The CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan, marking the start of a drawdown from a region that transformed the agency from an intelligence service struggling to emerge from the Cold War to a counterterrorism force with its own prisons, paramilitary teams and armed Predator drones. The pullback represents a turning point for the CIA as it shifts resources to other trouble spots. The closures were described by U.S officials as preliminary steps in a plan to reduce the number of CIA installations in Afghanistan from a dozen to as few as six over the next two years — a consolidation to coincide with the withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from the country by the end of 2014.
Senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials said the reductions are overdue in a region where U.S. espionage efforts are now seen as out of proportion to the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s diminished core leadership in Pakistan. The CIA faces an array of new challenges beyond al-Qaeda, such as monitoring developments in the Middle East and delivering weapons to rebels in Syria…U.S. officials stressed that the CIA is expected to maintain a significant footprint even after the pullback, with a station in Kabul that will remain among the agency’s largest in the world, as well as a fleet of armed drones that will continue to patrol Pakistan’s tribal belt… The CIA may be in a unique position to negotiate with Karzai, who has publicly acknowledged accepting bags of money from the agency for years. The CIA also has provided much of the budget and training for the Afghan intelligence service….The CIA’s armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad….Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the agency’s plans said they call for pulling most agency personnel back to the CIA’s main station in Kabul, plus a group of large regional bases — known as the “big five” — in Bagram, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat. “The footprint being designed involves six bases and some satellite [locations] out of those,” said a former senior CIA officer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. The agency may also rely on “mobile stations” in which a small number of operatives move temporarily into remote locations “where they trust the tribal network,” the former officer said. “
The base closures involve compounds along the Pakistan border, part of a constellation used by CIA operatives and analysts to identify drone targets in Pakistan. The bases, including locations in the provinces of Zabul, Paktika and Khost, have relied heavily on U.S. military and medical evacuation capabilities and were often near larger military outposts. Among them is Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost, where seven CIA employees were killed by a suicide bomber posing as a potential informant in 2009. It is unclear whether the CIA will pull its personnel out of Chapman, which remained active even after that attack….
Administration deliberations over troop levels could also determine where the agency operates its drones. During the early years of the campaign, the aircraft were flown from Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan, but the agency moved most of its fleet to Jalalabad as public opposition to strikes mounted in Pakistan and relations with the government broke down…..
Despite the pullout of U.S. troops and CIA operatives, officials said the drone campaign in Pakistan and elsewhere is expected to continue for years. Mike Sheehan, the assistant defense secretary for Special Operations, testified recently that such counterterrorism operations will probably last an additional 10 years or more.
Excerpt, By Greg Miller, CIA closing bases in Afghanistan as it shifts focus amid military drawdown, Washington Post, July 25, 2013