The Meaning of the Suicide Attack on the CIA
By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 01.02.2010
THE RECENT DEATHS OF SEVEN confirmed CIA personnel in Afghanistan’s Khost province has undoubtedly shocked an Agency not used to mass casualties. But what exactly is the significance of Wednesday’s suicide attack at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman, and how will it affect the US military and intelligence presence at the Afghan-Pakistani border?
Understanding the context of the CIA’s mission in southern Afghanistan is essential in evaluating the tactical impact of the agency’s latest personnel losses. The Chapman FOB, located around an airstrip on a Soviet-built military outpost, has been occupied by US forces for at least eight years. It houses mostly US combat troops, including Special Forces, along with a small CIA contingency. The latter grew in importance after 2008, as the US war in South-Central Asia began shifting from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Despite the operational blow caused by Wednesday’s suicide attack, the importance of the base as a CIA outpost will continue to grow, in accordance with the Obama Administration’s plan to increase US undercover operations in Pakistan. As Ian Allen and I have explained before, increasing CIA activity in the Afghan-Pakistani region represents a major policy victory for the hawkish wing in the Pentagon’s senior leadership, which has pressed Obama’s advisors to expand CIA operations deeper into Pakistan since November of 2008.
CIA ACTIVITIES AT CHAPMAN
Prior to 2008, the CIA mission in Afghanistan was largely limited to tracking Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders. Under the Obama Administration, the Agency’s role has been somewhat augmented to include identifying and assassinating the post-9/11 generation of Taliban and –to a lesser extent– al-Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan, a country with which the US is officially not at war. However, this task is complicated by the rapidly deteriorating relations between the CIA and Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as by the CIA’s limited human intelligence (HUMINT = actual spies on the ground) capabilities inside the Pakistani tribal areas. As a result, most of the CIA’s HUMINT projects in Pakistan are administered by the ISI, with only a tiny number of CIA agents actually venturing outside isolated military compounds of the likes of Chapman FOB.
This limitation has forced the CIA to resort to two controversial operational methods: first, the use of unmanned Predator drones to assassinate alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda senior members. This method is contentious because of its extrajudicial nature, the high numbers of civilian casualties, and because the assassinations of experienced militant insiders provide almost no intelligence benefits. Second, in order to build the intelligence required to identify targets for assassination, CIA teams on the ground rely largely on the few Afghans who, for one reason or another, choose to volunteer highly sought-after information.
The CIA’s reliance on local informants is therefore not ideal. It is generated by the Agency’s operational shortcomings. It also contains severe dangers for the CIA’s missions and personnel, as was clearly shown by Wednesday’s suicide attack. The Agency has refused to comment on the identity of the bomber, but several insiders, including two NATO officials, have disclosed that he was allowed into the base by the CIA operatives themselves, who were courting him as an informant.
One former CIA agent claimed that potential informants in Afghanistan “were often not required [by CIA case officers] to go through full security checks in order to help gain their trust”. But it is unlikely that CIA personnel in the dangerous Afghan-Pakistani border region would disregard safety precautions strictly followed at US embassies around the world in the handling of walk-ins –foreigners who approach US missions seeking to impart information. What is far more likely is that the bomber was able to evade safety search standards by relying on a long-term informant-handler relationship with CIA personnel stationed at the outpost. This would lead to the strong possibility that the informant-turned-bomber had been groomed as a double agent from the very start by local Taliban operatives, a practice that is probably not unusual.
Given that the CIA team at Chapman FOB could not have consisted of more than 15 to 20 agents, it would be logical to conclude that the killings of at least seven and the serious wounding of another six of its members have virtually decimated the CIA presence in Afghanistan’s Khost province. But the impact of this development on US operations in Afghanistan will be minimal, in contrast to operations inside Pakistan, which constituted the primary objective of the CIA team at Chapman FOB. These operations will continue, but their strike precision will be significantly hindered by the blow dealt to the CIA’s intelligence collection capabilities by Wednesday’s bombing.
Operationally, the attack will also affect the CIA’s handling of informants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where already tense handler-informant relationships between CIA case officers and their local recruits will be reevaluated in light of the bloody bombing incident.
But the blow will also be felt emotionally by an Agency whose morale has been severely broken in the post-9/11 period. CIA veteran Ron Marks told The Wall Street Journal that Wednesday’s suicide attack “will mark this generation [of CIA agents] the same way Beirut marked mine”.
Perhaps more importantly, the decapitation of the embattled Agency’s operational presence in Khost has once again highlighted some of its critical weaknesses, and will not help mend the tenuous relationship between the defensive CIA community and the White House. Ultimately, the Agency’s latest injury is likely to strengthen the voices of those calling for radically reforming, or even altogether replacing the CIA, with a new quasi-military agency.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.