CIA launching 'surge' of spies into Afghanistan
Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times

Sunday, September 20, 2009

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 McChrystal to improve intelligence on the Taliban and find ways to reverse a series of unsettling trends.

Sophisticated tactics
Among them are a two-fold 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.

Stronger insurgency
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 the Taliban's geographic gains have slowed only because it has already pushed into almost every area with a significant Pashtun population - the tribal networks that make up the Taliban's home turf.

Overall, officials said the insurgency is believed to have between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters. The estimates are imprecise, officials said.

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, 2001, 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.