For some intelligence officials, proof that the CIA's influence on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is waning, and the power of the Pentagon is growing, came last summer when the CIA named its new station chief in Kabul.
As a rule, the CIA always gets to pick its chief of station in foreign countries, but in Afghanistan it lost a political battle to the military and the State Department. According to several former and current intelligence officials, that loss is symbolic of the declining influence of the CIA, which once shaped the strategy for the U.S. war effort.
Last summer, when the CIA tapped a veteran office to become the new chief of station in Kabul, the State Department's special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, objected. According to current and former officials, Holbrooke had served with the officer in Croatia during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, when the officer was station chief there and Holbrooke was the Clinton administration's special envoy to the region.
By the time Holbrooke weighed in privately to agency officials, the officer had already been told that he would be assigned to Afghanistan.
"Holbrooke had a problem with [the agency's choice]," said a current senior intelligence official. "And he told the Agency he wasn't going to work with [the CIA officer]."
A spokesperson for Ambassador Holbrooke denied Holbrooke's involvement in the CIA's decision.
In the past, say officials, the CIA wouldn't have backed down. Less than 10 years ago, the U.S. ambassador in France objected to the agency's choice of station chief. He said he didn't want to work with the agency's choice, and asked that he not be sent. The agency made its preferred candidate station chief anyway.
This time, though Kabul is one of the CIA's most important bases of operations, the agency acceded to State Department wishes and withdrew its candidate. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal intervened.
According to the current and former intelligence officials, McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, had his own preferred candidate for the job, a good friend and decorated CIA paramilitary officer. McChrystal started lobbying for his friend.
The officer McChrystal preferred has extensive experience in war zones, including two previous tours in Afghanistan, as well as time in the Balkans, Baghdad and Yemen. The officer also served as the CIA's liaison to the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), then led by McChrystal. JSOC is the Pentagon's command structure for special forces from all military branches, including the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force.
The officer had already served as Kabul's chief four years ago, and it is unusual, though not unprecedented, these intelligence officials say, for CIA officers to serve as chief of station twice in the same country. In interviews with a dozen current and former officials, the current chief of station was uniformly well-liked and admired. A career paramilitary officer, the station chief came to the CIA after several years in an elite Marine unit.