If there is one thing that the Central Intelligence Agency does very well, it is insinuate itself into pre-established local resistance networks within foreign countries that share at least some strategic or tactical interest with the United States. Having done so, they can then act in concert with those networks to advance shared interests, whatever they might be. In other words, CIA officers load up on a helicopter, or drive across a border armed with loads of cash, and offer monetary support in exchange for cooperation and loyalty in some given endeavor.
The most recognized example of this type of effort in the last two decades was the initial CIA insertion into Afghanistan in the immediate (as in, days) aftermath of 9/11. Per open-source reporting, the initial CIA teams entered Afghanistan, linked up with the Northern Alliance forces of the recently-assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, and then laid the groundwork for the subsequent insertion of U.S. military forces to remove the Taliban from power and put al-Qaeda on the run. I would argue that we need to engage the same partner force today, in order to continue our evacuation operations in Afghanistan.
Now that the Biden Administration deadline to get all Americans and our Afghan partners out of Afghanistan has come and gone, evacuation efforts on the ground have nearly ground to a halt. Non-official groups of veterans and former intelligence officers, among others, continue to work (some tirelessly) to get people out, but it has become significantly harder for them, according to some of those directly involved.
The administration has options if it is truly serious about continuing to get these people out. One of those is a covert action authorization from the president to establish a personnel recovery operation with the CIA as the lead agency, but also including representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. military, and any other relevant organizations. The below is a rudimentary and general blueprint for how such an operation could be organized. The United States has done things on this scale before. We can — and should — do it again.
The plan would pivot on a personnel recovery mission based out of the Panjshir Valley, led by a CIA team on the ground in Panjshir, and operating in conjunction with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), led by Ahmad Massoud (the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud). The NRFA would provide security, staging, a safe haven from which to operate, and manpower/logistics for retrieving designated evacuees. This would be funded entirely from covert action monies, and would have to pay for all required mobility assets, the American team on the ground, logistical support, and whatever the agreed-upon price is to secure the support of the NRFA.
-A small team of CIA officers to manage the relationship with the NRFA, and to validate and vet those identified to be evacuated.
-A team of attached U.S. military personnel (likely U.S. Special Operations Forces) to act as combat medics, combat controllers, and liaison with NRFA forces in the event that U.S. military-provided close air support is required.
-Pre-staged U.S. military air support assets (in a nearby third country) for possible close air support missions for forces on the ground.
-A joint team of CIA, State, and Homeland Security personnel to work from a forward staging area (a nearby third country), to process evacuees and assess/validate intelligence reporting that results from the effort.
-Several U.S. government-provided air or ground assets (likely, rotary-wing) to move evacuees from the Panjshir Valley to a designated third country (or countries).
-Sufficiently armed and trained NRFA forces to ensure safe clandestine movement from the Panjshir Valley to designated rendezvous points to secure evacuees, and make the trip back.
-Operations support personnel from State, CIA, and interested/involved non-government organizations (NGOs)/non-official groups working from the continental U.S. to accept and distribute evacuee packages. These packages are currently making their way around out there now — in all manner of official and unofficial channels — and they require a central clearinghouse to organize and validate them all.
-CIA/U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) team insert to Panjshir Valley, link up with NRFA.
-Formalization of the personnel recovery mission with the NRFA, via on-the-ground CIA officer in charge.
-Establishment of the standard operating procedures, communications procedures, and all other relevant mission planning.
-Receipt of vetted/validated evacuation packages — including locations and means of communication, if possible — from rear-based support personnel, in effect establishing a “target deck” for evacuation. At a minimum, there will need to be a way to establish bona fides for those to be evacuated, so that evacuation teams have a secure way to link up with them.
-Establishment of link-up points in “safe” areas, communication of instructions to the evacuees, and provision of a timeline and way to verify their identity upon link-up (verbal paroles, or “the code word of the day,” in other words).
-Movement of joint NRFA/SOF/CIA team to link-up point, securing of evacuees, and transport back to safe haven in Panjshir Valley.
-Coordination of U.S. government-sponsored air or ground assets to move evacuees from the Panjshir Valley to third-country/countries for more extensive processing.
-Repeat until mission completion.
-If the Panjshir Valley safe haven comes under direct Taliban attack, then call for pre-staged U.S. military air support assets to operate in conjunction with NRFA/SOF forces on the ground in “call for fire” missions. Then hold the Panjshir Valley at all costs.
-If joint NRFA/SOF/CIA evacuation team comes under enemy fire during infiltration operations to link-up with evacuees, then engage and retreat, abort the pick-up, and reschedule.
-If joint NRFA/SOF/CIA team comes under enemy fire while maneuvering back to the Panjshir safe haven with evacuees in tow, call for close air support, and make a hasty retreat to safe haven.
-If NRFA fails to hold a secure area in the Panjshir Valley, then the mission is aborted. Sadly, that is a real possibility at present, given recent reporting.
Such an operation will require a commitment of monetary resources, deployment of support personnel from various U.S. government agencies to a third country neighboring Afghanistan, and a relatively small contingent of Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. Additionally, it will require pre-staged U.S. military aviation assets for close air support. The larger support footprint in neighboring third country/countries will be complemented by U.S.-based support personnel, as required. These non-Afghanistan-based personnel, however, are not under a direct threat, and thus the risk to American personnel is limited to the (at most) dozens on the ground co-located with indigenous forces, and those pilots and crew who might have to provide air support in the event of enemy contact.
The mission is subject to quick termination, as required by the end of evacuations, or by direction from political leadership. In addition to fulfilling the commitment to evacuate Americans and Afghan partners, such an operation could also establish an effective working relationship with an indigenous force in Afghanistan that could prove helpful to future counter-terrorism operations, if required.
While such an operation is by no means without risk, and would likely be complicated and challenging, it is well within the capability of the CIA and the U.S. SOF units that would be involved. We owe it to those remaining in Afghanistan against their will, who are either Americans or supported the United States over the last 20 years, to do something. The above is the basic outline of just one possible option. Time is running out.
Editor’s Note: While the preceding piece was written by a former CIA officer and Navy SEAL, the article lays out only one hypothetical strategy for clandestine operations and includes no operational knowledge or information that is not already open-source and broadly available through Defense Department channels.
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Feature image: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Charles Eckert