WASHINGTON – The CIA is deploying teams of spies, analysts and paramilitary operatives to Afghanistan, part of a broad intelligence surge that will make the agency’s station there among the largest in CIA history, U.S. officials say.
When complete, the CIA’s presence in the country is expected to rival the size of its massive stations in Iraq and Vietnam at the height of those wars. Precise numbers are classified, but one U.S. official said the CIA already has nearly 700 employees in Afghanistan.
The influx parallels the U.S. military expansion and comes at a time when the nation’s spy services are under pressure from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to improve intelligence on the Taliban and find ways to reverse a series of unsettling trends.
Among them are a twofold increase in the number of roadside bombs, a growing sophistication in the kinds of assaults aimed at coalition troops, and evidence that a Taliban group has developed an assembly-line-like approach to grooming suicide bombers and supplying them to other organizations. U.S. officials have also been alarmed by a more sophisticated suicide attack – sending multiple fighters armed with guns to carry out coordinated assaults before detonating their bombs.
The arriving spies are being used in a range of assignments – teaming up with special forces units pursuing high-value targets, tracking public sentiment in provinces that have been shifting toward the Taliban, and collecting intelligence on corruption in the Afghan government.
The intelligence surge goes beyond the CIA to involve every major spy service, officials said, including the National Security Agency, which intercepts calls and e-mails, as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks military threats.
The CIA push comes at a time when the Obama administration is under pressure to show progress in Afghanistan, calculating it has only until next summer before public support for the war effort collapses.
The deployments coincide with fresh warnings from U.S. spy services that the insurgency in Afghanistan has continued to gain territory and strength.
“The Taliban is at its most capable level since 2001, when it was ejected from the country,” said a Defense Department official who has access to classified intelligence estimates. The official, and others, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The official said that the Taliban’s geographic gains have slowed only because they have already pushed into almost every area with a significant Pashtun population – the tribal networks that make up the Taliban’s home turf. “They seem never to have a shortage of manpower,” the official said. “And there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of funding.”
Overall, officials said that the insurgency is believed to have between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters. The estimates are imprecise, officials said, because there are loose affiliations among the groups.
“You’re not talking about fixed formations that rely solely on full-time combatants,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. “Numbers ebb and flow; bands of fighters appear and vanish.”
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on the scope of the agency’s presence in Afghanistan. But a U.S. intelligence official said spy agencies “anticipated the surge in demand for intelligence.” The official said the intelligence community “has, for some time now, been deploying more officers to Afghanistan.”
The CIA’s buildup is the latest in a series of escalations there. After having only a handful of operatives in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency’s presence climbed to an estimated 150 by the end of 2001, and 300 at the close of 2005. A recent Senate report criticized the CIA’s role in Afghanistan over the past eight years, saying the agency provided large quantities of money and support to warlords, some of whom had ties to the drug trade and parlayed their U.S. backing into high-level positions in the Kabul government.
The agency’s station is based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which is led by a veteran with an extensive background in paramilitary operations, officials said. But the bulk of the CIA’s work force is scattered among a constellation of secret bases and military outposts that dot the country.
One of the largest concentrations of CIA personnel is at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, which for years was the site of a secret agency prison and the headquarters for U.S. military special operations forces.
McChrystal is expected to expand the use of teams that combine CIA operatives with soldiers from U.S. special operations forces. In Iraq, where he oversaw the special operations forces between 2003 and 2008, McChrystal used such teams to speed up the cycle between gathering intelligence and carrying out raids aimed at killing or capturing insurgents.
“He was able to plan during the day and do raids at night, sometimes multiple raids if he could move the information quickly enough,” said a former senior U.S. military intelligence official who worked closely with McChrystal in Iraq. “What he’s trying to do is get his decision cycle quicker than the bad guys.”
Afghanistan presents intelligence officials with steep challenges. Current and former CIA officials said that operatives and analysts account for only about one-third of the agency’s footprint in Afghanistan. The others are involved in support functions – from providing security to managing computer systems – that are particularly daunting in Afghanistan because of the size of the country and the woeful state of its infrastructure.