In recent months as the Trump administration has been reviewing and coordinating the eventual reduction and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 19 long costly years of military operations, that included the invasion, combat operations, and various forms of non-combat missions. The question now placed at the President’s feet; what happens after the withdrawal? 

This as in any war has always been the back drop…what happens next? How do we ensure stability, security and peace? Certainly, the first and foremost is the impact of the vacuum that is automatically brought to bear. And trust me, it is massively apparent. Face it! It is a reality and it always creates the debate of how that vacuum is filled. It is always the strategic imperative at the end of any war, no matter how small or how large. There are pro’s and con’s and they will be contentious.

We learned in Iraq after Obama’s hasty retreat following the alleged defeat of al-Qaeda, we witnessed a spin-off group known as ISIS, which rapidly emerged and expanded to take advantage of the void and it was costly over the next 7 or so years across Iraq and Syria and created havoc and instability in the region. The same concerns exist in Afghanistan now and multiple groups will certainly vie for the opportunity, be it the Taliban, ISIS, or even a resurgence of al-Qaeda. Along with those groups, other opportunists elements and or splinter groups most certainly could spin-up to challenge them. 

I can guarantee there will be consequences! To which creates the main concern; “then what does the U.S. do.” Not that we would need to necessarily re-deploy large-scale U.S. forces back to Afghanistan as we did in Iraq. That can be negated if we ensure the strategic, operational and tactical intelligence to give us a handle on what’s happening. That said, there will be the need to have adequate and valid eyes and ears on Afghanistan and the region to necessitate what is going on. That’s a given…that’s paramount! We can’t make that mistake.

Essentially, I’m talking about ‘strategic situation awareness,’ i.e.; a fully capable intelligence effort to fill the void of the intelligence effort that our troops are conducting as part of their current ongoing mission. This is paramount to ensure America is not once again blind-sided against some form of new worst case scenario, equal to or greater than another 9/11 type action does not get legs again from the region. But certainly to keep us aware of some other asymmetric regional catastrophe in the form of terrorism, does not take hold. We must be cognizant of all forms of activities by the most formidable groups that could create regional instability, delve Afghanistan into hostile uncertainty or perhaps even spark a wide war involving multiple countries.

Senior White House advisers discussed the option to expand the CIA’s presence in Afghanistan to prevent the resurgence of ISIS or al-Qaeda when U.S. and NATO and other coalition troops begin to withdraw from the country.

The White House national security officials have looked at several options and proposals that includes the creation of CIA-backed militia forces to serve as part of a counterterrorism force, again as U.S. troops prepare to leave. However, such a proposal has been met with concerns and caution by CIA Director Gina Haspel, who has raised doubts as to whether militias would be effective without the backing of the U.S. military. It should be understood that in many cases the CIA paramilitary elements and the foreign internal group or militia forces require many forms of external support from logistics, operational capabilities such as air support and of course intelligence to be able to conduct their missions and operations.

As we have seen throughout history since World War II, first the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS) provide all forms of support to partisan, underground and paramilitary units in Europe, Africa and Asia. Similarly, in Korea, Vietnam and more current conflicts such efforts were implemented and conducted to help ensure adversary governments and hostile militias and military forces were challenge and at a minimum kept at bay.

In the short-term, the proposals may also cause problems for U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, which has insisted that the CIA must leave along with U.S., NATO and coalition and international military forces. The top U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said this weekend that the two sides were on “the threshold of an agreement” after the latest round of talks.

Currently, until, a further decision can be made, which will likely require a presidential finding, the Trump administration and perhaps some military officials may be in disagreement over the choice to keep CIA presence in Afghanistan if troops are pulled from the nation. Currently, as would be expected there are some White House advisers who have proposed secretly expanding the agency’s presence in the Afghan nation. Of course, that is a move that both some current and former officials have expressed skepticism about.

Also understand that there has been no official CIA, Defense Department or White House comment for regarding any strategy, any ongoing discussions or planning. All open sources comments to date have been based on report from off the record interviews with current or former officials knowledgeable of the apparent discussions. Most of it however is speculation.

There have been some open sources reports in Washington, DC reporting circles that stated that some officials said they would like to see CIA-backed forces in the country as part of a counterterrorism force. Those making the comments justified their claim that it could quell worries that the U.S. will be left with little ability to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base of operations if the U.S. pulls troops. At the same time there are those that said they are skeptical of any such plan, which they claim for the most part would be impractical and ineffective. As has been noted, President Trump suggested last week that that will happen.

Those of us familiar with the role and need for strategic intelligence, which is necessary worldwide in both non-hostile countries and regions, but more so in unstable and hot asymmetric situations require specialized capabilities and capacities to gain access, acquire and collect critical information. At the same time for CIA supported militias or paramilitary forces to be effective, some U.S. military teams and clandestine and covert capabilities would need to remain in the country.

President Trump said last week he will reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, but will maintain a presence after a deal with the Taliban is reached.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday said that a deal was presented to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday. The President has been vague about his preferences on expanding the CIA’s role, and CIA Director Gina Haspel has withheld her opinion in meetings too, as she should.

From a historical standpoint, it should be known that such CIA-backed, to include the Northern Alliance prior to the U.S. invasion in October 2001, as well as a number of various Afghan militias and groups have been in place since the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the U.S. This was most notable under the combined U.S. Special Forces teams known as the Horse Soldiers and brought to fame by the movie 12-Strong, who worked closely with the CIA, who together with the rest of the U.S. military to overthrow the Taliban. Since then, the exact size and nature of the agency’s presence in the country during the now 18-year war has been classified.