Ex-Intelligence Officers Respond To Trump's Afghanistan Strategy

Aug 23, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 6:39 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes now examining President Trump's plan for Afghanistan. When he addressed the nation this week, Trump laid out the mission this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.

SHAPIRO: Well, to kill terrorists, you have to find them. And historically, that's been the business of the CIA. So does Trump's new strategy for Afghanistan spell a bigger role for the Central Intelligence Agency? NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is here to take on that question. Hey, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So how does the CIA fit into the Trump strategy for Afghanistan?

KELLY: Well, let me start by answering that by reminding folks that the CIA actually had the first boots on the ground in this war right after 9/11. So weeks before the U.S. military invasion got underway, a CIA team had already hopped on this old, rusty Russian helicopter and flown over the Hindu Kush mountains, landed in Afghanistan and started plotting GPS coordinates of Taliban targets. That was September 2001. So the agency has always played a big role in this war.

What I am hearing this week in light of President Trump's speech - I reached four former intelligence officials, all of whom have played a direct role in either overseeing or running operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They all four said they can see the CIA role growing if the focus going forward is in fact going to be counterterrorism.

SHAPIRO: What would a larger CIA role look like? I mean are we talking about drones, boots on the ground, bases? What would it be?

KELLY: Could well be talking about drones, could be talking about paramilitary operations, talking a more intense version of what the CIA is already doing there. One of the officials I reached to, Mike Morell, who ran the CIA as acting director - he actually reminded me of something another CIA former director, Mike Hayden, once said, which is that in counterterrorism, the enemy is easy to kill, hard to find. And intelligence work is all about finding.

SHAPIRO: If the CIA role does grow, what do we necessarily know about it?

KELLY: A lot of details not clear as always in the world of the CIA. But it is certainly reasonable, Ari, to assume that if demand for intelligence is going up, then you will need more resources to meet that demand. One other point worth noting - this is a two-way street. More U.S. military on the ground will give spies there more cover to run their intelligence operations. Spies rely on the military for security, and this has been a challenge for the CIA in Afghanistan - also in Iraq, by the way. As troop levels have come down in those places in recent years, American spies on the ground have a greater risk.

SHAPIRO: President Trump talks about taking a regional approach. He says he won't tolerate Pakistan providing a safe haven to the Taliban and other groups. What role might CIA agents play in Pakistan?

KELLY: Well, the president threatened economic pressure. And the question that is unfolding in intelligence circles is, if economic pressure doesn't work, what else might happen? Are you talking overt force, covert action? That's a hypothetical question at this point. But two of the intelligence officials I reached told me, watch this space.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.