Spy Businesses Search New Afghan Allies as U.S. Withdraws

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Western spy companies are evaluating and courting regional leaders exterior the Afghan authorities who would possibly be capable of present intelligence about terrorist threats lengthy after U.S. forces withdraw, based on present and former American, European and Afghan officers.

The trouble represents a turning level within the conflict. Rather than one of many largest multinational navy coaching missions ever is now a hunt for informants and intelligence property. Regardless of the diplomats who say the Afghan authorities and its safety forces will be capable of stand on their very own, the transfer indicators that Western intelligence companies are making ready for the potential — and even possible — collapse of the central authorities and an inevitable return to civil conflict.

Courting proxies in Afghanistan calls again to the Eighties and ’90s, when the nation was managed by the Soviets after which devolved right into a factional battle between regional leaders. The West steadily relied on opposing warlords for intelligence — and at instances supported them financially by relationships at odds with the Afghan inhabitants. Such insurance policies typically left the US, specifically, beholden to energy brokers who openly dedicated human rights abuses.

Among the many candidates being thought-about right this moment for intelligence gathering is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Afghan fighter who led fighters in opposition to the Soviets within the Eighties after which in opposition to the Taliban as head of the Northern Alliance the next decade. The son — Ahmad Massoud, 32 — has spent the previous couple of years attempting to revive the work of his father by assembling a coalition of militias to defend Afghanistan’s north.

Afghans, American and European officers say there is no such thing as a formal cooperation between Mr. Massoud and Western intelligence companies, although some have held preliminary conferences. Whereas there may be broad settlement inside the C.I.A. and France’s D.G.S.E. that he might present intelligence, opinions diverge on whether or not Mr. Massoud, who’s untested as a frontrunner, would be capable of command an efficient resistance.

The attraction of constructing ties with Mr. Massoud and different regional energy brokers is clear: Western governments mistrust the Taliban’s lukewarm commitments to maintain terrorist teams overseas within the years forward and worry that the Afghan authorities would possibly fracture if no peace settlement is reached. The Second Resistance, as Mr. Massoud now calls his armed rebellion drive, is a community that’s against the Taliban, Al Qaeda or any extremist group that rises of their shadow.

High C.I.A. officers, together with William J. Burns, the company’s director, have acknowledged that they’re on the lookout for new methods to gather info in Afghanistan as soon as American forces are withdrawn, and their potential to collect info on terrorist exercise is diminished.

However Mr. Massoud’s group is in its infancy, determined for help, and legitimacy. It’s backed by a dozen or so militia commanders who fought the Taliban and the Soviets prior to now, and some thousand fighters positioned within the north. Mr. Massoud says his ranks are crammed by these slighted by the federal government and, very similar to the Taliban, he thinks that Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has overstayed his welcome.

“We’re prepared, even when it requires my very own life,” Mr. Massoud mentioned in an interview.

Even the symbols at Mr. Massoud’s occasions harken again to the civil conflict period: previous Northern Alliance flags and the previous nationwide anthem.

However for all of Mr. Massoud’s bluster at latest rallies and ceremonies, the concept that the Northern Alliance may very well be rebranded and that its former leaders — a few of whom have since turn out to be ambassadors, vice presidents and high navy commanders within the Afghan authorities — would comply with somebody half their age and with little battlefield expertise to conflict appears unrealistic at this level, safety analysts have mentioned.

Right now, supporting any form of insurgency or constructing a resistance motion poses actual challenges, mentioned Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst who has carried out intensive work on Afghanistan.

“The priority is, what would the second resistance contain and what would our targets be?” she mentioned. “I worry people are suggesting a brand new proxy conflict in Afghanistan. I feel that we’ve discovered that we will’t win.”

Even contemplating an unproven militia chief for potential counterterrorism assurances as worldwide forces depart undermines the final 20 years of state-building, safety analysts say, and virtually turns the thought of an impending civil conflict into an anticipated actuality by empowering anti-government forces much more. Such divisions are rife for exploitation by the Taliban.

America had a fraught relationship with the Northern Alliance, making it tough to gather intelligence within the nation. The French and British each backed the senior Massoud within the Eighties, whereas the Individuals as an alternative targeted totally on teams aligned with Pakistan’s intelligence companies. The C.I.A. connections with Mr. Massoud and his group have been restricted till 1996, when the company started offering logistical assist in change for intelligence on Al Qaeda.

One of many causes the C.I.A. saved Massoud at arm’s size was his observe report of unreliability, drug trafficking and wartime atrocities through the early Nineties, when Mr. Massoud’s forces shelled Kabul and massacred civilians, as different warlords did.

Now, numerous allied governments and officers have totally different views of Mr. Massoud and the viability of his motion. The French, who have been devoted supporters of his father, see his efforts as stuffed with promise to mount an actual resistance to Taliban management.

David Martinon, the French ambassador to Kabul, mentioned he has watched Mr. Massoud intently over the past three years, and nominated him for a for a visit to Paris to satisfy with French leaders, together with the president. “He’s good, passionate and a person of integrity who has dedicated himself to his nation,” Mr. Martinon mentioned.

Washington is extra divided, and a few authorities analysts don’t suppose Mr. Massoud would be capable of construct an efficient coalition.

Eighteen months in the past, Lisa Curtis, then a Nationwide Safety Council official, met with Mr. Massoud together with Zalmay Khalilzad, the highest U.S. diplomat main peace efforts with the Taliban. She described him as charismatic, and mentioned he spoke convincingly concerning the significance of democratic values. “He’s very clearheaded and talks about how vital it’s to protect the progress of the final 20 years,” she mentioned.

In Afghanistan, some are extra skeptical of Mr. Massoud’s energy to affect a resistance.

“Sensible expertise has proven that nobody may very well be like his father,” mentioned Lt. Gen. Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a former deputy minister within the Inside Ministry. “His son lives in a special time and doesn’t have the expertise that matured his father.”

Others within the Afghan authorities see Mr. Massoud as a nuisance, somebody who has the potential to create issues sooner or later for his personal self-interests.

Even when there are various opinions of his organizational prowess, there may be broad settlement that Mr. Massoud may also help operate because the eyes and ears for the West — as his father did 20 years in the past.

Mr. Massoud, who was educated on the Royal Army School at Sandhurst in Britain, returned to Afghanistan in 2016. He spent the subsequent three years quietly increase help earlier than he emerged extra publicly in 2019 by holding rallies and mounting recruiting drives within the nation’s north.

In latest months, Mr. Massoud’s rhetoric has grown more durable, lashing out at Mr. Ghani throughout a latest ceremony in Kabul, and his efforts to safe worldwide help extra aggressive. Along with reaching out to the US, Britain and France, Mr. Massoud has courted India, Iran and Russia, based on individuals aware of his pursuits. Afghan intelligence paperwork counsel that Mr. Massoud is buying weapons — by an middleman — from Russia.

However Europe and the US see him much less as a bulwark in opposition to an ascendant Taliban than as a doubtlessly vital monitor of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. A era in the past, Mr. Massoud’s father was outspoken on the burgeoning terrorist threats within the nation. And even when the son can’t command the identical forces as his father, maybe he’ll be capable of provide related warnings.

As a younger diplomat, Mr. Martinon remembers listening to concerning the late Massoud warning to the world throughout his April 2001 go to to France.

“What he mentioned was beware, beware,” Mr. Martinon recalled. “The Taliban are internet hosting Al Qaeda and they’re making ready one thing.”

Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington. Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul.

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