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CIA expanding presence in Afghanistan

Influx will make the station among the largest in CIA history, officials say. McChrystal wants to improve intelligence on the Taliban and focus on reducing the number of roadside and suicide bombings.

September 20, 2009|Greg Miller

"He was able to plan during the day and do raids at night, sometimes multiple raids if he could move the information quickly enough," said a former senior U.S. military intelligence official who worked closely with McChrystal in Iraq. "What he's trying to do is get his decision cycle quicker than the bad guys."

Afghanistan presents intelligence officials with steep challenges. Current and former CIA officials said that operatives and analysts account for only about one-third of the agency's footprint in Afghanistan. The others are involved in support functions -- such as providing security and managing computer systems -- that are particularly daunting in Afghanistan because of the country's size and the woeful state of its infrastructure.

The CIA is also carrying out an escalating campaign of unmanned Predator missile strikes on Al Qaeda and insurgent strongholds in Pakistan. The number of strikes so far this year, 37, already exceeds the 2008 total, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal website, which tracks Predator strikes in Pakistan.

The agency recently submitted a request for additional Predators from the Air Force, which manages the U.S. drone fleet, one official said. For years, the CIA drones were operated from inside Pakistan, but some are also flown from an air base across the Afghan border near Jalalabad.

A drone strike last month killed Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mahsud. U.S. officials said they are watching closely to see whether his death leads to even a temporary drop in the number of suicide bombings.

Mahsud's organization had become a major supplier of suicide bombers to other insurgent groups, training attackers that in some cases would be deployed to carry out strikes in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

"He turned it into a business," the Defense Department official said. "Putting people through a process to indoctrinate them, prepping them to execute and then basically they can be bartered or sold."

Though other U.S. officials said Mahsud did not appear to have been motivated by financial gain, they did confirm the supplier arrangement.

"He didn't sell suicide bombers like a commodity for profit," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. "He'd offer resources -- in this case human beings ready to die -- to his sympathizers in exchange for things he needed. These were deals among tribal figures, not outsourcing agreements among corporations."

For eight years, the CIA's main priorities in Afghanistan were to hunt for Al Qaeda, manage relationships with warlords -- doling out inducements that included cash and, in some cases, Viagra -- and rebuild the Afghan spy service. The difficulty of that task was underscored this month by the assassination of the service's No. 2 official.

But the agency's role is likely to shift under McChrystal, who has placed a greater emphasis on protecting civilians and rooting out government graft.

U.S. spy agencies have already stepped up their scrutiny of corruption in Kabul. The recent Senate report described a wiretapping system activated last year that is aimed at tracing ties between government officials and drug kingpins in the country.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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