by Jeff Bliss
September 19, 2009
The growing strength of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to establish more bases there, the agency’s director said.
The extra CIA operatives are supporting the 17,000 additional troops President Barack Obama authorized soon after taking office this year, as well as the civilian government employees helping to rebuild the country after years of war, CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview.
“We are increasing our presence” because the Taliban’s “capabilities have improved a great deal” in Afghanistan, he said. “The result is that I think everyone, our military and civilian operations, demand better intelligence.”
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the security situation in Afghanistan is “serious” and “deteriorating.” He told lawmakers on Sept. 15 that it’s likely more troops will be needed to defeat the Taliban. The CIA buildup, which Panetta said is “going on as we speak,” reflects how fast the insurgency is gaining ground.
In the interview yesterday at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Panetta touched upon a range of security issues facing the agency.
He said he has asked senior CIA officials to develop a plan in case countries with weak or non-existent governments such as Yemen and Somalia descend into anarchy and become havens for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Panetta also said the U.S. may get the opportunity to negotiate with North Korea to scale back its nuclear and missile programs.
The U.S. is ready to engage directly with North Korea in an effort to bring the nuclear-armed regime back to multinational talks on disarmament, Philip J. Crowley, the top State Department spokesman, said in an interview Sept. 11.
The U.S. and North Korea “are discussing the ability to try to talk with one another,” Panetta said. “We’re in a honeymoon situation right now.” He credited former President Bill Clinton’s visit to the Stalinist state last month with opening up dialogue.
North Korea in May detonated a nuclear device, prompting United Nations sanctions and escalating military tension on the peninsula. Relations began to thaw after Clinton traveled to Pyongyang and returned with two detained U.S. journalists on Aug. 5.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s release of the Americans was followed by his regime freeing a detained Hyundai Group worker and four South Korean fishermen. A delegation from the North traveled to the South to pay respects after the death of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, and the two Koreas this month settled a wage dispute at a jointly run industrial complex.
Kim said yesterday that he’s prepared to return to bilateral and multilateral talks on dismantling his nuclear program, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported, citing envoy Dai Bingguo.
On Afghanistan, Panetta said he thought the U.S. can be successful by relying on the experience of U.S. and NATO troops in the region and the counterinsurgency tactics championed by Army General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country.
While the Taliban “are clearly increasing their threat, we at the same time are learning a lot more about how we deal with them,” he said. “That gives me at least some hope that we can direct this in the right way.”
McChrystal has submitted his assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan and will also offer an analysis of how many additional U.S. forces may be needed. As American public opinion becomes more wary of the war, administration officials are under pressure to limit requests for more troops.
Al-Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., is seeking other havens. They and the Taliban set up bases in neighboring Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, drawing missile attacks from CIA-directed Predator drones.
“Our operations in Pakistan, directed at al-Qaeda, have been very successful in disrupting al-Qaeda as far as their operations and their planning,” Panetta said.
If Yemen or other vulnerable nations become failed states, the CIA must be ready to “interdict” al-Qaeda agents before they can set up cells there, Panetta said.
“There is an al-Qaeda presence in most of these areas now,” he said. “But our concern is that it could develop into a base of operations,” he said.
Yemen, at the southern tip of the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, is fighting Shiite Muslim insurgents in the north on the Saudi border, a separatist movement in the south and a resurgent al-Qaeda. A militant tried to assassinate the top anti-terrorist official in Saudi Arabia in an attack on Aug. 27 for which al-Qaeda’s Yemeni-based organization took credit.
Somalia is in its 18th year of civil war and hasn’t had a functioning central administration since the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre, the former dictator, in 1991.
Islamist groups including al-Shabaab and the Hisb-ul-Islam movement have gained control of most of southern and central Somalia in their bid to oust President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month during a visit to Kenya that Sharif’s government represents the “best hope” for a return to stability in the country.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington email@example.com.