffic, it did not happen,” is the mantra of a CIA Case Officer. Sexy, huh?
1200: Lunch. Return to the chow hall for some more institutional food, or be adventurous, and eat with the local interpreter cadre, in the terp chow hall. This offers a nice break from army chow, and usually does not result in any intestinal distress or discomfort. Afghan food is tasty.
1300: Read and write more cable traffic. Also, begin to prep for any operational work that might be on the horizon for the night. This is similar to mission planning in the military. Arrange comms, weapons, gear, terps, back-up/escape & evasion plans, and address all other contingency plans required for ops work that night.
1600: Work out. Try to run on the treadmill, or lift some weights, or both. Burn up some tension/stress/energy, and stay as healthy as you can in the often frantic lifestyle of an agency officer working at a remote base in a war zone. Try to sweat a lot, and work out for 1-2 hours, until you feel good and spent.
1800: Dinner time. Repeat the chow hall experience. Drink more Rip Its. Come right up to the line of the doctor-recommended allowance of the drink, in a 24-hour period. Feel your face tingle and soak in the chemical energy of one of the Global War on Terrorism’s secret weapons.
1900: Back to the TOC for more cable writing, and to finish up preparations for night operations. Address any issues with the terps, or have meetings with local USSOF reps, if necessary.
2100: If operating that night, proceed. If not, read/write more cable traffic.
2330-Midnight: Finish operations for the night. Possibly write more, if required to do so, depending on any threats present in the acquired information. If not, put it off until morning. Meet at the fire pit for scotch, bourbon, or home-made hooch wine. Shoot the shit and decompress with other base officers and tell any war stories that seem apropos for the day. Maybe smoke a cigar.
Midnight-0100: Return to your room (usually mud-walled and/or roofed, but yours), and watch some DVDs. Call home on one of the base satellite phones. Go to sleep. Prepare to repeat.