The turbaned Taliban gather in front of the entrance to the deserted barracks. They fish their smartphones out of their vest pockets, switch on their flashlights, and illuminate the ghostly darkness inside. There are no windows in the corridor, nor the small, neat rooms to the left and right. If it weren’t for the nice office chairs and the comfortable bathroom cubicles, one might mistake them for cells. But the rooms are part of a section of a now abandoned military base in Shkin, in southeastern Afghanistan, that was once occupied by U.S. forces, including CIA officers. Now, with the base empty and the Taliban back in power, Washington’s ability to monitor the assorted militants who are still in the area has become far more limited.
Shkin lies on a godforsaken high plateau framed by ridges of forested hills less than five miles west of the Pakistani frontier, the border denoted by the colonial-era Durand Line that Afghanistan has never recognized.
This remote backwater in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika Province would be of little strategic value, if it weren’t for it reportedly being a longstanding home to al-Qaida and other jihadists. Accordingly, soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. forces established a base in Shkin that was also used by the CIA. Reports from 2003 described it as “looking like a cross between an old Wild West fort and the Alamo.” By the time SpyTalk visited the abandoned base in early November 2021, it was a labyrinth of sand-packed HESCO barriers hiding various deserted barracks. A few abandoned pickup trucks also remained in the base. In nearby Barmal District, the Taliban claimed to have captured 100 vehicles. Dozens of Rangers and Humvees could be seen there in November—not that they were very useful: The Taliban lacked fuel for them.
The ‘Evilest Place’
“Front line paramilitary bases were integral in pursuing our counter-terrorism mission, conducting intelligence operations against high value targets in an active combat environment,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA senior operations officer who served as a base chief told SpyTalk. “When I served in the region in 2011 and 2012, we were hit nearly every morning, with 107mm rocket fire. ‘Never needed an alarm clock’ was the running joke.”
The attacks were conducted not only by local Taliban, but also Arab al-Qaida fighters, he said. Skirmishes in Shkin were so intense that, in 2003, U.S. Army Colonel Rodney Davis described it as “the evilest place in Afghanistan.”
Some paid the ultimate price, like William Carlson and Christopher Glenn Mueller, two former U.S. Special Forces working as contract employees in counterterrorism for the CIA, who were killed near Shkin in late October 2003. Back then, the CIA officially acknowledged their deaths, stating that they were killed while "tracking terrorists operating in the region."
That said, it is understood that the CIA used Shkin not only to monitor the Afghan province of Paktika, but also nearby Waziristan on the Pakistani side of the border, another infamous hideout of local and foreign jihadists. When SpyTalk visited Shkin in early November, long-range binoculars, pointed straight across the plain to the nearby hills of Waziristan, were still mounted on a watch tower above the former American part of the base. The group of cheerful Taliban touring the abandoned base peeked through them, but they were broken. Back in the day, the CIA also had more sophisticated gear in Shkin to monitor jihadist activities across the region.
The CIA was not only watching and listening, though. Not long after settling in, agency advisers in Shkin stood up a Counter-Terrorism Pursuit Team consisting of locally recruited Afghans. Over the years, the teams there and elsewhere gained renown for conducting raids against suspected high-value targets—along with a reputation for human rights violations. In 2014, after the CIA began to disband at least some of the teams, including the allegedly 900-man strong force in Shkin, the base temporarily fell to the Taliban, but it was soon recaptured and again manned by special counter-terrorism forces that continued their operations until the very end.
"The NDS 08 unit which worked together with the Americans was in Shkin until the night before Shkin and Kabul fell," an Afghan who had served in the Afghan Border Force in the regular part of the base, told SpyTalk. (The NDS was the National Directorate of Security, the now defunct intelligence service of the toppled Afghan Republic.)
In November, the abandoned U.S. quarters at Shkin looked not much different than they might have on August 14, 2021, the day before the Afghan government collapsed—except for the darkness. With the retreat of the Americans and their Afghan allies went the electricity.
Lit up by Taliban flashlights, most bedrooms were clean, several beds still neatly made, shower stalls intact. A brand new-looking refrigerator in the spotless canteen sported an unfaded printout announcing "FROZEN DINNERS." A couple plastic bottles of French’s Classic Yellow Mustard and packets of salt and pepper remained on a few tables. An adjacent sunroom featured a stone counter that once served as a bar. A Longhorn skull that once graced a wall lay on the floor.
One of the Taliban pointed to it. "They only left us bones," he said. It wasn’t clear if he was joking. In any event, he was not wrong. The rooms in the barracks were yawning empty. A charred door was evidence that a fire may have been set by the former occupants as they departed.
“Be careful to not ruin your clothes,” another Talib warned, pointing to ash on a door. “The Americans set everything on fire when they left,” he said—an exaggeration, since most of the rooms were unscarred.
“They left us nothing,” he later added in disgust. Apparently the insurgents thought the retreating troops would generously donate all their equipment.
Filling the Vacuum
In any event, while the Americans and Afghan government forces left, the jihadists didn’t. While the Taliban never tire of saying they will not let anyone use Afghanistan to threaten other countries, at least some al-Qaida members were still in Paktika as recently as October, a jihadist source told SpyTalk. Weeks later, some of them had left Paktika, he said, but another source said others had stayed. That would hardly be a surprise: In June 2020 the U.S. suspected al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was hiding out in the area, and dropped leaflets asking the locals for help.
Meanwhile, in Barmal, SpyTalk met armed jihadists of uncertain allegiance, hailing from across the border in Pakistani Waziristan. Such militants have been residing in the area since a Pakistani military operation in the summer of 2014 drove them out of Waziristan.
"We are with the Emirate,” Sayd Yodgor, a commander of the armed Waziristanis in Barmal, told SpyTalk, referring to the Afghan Taliban. However, two Afghans who have personal contacts in the jihadist milieu doubted his story. "He and his men are all members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan [TTP]," an umbrella group of Pakistani militants, said one man, who had met Yodgor. Another man, peering at a photo of Yodgor, said he belonged to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, which analysts say was once a TTP faction but is now thought to be operating separately.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert on militants at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told SpyTalk that "there have been consistent reports of the TTP and al-Qaida not only being allied, but also co-located in parts of Afghanistan, including Paktika, over the last five years.”
Al-Qaida affiliates are a prime concern to the CIA, of course, but with the base in Shkin lost, gathering intelligence on their activities in the region got considerably harder.
Douglas London, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia prior to his retirement in 2019, wrote recently that the CIA likely "prepared a stable of Afghan ‘stay behind’ agents” in advance of its retreat last August. But without an official U.S. presence in the country, meetings between CIA case officers and Afghan sources would be difficult now, if at all possible. This, as well as the circumstances in a remote place with little infrastructure like Afghanistan, he wrote, “poses a tradecraft nightmare," with problems ranging from agents having to rely on covert electronic communication devices to "[limitations of] means to test and evaluate the authenticity, veracity or motives" of sources. "Operating via surrogates and proxies," London added, "is the least reliable and most dangerous means of collecting intelligence."
There could still be some CIA Afghan assets in or around Shkin, but re-establishing and maintaining regular, reliable relationships with them is problematic at best. The Taliban would likely also try to hunt them down or turn them into double agents, although the Taliban’s capability to do so successfully is questionable.
In the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, the Taliban chose a heavy-handed approach, rounding up suspected members of the Islamic State group in a dragnet that caught more innocent men than guilty ones, according to various sources. The sweep suggested that the Taliban are either unwilling or unable to engage in the kind of precise counterintelligence work normally required to root out trained covert CIA assets.
But back in Shkin, meanwhile, one thing was certain: Where once CIA case officers drank bourbon around a fire pit or under the Longhorn skull, celebrating a counter-terrorism success or honoring lost comrades, the Taliban now pray.
This article by Franz J. Marty first appeared on Spytalk.co.