Since the US began pulling troops out of Afghanistan at the beginning of May, the Taliban has been making significant gains against the US-backed government. In an interview that aired Friday, CIA Director William Burns said he believes the Taliban is in the best military position they’ve been in since the war started in 2001.
“The Taliban are making significant military advances; they’re probably in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001,” Burns told NPR.
Demonstrating the Taliban’s success on the battlefield, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday that the group currently controls 200 of the 419 district centers in Afghanistan. Last month, he said the Taliban only controlled 81 district centers.
Burns assured that the US would continue supporting the Afghan military after the withdrawal and said the CIA would still be involved in the country. “So the US government, as the president has made clear — and CIA will play a part in this — will continue to be strongly supportive of the Afghan government in every way that we can. And for CIA, we will be sharply focused beyond the withdrawal of the US military and continuing terrorism challenges,” he said.
Both the CIA and the Pentagon had been hoping to establish new bases in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan. But none of Afghanistan’s neighbors wanted to host US forces, and the military has to settle for launching airstrikes from the Gulf region.
For the CIA, its presence in Afghanistan will be more covert than the military. The US plans to leave about 600 troops in the country split between its embassy in Kabul and the international airport, also located in the Afghan capital. The US embassy is a sprawling 36-acre facility that can host thousands of people, with plenty of room for CIA operatives. Burns insisted that the CIA will “still be able to do a lot” in Afghanistan after August 31st, the date President Biden said the withdrawal would be completed by.
CIA activities in Afghanistan include backing paramilitary groups. It was recently revealed by the Intercept that the CIA backed death squads in Afghanistan that slaughtered dozens of civilians, including children, between 2018 and 2019. Burns spoke fondly of CIA operations in the country. “People should be proud of the role that CIA has played” in Afghanistan, he said.