The CIA is planning to cut the number of personnel in Iraq to 40% of what it had at the height of the Iraq war, when Baghdad was the headquarters of the largest CIA station in the world. At that time, there were more than 700 members of the CIA there.
Supporters of the change say that the CIA is needed more in areas like Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s branch is the most dangerous to the U.S., and Mali, where the teetering government looks like a problem. They also feel that the relationship between the U.S. and the Iraqi government is solid enough that the CIA isn’t needed as much anymore. One official said, “This is what success is supposed to be like … 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.” Another official spoke of the relationship between Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; they have “made very clear that we’re going to continue to have a close and strong security partnership.”
But opponents of the draw down have legitimate concerns over the continued presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq. One senior Iraqi security official said that the Iraqis’ surveillance is not as thorough as the Americans’. In addition, he warned that Iraq’s sectarian differences make it difficult to do intelligence work: “We need the Americans because they were able to work with all the [Iraqi] forces without exception,” he said.
Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. counter-terrorism specialist who is an expert on Al Qaeda, said, “A further diplomatic or intelligence draw down in Iraq could jeopardize U.S. national security down the road if al Qaeda in Iraq is able to sustain–or increase–its activity. 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.”
And attacks have intensified in Iraq since the U.S. withdrew its forces last December, according to the National Counter-terrorism Center, the U.S. intelligence community’s central clearinghouse for counter-terrorism analysis. Reports show attacks have risen to 25 per month, more than the average of 19 for each month last year.