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CIA racing to prevent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan after imminent military withdrawal

Spooks seek new ways to maintain counterterrorism operations in the region as allies prepare to quit war-torn country

CIA bosses are scrambling to bolster their counterterrorism operations in the Middle East as the clock ticks down to the total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, according to insiders.

The intelligence agency “has been at the heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan”, but is set to “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”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Analysts have warned that reducing the CIA’s presence in the country will increase the “ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover”, prompting “last-minute efforts to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations”, says the paper.

CIA director William J. Burns has publicly acknowledged the challenge faced by the agency, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that “when the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish”.

Hours after Burns addressed the hearing on worldwide threats, Joe Biden announced that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by 11 September, rather than the 1 May deadline set by Donald Trump. But Biden has since ordered that the withdrawal be speeded up, after US allies warned of potential retaliatory attacks by the Taliban on Nato and diplomatic personnel.

US officials have emphasised “the need for a long-term intelligence-gathering presence” in the region, however, and are now locked in “thorny diplomatic negotiations'', the NYT reports. American officials and regional experts told the paper that diplomats are “exploring the option of regaining access to bases in former Soviet republics”, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as a possible solution.

Biden’s defence secretary, Lloyd J. Austin, has also “had frequent calls” with the chief of the Pakistani military “about getting the country’s help for future US operations in Afghanistan”, officials  “familiar with the conversations” reportedly claim. 

As the withdrawal of US and Nato forces continues, ally Australia is facing “increasing pressure” as well to “evacuate Afghan staff who have supported its diplomats and soldiers” during its military missions there, The Guardian reports.

The UK and US last week announced plans to relocate hundreds of Afghans who have worked for their militaries and governments. Under the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, set up in April, hundreds more Afghans who performed roles such as acting as interpreters will be allowed to settle in Britain.

A statement released by the Taliban yesterday claimed that anyone who worked for foreign forces will be safe if they show “remorse”, Al Jazeera reports. 

“They shall not be in any danger on our part… None should currently desert the country,” the statement said. “The Islamic Emirate would like to inform all the above people that they should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.”

Despite such reassurances, “former officers who served in Afghanistan have said the threat of Taliban retribution was increasingly real”, The Guardian reports.

Retired Australian Defence Force (ADF) Major Stuart McCarthy is among the growing chorus of voices calling for his government to “step up” and help at-risk Afghan allies. 

“If we don’t get them out very soon - and I’m talking in the next several weeks - many of them are going to be killed,” McCarthy told Australian media. 

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