Supporters of the Biden administration approach note that the fact the US was able to track and kill al-Zawahri is evidence of its capabilities to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul, under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggests there’s a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to counter.
The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it’s overdue. That includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Representative Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he believed the US had been overly focused on counterterrorism over the last several years.
“A far greater existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crow, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life … the way China can”.
CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a very real challenge”.
“Even as crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges such as that posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, CIA will continue to aggressively track terrorist threats globally and work with partners to counter them,” Thorp said.
Congress has pushed the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make China a top priority, according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Pushing resources toward China has required cuts elsewhere, including in counterterrorism. Specific figures were unavailable because intelligence budgets are classified.
In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s development in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has committed trillions of dollars in investment on quantum science, artificial intelligence and other technologies that are likely to disrupt how future wars are fought and economies are structured.
As part of the shift, congressional committees are trying to better track how intelligence agencies spend their funding on China, seeking more detail about how specific programs contribute to that mission, one person familiar with the matter said.
“We are late, but it’s good that we’re finally changing our focus into that region,” said Representative Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means in people, in resources, in military assets, and in diplomacy.”
The CIA last year announced it would create two new “mission centres” — one on China, one on emerging technologies — to centralise and improve intelligence collection on those issues. The CIA is also trying to recruit more Chinese speakers and reduce wait times on security clearances to hire new people faster.
Inside the agency, many officers are learning Chinese and moving into new roles focused on China, though not all of those jobs require language training, people familiar with the matter said.
Officials note that intelligence officers are trained to adapt to new challenges and that many were moved more quickly into counterterrorism roles after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Advances from counterterrorism work — including better use of data and different sources of intelligence to build networks and identify targets — are also useful in countering Russia and China, former officers said.
“It’s the analytics and targeting machine that has become extraordinary,” said Douglas Wise, a former CIA senior officer who was deputy chief of operations at the counterterrorism centre.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre, renamed the Counterterrorism Mission Centre in a 2015 reorganisation, remains a point of pride for many people who credit its work for keeping Americans safe from terrorism after September 11.
CIA officers landed in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001, and were part of operations to displace the Taliban and find and kill leaders of al-Qaida including Osama bin Laden.
And 13 years after a double agent tricked officers pursuing al-Zawahri and blew himself up, killing seven agency employees, the CIA killed him in a strike with no reported civilian casualties.
The CIA was also involved in some of the darkest moments of the fight against terrorism. It operated secret “black site” jails to hold terrorism suspects, some wrongly, and was found by a Senate investigation to have used interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Elite Afghan special operations units trained by the CIA were also accused of killing civilians and violating international law.
There’s long been a debate over whether counterterrorism pulled intelligence agencies too far away from traditional spying and whether some of the CIA’s work in targeting terrorists should instead be done by special forces under the military.
Marc Polymeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former base chief in Afghanistan. He said he supports a greater focus on China and Russia but added, “There’s no reason to diminish what we had to do.”
“This notion that somehow all the CT work we did, somehow that was wrong, that we took our eye of the ball — just remember on September 12 what everyone was feeling,” he said.
Re-orienting the agencies toward more of a focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and require both patience and recognition that the agency’s culture will take time to change, Wise said.
“For decades, we have been doing counterterrorism,” Wise said. “We’ve got to have a rational plan to make this adaptation, which doesn’t take so long that our enemies can exploit a glacial process.”
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