The CIA Faces Challenges In Afghanistan With U.S. Military Withdrawal The CIA and the military depend on each other in war zones like Afghanistan. Now that U.S. forces have pulled out almost entirely, the spy agency will have a harder time keeping tabs on the Taliban.

With The U.S. Military Gone, The CIA Faces Tough Challenges In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The CIA is still in Afghanistan, although now under much more difficult circumstances. How will the spy agency keep tabs on the Taliban and other extremist threats in the country at this critical juncture? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has more.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Just days after the September 11 attack, a handful of CIA officers were the first Americans sent to Afghanistan. Gary Schroen was one of them. He recalled his marching orders in this 2005 interview with NPR.


GARY SCHROEN: Link up with the Northern Alliance, get their cooperation militarily, and they will take on the Taliban. And when we break the Taliban, your job is to capture bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice.

MYRE: In Afghanistan and elsewhere, these CIA paramilitary operations against the Taliban, al-Qaida and others became a defining feature of the spy agency over the past two decades. They've been marked by successes and controversies. The rapidly changing battlefield in Afghanistan raises questions about how the CIA will now monitor the Taliban. This also comes at a time when the CIA is assessing its global focus. There are calls for the agency to scale back counterterrorism efforts and concentrate more on traditional spying of major powers, such as Russia and China. In April, CIA Director William Burns told a Senate committee the agency wouldn't be leaving Afghanistan when the military did.


WILLIAM BURNS: The CIA will retain a suite of capabilities, some of them remaining in place.

MYRE: But he added an important caveat.


BURNS: When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That's simply a fact.

MYRE: The CIA and the military depend on each other in war zones. The military provides protection that allows the CIA to operate more freely. The CIA provides intelligence that shapes military operations. With the military gone, the agency will be far more limited than in the early years of the war.

DOUG LONDON: We were able to go anywhere. I was able to drive down around Kabul or Jalalabad or Khost and just go around to town and go to a coffee shop and have tea, chai or whatever.

MYRE: Doug London was the CIA's counterterrorism chief in the region until he retired in 2018.

LONDON: As security became harder, we started finding ourselves behind these massive fortresses. So it's hard when you're not out and about the people.

MYRE: CIA critics say operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere were plagued by serious problems. They say abusive interrogations of suspects amounted to torture and drone strikes sometimes resulted in civilian deaths. The drone program included targeting Taliban members hiding out in neighboring Pakistan. Husain Haqqani was Pakistan's ambassador to Washington a decade ago during these strikes.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: From the CIA's point of view, they accomplished something - elimination of many bad actors.

MYRE: However...

HAQQANI: Problem is there is always some other damage that you have to deal with. A lot of Pakistanis got angry over what they saw as sovereignty violations. The drones operated from within Pakistan, and yet the Pakistani public didn't know.

MYRE: The CIA has always had three core missions - spy to gather intelligence, analyze that intelligence and conduct covert operations. One of the most famous covert operations was in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though it really wasn't a secret. The CIA armed Afghan rebels, which helped those fighters drive the Soviet army out of the country. But Doug London says that historically, the CIA's emphasis was on spying and analysis. That balance changed after 9/11.

LONDON: The people who favored covert action to paramilitary options - they rose much more quickly than your traditional foreign intelligence collectors. So they very much started to shape the agency.

MYRE: In a book coming out in September, London argues the CIA should refocus on spying and analysis.

LONDON: What do we do with all these paramilitary officers? Can they be collecting against Russians and Chinese, North Koreans? It's going to be a little bit of square pegs in round holes as you try to refashion them.

MYRE: The CIA refashioned itself after the 9/11 attack, he says, and now it should do so again.

Greg Myre, NPR News.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.