CIA remains in limbo over rules governing drone strikes in Afghanistan after Biden’s troops withdraw
For years, the CIA and the US military have had broad authority to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, targeting decisions that could be made by senior military and intelligence officials and did not always need approval. White House finale.
But as Biden prepares to end the war, his National Security Council considers whether to raise the bar for the CIA and Pentagon to carry out deadly drone strikes and commando raids after US troops leave. , according to people familiar with the matter.
Sources told CNN that the Biden administration is still debating whether to remove the combat zone designation for Afghanistan – a technical distinction that in recent years has had a dramatic impact on the freedom with which military personnel United States uses deadly drone strikes and commando raids in any given country.
Under the Trump administration, commanders on the ground were allowed to make targeting decisions under their own authority in countries like Yemen and Somalia, in addition to Afghanistan. But the Biden administration is also revising the rules there, and it remains to be seen whether the administration will put Afghanistan on a level playing field or implement specific criteria for terrorists there after the pullout.
“It makes sense that when we end our engagement in Afghanistan, we should apply a version of the rules that apply everywhere else,” said Bobby Chesney, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University. from Texas. “One way to look at it is to say that this is integral to the abandonment of Afghanistan as a theater of combat operations.”
So far, the NSC’s deliberations – which are part of a larger study of Pentagon and CIA authorities around the world – are in their infancy, officials familiar with the NSC told CNN. work, and the options have yet to be passed on to senior White House officials for final consideration.
This current uncertainty leaves the military and CIA in limbo as they await updated guidance on what kind of approval they will need to launch deadly strikes after Biden declares the war over.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday that the United States will continue to work with countries “that share our interest in countering the resurgence of serious external conspiracy capacity emanating from Afghanistan. , if that were to emerge, “but noted that the Afghan security forces will be” in the lead “following the withdrawal of US troops.
Internally, CIA officials remain uncertain of what the agency’s future operations in Afghanistan will look like after the withdrawal, according to people familiar with the matter. Agency officials are closely monitoring the security situation on the ground as forecasts for Afghanistan’s stability have become increasingly dire over time.
“The security situation is not good at the moment,” General Scott Miller, the top US general in Afghanistan, told reporters on Tuesday.
Lawmakers are wondering
Republican and Democrat lawmakers on Capitol Hill and former officials have always expressed concerns about how the United States plans to gather intelligence and prevent potential threats to the homeland once the pullout is complete.
Representative Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN this week that there had been initial discussions between lawmakers and administration officials over how the States- The United is reportedly carrying out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, but it has yet to see everything that defines what capabilities, both covert and non-covert, will be available – and what authorities they will have.
The current NSC exam is designed to answer some of these questions. The deliberations on how to strengthen the CIA and the military in Afghanistan highlight the delicate balance Biden faces in trying to “end” a war with an adversary who is still fighting – without losing the ability to wage war. counterterrorism strikes.
The parameters ultimately imposed may indicate how determined the Biden administration is to “end America’s Eternal War.”
“Will we continue to carry out strikes against al-Qaeda? Will we still have the legal right to attack the Taliban if we do not see a direct threat to the United States emerging? Asked Michael O’Hanlon, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in defense and foreign policy issues. “It will be a judgment for the Biden administration. It will be more of a political decision.”
Maintaining the status quo
For months, the Biden administration revised its standards for military and CIA strikes in terrorism hotspots around the world, such as Somalia and Yemen, whose status as “hot spots” has been hotly debated for years. This broader review has yet to be completed and in the meantime, the White House is more closely monitoring the agency’s murderous operations around the world.
If the reviews put Afghanistan under the same guidelines as unconventional battlefields, it would not change the CIA’s legal authority to conduct strikes in Afghanistan. And the US military air strike authority will also remain under the 2001 war clearance for al Qaeda and ISIS. But that could impose practical limits on the use of force.
One option under consideration is to place new criteria on who the CIA can target – membership in a terrorist group like al-Qaeda or ISIS would not necessarily be an automatic motive for a strike under the new policy, according to reports. sources – and the level of clearance the agency would need before going on strike. The new framework under consideration would require a more in-depth interagency verification process and broader White House involvement before the CIA conducts a deadly operation in Afghanistan.
A practical problem
The review is also fueled by a practical reality, another source told CNN, that as part of the pullout the CIA will lose much if not all of the bases it has used in the past for the drone program.
This base is necessary not only for targeted strikes, but also for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts to support the strikes, the source said, especially since there is no US base in none of the countries directly bordering Afghanistan.
“I’m more concerned with American capabilities than authorities,” O’Hanlon said. “I don’t think a Taliban takeover of the whole country is likely. But there will be places where the Afghan government loses access to places it currently controls. dark spots on the radar screen. ”
CIA Director Bill Burns admitted to lawmakers earlier this year that the withdrawal would affect the CIA’s ability to gather intelligence, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan echoed this assessment in an interview with CNN in April.
“It is true that the director of the CIA said that we will not have the same level of presence on the ground as when we had 3,000 or 30,000 soldiers or 100,000 soldiers,” Sullivan said at the time. But he stressed that the agency “will retain sufficient capacity so that we have months of warning before Al Qaeda is able to reassemble external conspiracy capabilities to threaten the homeland.”
It is not known what this ability would look like. Although there have been significant discussions within the administration about conducting “on the horizon” counterterrorism missions from further afield, these will not be as effective as the current strike capacity of the United States. United States and committing resources will be much more expensive, said one of the sources familiar with the ongoing deliberations.
Targets in Afghanistan have also become rarer, the sources said, and the resources needed to maintain a presence and conduct these operations, especially against lower-level actors, are no longer seen as cost effective by many members of the l ‘administration.
“Each shot, against a high-value target or against a low-level agent, basically costs the same,” said the source familiar with the ongoing discussions.
As the administration continues to face several logistical challenges on this front, Kim said it would make sense, as part of those deliberations, to revisit the criteria for determining high-value targets given that the United States will have fewer resources available to them.
“When you have less ISR capabilities and less strike capability, it will naturally strain what they can target,” he said, referring to the deadly strikes carried out by both the Pentagon and the CIA.
“So they would certainly want to try to reduce this to their top priorities, to make sure it is used in the most efficient way.”
CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.