(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)

While Americans hope to breathe a sigh of relief as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, bringing an end to the longest U.S. war, the Intelligence Community (IC) is merely entering a new phase of the conflict. As politicians and pundits argue the decision, a discourse that will inevitably be played out against a backdrop of the belligerents escalating violence and abuses, the White House will be holding its breath. Will the IC still manage to detect, preempt, and destroy threats directed from Afghanistan, especially after 20 years of constant counterterrorism pressure is lifted?

Without U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. intelligence agencies will face an entirely different and more chaotic operational environment and will do so with significantly fewer resources. The U.S. military’s infrastructure and quick-reaction ground, air, and medical support will be gone, leaving American personnel stationed in the country, and their foreign agents, mostly on their own. This means incurring greater risk and being without the safety net of rescue by the U.S. military should they need it. And success will be confined to the shadows whereas failures will be public and potentially catastrophic.

History and current trends – Afghan security forces surrendering their outposts; cultural acceptance of Afghan leaders to switch sides, particularly when money is involved; and Taliban violence aimed at weakening civil society — suggest that the Taliban will ultimately secure “strategic victory.” That is, the Taliban will, in time, likely exercise sovereign control over much, but not all of Afghanistan, as it pursues military victory over its remaining opponents in contested areas. Plus, an organization determined to isolate the Afghan people from the world will not readily respond to external pressure in order to receive aid and investment nor open the country to social media that is inconsistent with its messaging, and beyond its control. But hardly homogenous, the Taliban might struggle in consolidating power and have difficulty keeping order among its own diverse ranks, some of which would profit from global interaction.

For U.S. intelligence officials, there will no longer be a vast American presence beyond Kabul, which, at its height, ranged from small forward-operating fire bases to sprawling compounds. But these were also places where intelligence collectors were shielded by high walls from which they rarely ventured. And as invaluable as these platforms were, security restrictions disconnected collectors from their Afghan neighbors. Rather than immersing themselves in the culture and operating in the shadows beyond the wire, U.S. intelligence collectors were left to learn the lay of the land vicariously through sources.

In principle, these bases and outposts around the country facilitated opportunities to gain access to sources who could report on al-Qaeda and its partner organizations. In reality, U.S. intelligence and military officials ultimately spent more time working to identify and disrupt threats generated by their own presence and the counterproductive impact of collateral civilian casualties from U.S. kinetic operations.

In truth, it was easier running operations against the ubiquitous Taliban presence than drilling the many dry holes associated with hunting down the more strategically important but elusive terrorist target which was harder to find, and more difficult still to penetrate. And it wasn’t a stretch to brand the Taliban terrorists. To this day, the group’s tactics included mass casualty suicide attacks against civilian population centers and political assassinations. But settling Afghanistan’s internal disputes, addressing human rights abuses, and supporting a nascent democracy were not strategic missions that justified the loss of American blood and treasure after 9/11.

The slippery slope of shifting priorities had the practical effect of undermining the utility of these platforms. The United States was fighting a counterterrorist intelligence war with counterinsurgency military tactics, a pairing that was never going to succeed. The United States relied on firepower, and measured success or failure by virtue of enemy casualties and the amount of Afghanistan’s population, versus territory, ostensibly under government control. 

After U.S. Troops Leave

The post-withdrawal, intelligence-collection environment is fraught by the challenge of depending on middlemen. While not ideal, the IC has made this work before. It was the CIA’s relationships and its offshore collection networks that enabled it to covertly insert a team into Afghanistan within 15 days of the 9/11 attack.

It’s worth noting that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies will have advantages that they lacked on 9/11. Besides a deep bench at home familiar with the country, they would have already prepared a stable of Afghan “stay behind” agents. And they would have equipped these sources to communicate via a variety of means to receive collection requirements and provide intelligence.

Some of these sources will themselves operate as “principal agents,” essentially surrogates who recruit or otherwise run their own reporters responding to U.S. collection requirements. In some cases, “sub-sources” need not even be aware that the United States is the ultimate consumer of the information. This helps secure cooperation from those less receptive to U.S. overtures, and can be useful under some circumstances for protecting their security as well as their handler’s.

Practical downsides revolve around the efficacy and expediency of communications with such agents in the field. Only some can occasionally travel to the capital in Kabul, let alone out of the country for meetings with their American handlers. The need for timely intelligence will require those who can to communicate via secure electronic means while on the ground. But these sources will face challenges that include infrastructure limitations, particularly in the rural areas; a lack of privacy, especially for those operating within enemy camps and under circumstances in which their absence would be noted; and agents otherwise ill equipped to possess and employ spy gadgets.

Should the Afghan government collapse and Kabul fall to the Taliban, regional, tribal, and ethnic groups can again be expected to maintain territory free from Taliban control in the Panjshir and other northern areas where Afghan Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras are likely to organize and resist. U.S. intelligence operatives were regularly inserted into northern Afghanistan prior to 9/11 for meetings with the Northern Alliance before American troops arrived, and likewise into northern Iraq for meetings with Kurdish resistance groups while Saddam Hussein still ruled. A similar model could be used if this becomes the new operating environment, one taking advantage of existing relationships intelligence operatives would have nurtured over 20 years. The United States can provide money, materials, intelligence, training, and guidance as currency to tap into such resistance organizations and their own intelligence-collection networks and leverage their military capabilities. The United States would do this remotely, but with occasional trips into the country under the groups’ protection. The more reliable the local security, the more enduring and extensive the American presence and hands-on support can be.

Still, operating via surrogates and proxies is the least reliable and most dangerous means of collecting intelligence compared to having case officers directly meeting with individual agents, none of whom would know the identity of other sources the U.S. IC was running. Being far removed from the actual sources limits the means to test and evaluate their authenticity, veracity or motives. And like the children’s game “telephone,” the greater the number involved in collecting intelligence, the less reliable the reporting, and the more potential exists for someone to be caught. Benjamin Franklin said, “three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

Agent networks and those handled by cutouts are more vulnerable to compromise because the exposure of one would reveal the rest. And absent the direct oversight of a trained American handler, who would prioritize security over the value of any one report, local agents and their sub-sources can overreach or fly blindly into danger. They might steal a document to which they have no natural access, ask a suspicious question, or offer the wrong person money for information. The pitfalls of agent networks and cutouts were made famous by the Nazis’ success compromising World War II resistance networks, failed Western efforts infiltrating agents behind the Iron Curtain at the outset of the Cold War, and U.S. struggles in Cuba, Iran, and Iraq.

Because of all of this, the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan requires an adjustment concerning expectations for insight into terrorist planning and the United States’ ongoing capacity to thwart emerging plots. But such challenges aside, a more counterterrorism-focused, less politically skewed mission, which divorces itself from the costly whack-a-mole strategy of the preceding 20 years, will be more truly an intelligence war. And one that allows the clarity to stay focused on what’s most important to U.S. strategic interests.

In this photograph taken on April 30, 2021 people make their way along a market area in Kandahar. Photo by JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images