A former intelligence official called it a “high-level asset meeting gone bad.” Bad is definitely an understatement. Of course the comment is in reference to the suicide attack which killed 7 CIA agents at Forward Operating Base Chapman in border province of Khost. They were “experienced frontline officers and their knowledge and expertise will be sorely missed,” said Henry A. Crumpton, who led the CIA campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. The attacker was a potential informant of the Haqqani network of the Taliban and was wearing an Afghan National Army uniform at the time of the attack. Apparently, the perpetrator made it through one checkpoint and blew himself and several others away before he was to be searched for weapons. The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have both claimed responsibility for the attack, with one specific Taliban leader stating that the attack was in revenge for CIA-led drone attacks.
This tragic incident highlights numerous issues challenging the US/NATO presence in Afghanistan. First off, it is indeed the nature of the covert intelligence game that one has to trust those who you really cannot trust. The CIA in Afghanistan need to gather information on Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership and organization and to do this human intelligence is a vital component. After all, the drones don’t just know where the bad guys are hiding by themselves.
This specific incident, which involved a supposed Afghan Army member, also portrays the difficulties in discerning friend from foe. How serious is this issue to the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy? Vital would be an understatement. Key to future stability of Afghanistan, and to a lessening of a foreign military presence, is the growth in size and capability of the Afghan army and police. The Taliban of course know this and will do whatever they can to undermine its progress. A great way to do this is to infiltrate the Afghan army and police ranks with your own soldiers and inflict demoralizing and strategic calamities, such as this Chapman CIA incident and the shooting of five British soldiers by an Afghan police officer last month. Throw in the fact that the Afghan government, and its foreign purse holders, are desperate to build up the Army and police numbers and it should not surprise us that some ‘bad apples’ are mixed into the bunch. If I were the Taliban, this is what I would do.
Nevertheless, in terms of the CIA’s presence in Afghanistan, it is still critical to have an on the ground footprint in Afghanistan’s most volatile southeastern regions. The drone attacks have had a major impact on downgrading the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s leadership and the pressure must be maintained. This likely cannot happen if the CIA has to move out of Khost, Kandahar, etc. It has been reported that the CIA presence in Afghanistan is to increase by about 20-25% along with the surge in US/NATO troops this coming year, but one can bet that this Chapman attack will change some of the calculus on how the agency operates.