5 June 2012
CIA Prepares Iraq Pullback
Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012
CIA Prepares Iraq Pullback
U.S. Presence Has Grown Contentious; Backers Favor Focus on Terror Hot Spots
By SIOBHAN GORMAN And ADAM ENTOUS
The Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to cut its presence in Iraq
to less than half of wartime levels, according to U.S. officials familiar
with the planning, a move that is largely a result of challenges the CIA
faces operating in a country that no longer welcomes a major U.S. presence.
Under the plans being considered, the CIA's presence in Iraq would be reduced
to 40% of wartime levels, when Baghdad was the largest CIA station in the
world with more than 700 agency personnel, officials said.
The CIA had already begun to pull back in Iraq since the height of the war,
officials said. But the drawdown, coming six months after the departure of
American military forces, would be significant. The officials declined to
provide exact numbers, give a breakdown of levels of analysts versus covert
operators or say where agency workers would be redeployed, all of which are
Proponents of the change say the CIA can make better use of its personnel
in other areas. Those could include emerging terrorist hot spots such as
Yemen, home to the al Qaeda affiliate the U.S. considers to pose the greatest
threat to the homeland, and Mali, where an unstable government has fanned
The move comes amid worries over possible gaps in U.S. intelligence about
the threat posed by al Qaeda in Iraq. Administration officials, diplomats
and intelligence analysts have in recent weeks debated whether the militant
organization is a growing threat after an internal government report pointed
to a rise in the number of attacks this year, officials said.
The plan would also reduce the U.S. intelligence presence in the region as
neighboring Syria appears to be verging on civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq is
also sending fighters to Syria to battle the Assad regime, Pentagon officials
The spy drawdown is part of a broader shift in U.S.-Iraq relations, with
Washington moving to scale back diplomatic and training missions in the country.
But it illustrates the limits of the Obama administration's national-security
strategy, as it steers away from ground wars and toward smaller operations
that combine intelligence and special-operations capabilities.
Such a strategy relies heavily on cooperation from host governments, and
as the CIA's Iraq experience shows, cooperation can wane even where the U.S.
has invested billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives.
The Iraqi government, including Iraq's intelligence service, has scaled back
its counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. as it asserts its sovereignty,
U.S. officials say.
"If you don't have that cooperation, you are probably wasting the resources
you are allocating there and not accomplishing much," said Paul Pillar, a
former top CIA Near East analyst.
Backers of the drawdown say al Qaeda in Iraq doesn't pose a direct threat
to the U.S. "This is what success is supposed to be like," said a senior
U.S. official who has worked closely with the Iraqis. "Of course we don't
want to have the same number of people after all U.S. troops go home that
we had at the height of the war."
A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. is in the process of
"right-sizing" its presence in Iraq. Both President Barack Obama and Iraqi
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have "made very clear that we're going to
continue to have a close and strong security partnership," this official
The planned reductions at the CIA represent a major shift from the approach
under consideration just six months ago. Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon
were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos
to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option
was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority,
similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in
"There was a general consensus," said a former intelligence official, "that
there was a need for this in Iraq."
But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the
Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations
role, those plans were tabled. "It's not going to happen," said a U.S. official.
Iraq requires CIA officers to make appointments to meet with officials who
were previously easily accessible, one of several obstacles that add to a
mood of growing distance between the sides. The result is a degraded U.S.
awareness about the activities of al Qaeda in Iraq, particularly at a tactical
level, officials said.
"Half of our situational awareness is gone," said one U.S. official.
Iraqi officials said they continue to cooperate with the U.S. on
counterterrorism. Hassan Kokaz, deputy head of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior's
intelligence service, said the U.S. may be adjusting to the new "state-to-state"
relationship between the countries since the military withdrawal in December.
"We have asked them to wear civilian clothes and not military uniforms and
to be searched when they visit Iraqi institutions," he said. "Perhaps they
are not used to this."
In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police are pursuing al Qaeda-linked militants
without needing U.S. special-operations forces or the CIA, said Gen. Sarhad
Qadir, a local police commander.
Another senior Iraqi security official, however, said Iraqis don't have the
necessary surveillance and other technical capabilities. Iraqi forces also
are plagued by clashing sectarian and political loyalties, the official added.
"We need the Americans because they were able to work with all the [Iraqi]
forces without exception," he said.
The CIA drawdown would recalibrate the agency's responsibility in the country
away from counterterrorism operations and back toward traditional intelligence
collection, with a sharpened focus on neighboring Iran, officials say. Baghdad
will remain one of the agency's largest stations, they say; Kabul is currently
The plan comes with risks, however, because al Qaeda in Iraq still presents
a threat to the region.
"A further diplomatic or intelligence drawdown in Iraq could jeopardize U.S.
national security down the road if al Qaeda in Iraq is able to sustainor
increaseits activity," said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. counterterrorism
specialist who has written extensively about al Qaeda. "The concern is that
al Qaeda is able to use its Iraq branch to destabilize other countries in
the region, and they are able to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters."
Al Qaeda in Iraq's activities against the regime of Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad also complicates the U.S. government's ability to support the
opposition, Pentagon officials say.
A recent assessment by the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S.
intelligence community's central clearinghouse for counterterrorism analysis,
pointed to an uptick in attacks by al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate since the U.S.
troop withdrawal in December, according to officials briefed on the document's
During high-level Obama administration discussions last month, some senior
counterterrorism officials seized on the NCTC assessment as evidence of a
growing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq, touching off a debate about the dangers
posed by the group, officials said. A spokesman refused to comment on questions
about the report.
Recent U.S. intelligence reports show the number of attacks have risen this
year to 25 per month, compared with an average of 19 for each month last
year, according to a person familiar with them.
But officials disagree over the significance of this increase, and questioned
the value of focusing on attacks in such a limited time frame.
James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq until last week, said
the figures being cited were misleading.
"Significant attacks are continuing to drop and, most importantly, casualties
are way down," Ambassador Jeffrey said in an interview before his Iraq rotation
ended. "Everything I know points to an organizational Qaeda in
Iraqunder extraordinary stress."
Ali A. Nabhan contributed to this article.
Write to Siobhan Gorman at siobhan.gorman[at]wsj.com and Adam Entous at