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CIA scrambles for new approach in Afghanistan: NYT reports

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(Last Updated On: June 7, 2021)

As US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the CIA is reportedly under intense pressure to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country, the New York Times reported Monday.

But, according to the report, the spy agency has few good options.

The CIA, has been at the heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country from where it has run combat missions and drone strikes while closely monitoring the Taliban and other groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh).

However, the agency’s analysts are warning of the ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover, the Times reported.

United States officials are in last-minute efforts to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations with one focus on Pakistan.

According to the Times, the CIA used a base there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the country’s western mountains, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011, when US relations with Pakistan soured.

The Times reported that diplomats are also exploring the option of regaining access to bases in former Soviet republics that were used for the Afghanistan war, although they expect that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would fiercely oppose this.

As the search continues, recent CIA and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have been increasingly pessimistic, the Times reported.

Intel reports have highlighted gains by the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within years and return to becoming a safe haven for militants.

The Times reported that the scramble for bases illustrates how US officials still lack a long-term plan to address security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops over nearly two decades.

William J. Burns, the CIA director, has acknowledged the challenge the agency faces. “When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” he told senators in April.

Burns meanwhile visited Islamabad last month to meet with the chief of the Pakistani military and the head of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s military intelligence agency.

In addition to this, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin has had frequent calls with the Pakistani military chief about getting the country’s help for future US operations in Afghanistan, the Times reported.

But according to the report, Burns did not bring up the base issue during his trip to Pakistan, and the visit focused on broader counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries.

However, the Times reported that at least some of Austin’s discussions have been more direct.

Douglas London, a former head of CIA. counterterrorism operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Times that the agency was likely to rely on a “stay behind” network of informants in Afghanistan who would collect intelligence on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the stability of the central government and other topics. But without a large CIA presence in the country, he said, vetting the intelligence would be a challenge.

In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter planes in Afghanistan to support the troop withdrawal. But the carrier presence is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials said it would probably redeploy not long after the last US forces leave, the Times reported.

The United States is also stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region, aircraft that can be used by both the Pentagon and the CIA for intelligence collection and strikes.

But, according to the Times, some officials are wary of these so-called over the horizon options that would require plane and drones to fly as many as nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan, which would make the operations more expensive because they require more drones and fuel, and also riskier because reinforcements needed for commando raids could not arrive swiftly during a crisis.

The Times also stated that as Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban, Islamabad is unlikely to sign off on any US strikes against the Taliban that are launched from a base in Pakistan.

The Times also stated that while some American officials believe Pakistan wants to allow US access to a base as long as it can control how it is used, public opinion in the country has been strongly against any renewed presence by the United States.

This comes after Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said last month that the government would not allow the US military to return to the country’s air bases.

The Times reported that American diplomats have been exploring options to restore access to bases in Central Asia, including sites in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan but that any negotiations with those countries are likely to take considerable time to work out.

According to the Times, US military and intelligence analysts are now in broad agreement that the Afghan government is likely to have trouble holding on to power.

They believe the Afghan security forces have been depleted by high casualty rates in recent years and that the announcement of the US withdrawal is a psychological blow that could weaken the force.

In addition, the Times reported that some current and former officials are skeptical that remote advising or combat operations will succeed.

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Abdullah quashes rumors of districts being abandoned intentionally

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(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Following the collapse of a number of districts across Afghanistan in the past six weeks, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah stated that “the abandonment of these districts (by security forces) was unplanned”.

So far, at least 33 districts have fallen to the Taliban since May 1.

In the most recent development, Anar Dara district in Farah province; Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province; and Gosfandi and Sayyad districts of Sar-e-Pul province were captured by the militants in the last 24 hours.

Sources told Ariana News that at least 40 members of the Afghan forces have been killed in Sar-e-Pul alone in the last week.

Abdullah, however, stated that there had been no plans ahead of time by security forces to abandon the districts. This comes after rumors started circulating a few days ago that security forces have intentionally planned to hand over districts to the Taliban.

Addressing a meeting with Friedrich Ebert Foundation members on Tuesday, Abdullah said: “The consecutive abandonment of the districts by the security forces is not part of an orderly plan.”

“It is not true that the districts are being handed over to the Taliban based on a plan,” Abdullah added.

Abdullah also called on people to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) amid a surge in clashes across the country.

“We know the situation is bad, but it is the responsibility of all of us to carry the burden and to come up with [support for] the current situation,” he stated.

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Taliban captures another 4 districts bringing total to 33

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(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Taliban militants have captured another four districts in four provinces in the last 24 hours, sources confirmed.

According to the sources, Anar Dara district in Farah province; Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province; and Gosfandi and Sayyad districts of Sar-e-Pul province were captured by the militants, bringing the number of fallen districts to 33 since May 1.

Afghan officials, however, stated that Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF) have “tactically retreated” from the districts.

In Farah, the Taliban blew up the government compound after capturing the center of Anar Dara district.

Police said the compound was completely destroyed in the explosion.

In Uruzgan, the insurgents captured the government compound, police headquarters, provincial NDS headquarters, and a number of public facilities on Tuesday morning.

This comes after First Vice President Amrullah Saleh on Monday called the advancement of the Taliban a “narrow line” and warned that the paths into the districts will be turned into a mass graveyard for the militants.

In a statement issued on Monday, Saleh said: “Those who know how to fight with the Taliban, know that this narrow line will become the mass graveyard of this group of terror and ignorance.”

Saleh, meanwhile, stated that the Taliban militants have not changed the way they treat the people of Afghanistan.

“Do not be deceived by [Taliban’s] propaganda. Resisting the Taliban is defending human values and dignity. Taliban has no message for the people of this country other than demanding obedience as a slave life,” Saleh said.

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U.N. readies for more displaced Afghans after troop withdrawal

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(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

The United Nations is preparing for a likely further displacement of civilians in Afghanistan after U.S. and international troops leave the country in September, U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi told Reuters on Monday.

Violence has been rising as foreign forces begin withdrawing and efforts to broker a peace settlement between the Afghan government and insurgent Taliban have slowed.

Grandi pointed to a deadly attack last week on an international demining organization in northern Afghanistan, which killed 10 people.

“This is a tragic indicator of the type of violence that may be resurfacing in Afghanistan and with the withdrawal of the international troops this is possibly or likely going to become worse,” Grandi said.

“Therefore we are doing contingency planning inside the country for further displacement, in the neighboring countries in case people might cross borders,” he said, without offering details of those plans.

There are currently some 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan globally, while another 4.8 million have been displaced within the country, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, which Grandi heads.

After 20 years, the United States has started a withdrawal of its remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and aims to be completely out of the country by Sept. 11. Around 7,000 non-U.S. forces from mainly NATO countries – along with Australia, New Zealand and Georgia – are also planning to leave by Sept. 11.

Grandi said strong international support was needed for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“It’s political action that should substitute conflict but, of course, the risk (of further displacement) is there and we need to be prepared,” he added.

U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

“What’s needed is a high level of economic support for Afghanistan humanitarian assistance to maximize the chance the Afghan authorities have to stabilize the situation,” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told Reuters on Monday.

“There’s been very good and constructive outreach from the Biden administration, from the White House down, and we have actually had very productive discussions with them on that,” added Lowcock, who steps down from his role this month.

Earlier this month, the United States announced more than $266 million in new humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, bringing to nearly $3.9 billion the total amount of such aid it has provided since 2002.

Some 18.4 million people, almost half the country’s population, need humanitarian help, according to the United, Nations, which has appealed for $1.3 billion in funding for 2021. So far it has only received about 23% of that.

Lowcock said that until a few years ago there had been a lot of international attention in Afghanistan. That has “dissipated and weakened and that is a sort of problem when it comes to drawing attention to the needs of Afghanistan and getting support for them.”

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