The CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan, marking the start of a drawdown from a region that transformed the agency from an intelligence service struggling to emerge from the Cold War to a counterterrorism force with its own prisons, paramilitary teams and armed Predator drones.
The pullback represents a turning point for the CIA as it shifts resources to other trouble spots.
The closures were described by U.S officials as preliminary steps in a plan to reduce the number of CIA installations in Afghan-istan from a dozen to as few as six over the next two years a consolidation to coincide with the withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from the country by the end of 2014.
Senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials said the reductions are overdue in a region where U.S. espionage efforts are now seen as out of proportion to the threat posed by al-Qaidas diminished core leadership in Pakistan.
The CIA faces an array of new challenges beyond al-Qaida, such as monitoring developments in the Middle East and delivering weapons to insurgents in Syria. John Brennan, the recently installed CIA director, has also signaled a desire to restore the agencys focus on traditional espionage.
When we look at post-2014, how does the threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan measure against the threat in North Africa and Yemen? said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Shouldnt our resources reflect that?
U.S. officials stressed that the CIA is expected to maintain a significant footprint even after the pullback, with a station in Kabul that will remain among the agencys largest in the world, as well as a fleet of armed drones that will continue to patrol Pakistans tribal belt.
The timing and scope of the CIAs pullout are still being determined and depend to some extent on how many U.S. troops President Barack Obama decides to keep in the country after 2014.
The administration is expected to reduce the number from 63,000 now to about 10,000 after next year but recently signaled that it is also considering a zero option, in part because of mounting frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A full withdrawal of U.S. troops would probably trigger a deeper retrenchment by the CIA, which has relied on U.S. and allied military installations across the country to serve as bases for agency operatives and cover for their spying operations.
The CIAs armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad.
The CIAs presence in the country has already dropped well below the peak levels of several years ago, when more than 1,000 case officers, analysts and other employees had been deployed to support the war effort and hunt al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
The CIA declined to comment on the withdrawal plans.
Afghanistan fundamentally changed the way the agency conducts business, said Richard Blee, who served as the CIAs senior officer in Afghanistan and Pakistan before he retired in 2007. We went from a purely espionage organization to more of an offensive weapon, a paramilitary organization where classic spying was less important.
Some of the bases being closed served as important intelligence-gathering nodes during the escalation of the agencys drone campaign, raising the risk that U.S. counterterrorism capabilities could deteriorate and perhaps allow remnants of al-Qaida to regenerate.