CIA head said to have made unannounced trip to Afghanistan

CIA Director William Burns made a recent unannounced visit to Kabul, a senior politician and a well-placed public figure told The Associated Press, as concerns mount about Afghanistan’s capability to fight terrorism once the U.S. has withdrawn its remaining troops by summer.

Separately, a senior former Afghan security official deeply familiar with the country’s counterterrorism program said two of six units trained and run by the CIA to track militants have already been transferred to Afghan control.

The three men spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive security issues with the media.

In Washington, the CIA declined to comment when asked about the director’s schedule and the agency’s role in Afghanistan.

In deciding this month on an unconditional troop pullout by Sept. 11, President Joe Biden had argued that a key objective of the U.S. invasion — to prevent terror attacks on the U.S from Afghan soil — has been met. The pullout deadline marks the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terror attacks on the U.S., which triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

However, senior U.S. officials have cautioned that the withdrawal poses risks.

Burns recently told the U.S. Congress that neither al-Qaida nor Islamic State extremists have the ability to stage attacks against the U.S. Still, “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,” he said.

Burns quietly visited Kabul last weekend, the politician and the public figure said. They would not say whom Burns met with, but said some of the discussions addressed Afghanistan’s preparedness after the U.S. pullout. Burns also reassured Afghan officials that the U.S. would continue to be engaged in counterterrorism efforts.

Yet concerns are mounting that Afghanistan’s security forces won’t be able to halt a march by Taliban insurgents on government-held territory or battle terrorist groups without the help of U.S. and NATO soldiers. Already, the Taliban control or hold sway over half the country.

The former security official said he believes terrorism-fighting capabilities will be significantly reduced once the roughly 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers leave.

The official said the CIA had been training and running Afghan special forces known as Counter Terrorism Pursuit Teams, or CTPT. The teams are located in the provinces of Kunar, Paktia, Kandahar, Kabul, Khost and Nangarhar. He said the plan is to gradually hand them over to the Afghan intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security. So far, the Kunar and Paktia units have been transferred to Afghan control, he said.

The CTPT teams are feared by many Afghans and have been implicated in extra-judicial killings of civilians. In 2019, the head of the Afghan intelligence service, Masoom Stanikzai, was forced to resign after one of these units was implicated in the summary execution of four brothers.

Earlier this year, in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, one of the teams was accused of gunning down civilians in a counterterrorism operation. The United Nations has also criticized the tactics of these units, previously blaming them for a rise in civilian casualties along with insurgent groups.

The former security official said that without the U.S. troops, Afghanistan’s technical intelligence gathering will suffer. Right now, some of the greatest successes in fighting terrorism and the narcotics trade have come from U.S. intelligence gathering, he said. Several months ago, U.S. intelligence uncovered dozens of methamphetamine laboratories producing drugs with a street value in the West of over $1 billion, the official added.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. and the Afghan government believe that the threat from al-Qaida and Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate has been substantially reduced.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. general for the Middle East, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that both groups have been “significantly degraded” in Afghanistan because of U.S. military pressure in recent years.

However, the post-pullout situation will be challenging, he said. McKenzie said getting drones and other aircraft into Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or to conduct counterterrorism strikes will take considerably longer and will require far more aircraft.

He also said it will be extremely difficult but not impossible for the U.S. to find, track and take out terrorist threats in Afghanistan once all American troops are withdrawn.

Meanwhile, a Western diplomat in Afghanistan said the unexpected U.S. announcement of an unconditional withdrawal left many security questions unanswered — such as what happens to NATO’s surveillance equipment and the giant blimp that hovers over the capital. The blimp provides real-time intelligence and 24-hour surveillance.

David Barrett, a professor at Villanova University who specializes in the history of intelligence policy, said the troop pullout will reduce the amount of intelligence gathered by the military and ultimately provided to the CIA. But the U.S. can still monitor electronic communications and other signals with its advanced technology, and could intervene militarily if it assessed a threat to an American target, he said.

“We have amazing capabilities for knowing what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “If anyone, anywhere in Afghanistan decides they want to develop any ability to strike the U.S., they would be making a very big mistake.”