Trump Wants the CIA to Stay Behind in Afghanistan. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? | Opinion

With peace talks between the US government and the Taliban near a preliminary agreement, the question has now become "what comes next?" Most recently, The New York Times reported that the White House is seriously considering expanding the CIA's presence in Afghanistan if and when international forces begin to withdraw from the country.

To understand the danger that such a strategy would pose to lasting peace in Afghanistan, one must first understand the past role of CIA in the country. At the onset of the US "war on terror" in 2001, the CIA organized Afghan militias to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. By 2010, the CIA's "Afghan Army," as Bob Woodward called it, had grown to around 3,000 people. Since then, they have at least doubled in size. Their human rights abuses have escalated in tandem. In 2018, for example, the United Nations found that two of the most notorious groups the CIA trained, the NDS Special Forces and the Khost Protection Forces, caused almost as many civilian deaths as the total number attributed to all Afghan national security forces in that year. Moreover, they found, the paramilitaries were much more likely than regular Afghan forces to kill civilians rather than to injure them. And yet, because of their CIA-sponsored status, these forces live outside both US and Afghan military chain-of-commands, making it almost impossible to investigate cases of abuse, assessing who is being targeted, and much less prosecute those responsible. We wrote about the history of these forces in our recent report for the Costs of War project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Maintaining, or even strengthening, a military capability of this kind would seriously undermine a peace agreement even if the military mission was formally and narrowly defined as counter-terrorist. Instead, the goal must be a peace agreement with strong provisions for disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating (DDR) the CIA-funded Afghan paramilitaries. The CIA may be more open to such steps than before; at least the Agency reportedly hesitates to expand its role in the country if it cannot count on logistical and other support—notably air strikes—as US regular forces are drawn down.

It is also helpful that the global DDR norm for peace accords is unambiguous: Almost all internal war settlements during the past three decades have provided for demobilization and/or restructuring of the armed forces of the belligerents – including paramilitaries. Otherwise, paramilitaries that continued to operate outside the control of the central state and the chain of command of its armed forces would undermine the process of state formation and prospects for a sustainable peace.

In practice, demobilizing or restructuring paramilitary forces require robust mechanisms for implementation, as the international experience in Afghanistan after the Taliban's defeat in 2001 demonstrates. Efforts to disarm and integrate militias at that time were short-lived due to the pressures of renewed war and vested interests in a fragmented military power.

Reforms of the CIA's "army" will be particularly difficult because of their high pay and privileged status, which makes them unlikely to welcome integration into the regular armed forces. Yet, if cut loose by the CIA, they may be reborn as private armies or "security guards" in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources. Either possibility is in line with patterns of collective violence in modern Afghan history.

Furthermore, if violence continues at some level after the agreement is signed, the well-trained and well-equipped CIA militias would be particularly valuable to any party with means to pay them, thus generating new spirals of violence and potentially creating conditions for militant groups to thrive. Whatever the militias' allegiance to the CIA in the past, Afghan history is replete with tales of rapidly shifting allegiances and a pragmatic approach to alliances.

While waiting for further progress in peace talks, a stronger effort to end impunity for serious human rights violations and possible war crimes committed by the CIA's paramilitaries is important in and of itself. It will also strengthen the prospects for a peace settlement and its legitimacy. As military experts on counter-insurgency have long recognized, tactical victories gained by unrestrained and unaccountable use of force against civilians will, in the longer run, undermine the objective of winning the support of the population.

After decades of war, the Afghan people deserve a sustainable, comprehensive peace settlement. In order to achieve this, the peace deal must include and hold accountable all actors—including the CIA's "Afghan army."

Astri Suhrke is a political scientist and Senior Researcher Emerita at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. has published widely on the social, political and humanitarian consequences of violent conflict, and strategies of response. Her major work on Afghanistan is the book When More is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan (London 2011).

Antonio de Lauri is Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, where he coordinates the research group Humanitarianism, Aid and Borders (HAB). He is the Series Editor of Berghahn Books' Humanitarianism and Security and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal Public Anthropologist. He is co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and co-convener of the Anthropology of Humanitarianism Network of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA). De Lauri has conducted research in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe and has published extensively on issues related to war and post-war reconstruction, human rights, injustice and humanitarianism.