WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is making contingency plans to use air bases in Central Asia to conduct drone missile attacks in northwest Pakistan in case the White House is forced to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
But even if alternative bases are secured, the officials said, the CIA's capability to gather sufficient intelligence to find al-Qaida operatives and quickly launch drone missiles at specific targets in Pakistan's mountainous tribal region will be greatly diminished if the spy agency loses its drone bases in Afghanistan.
The CIA's targeted killing program thus may prove a casualty of the bitter standoff with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over whether any U.S. troops can remain in Afghanistan after 2014, as the White House has sought. Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement to permit a long-term U.S. deployment, and some White House aides are arguing for a complete pullout.
According to current and former officers, CIA analysts operating from fortified outposts near the Pakistani border evaluate electronic intelligence, while case officers meet sources who help them identify targets. They pay people to place GPS trackers on cars or buildings to help guide the drone-launched missiles.
The CIA cannot fly drones from its Afghan drone bases without U.S. military protection, according to several U.S. officials who spoke to the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. If the bases are evacuated, the CIA fleet of armed Predator and Reaper drones could be moved to air fields north of Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, without naming the countries.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel publicly acknowledged for the first time this month that U.S. officials are examining different basing options for drones.
"I don't get into the specifics of what our plans are on intelligence and drone strikes," he said at a news conference. "You're constantly updating and changing … where you posture those assets."
The CIA and the military used an air base in Uzbekistan to conduct drone flights until the United States was evicted in 2005, said Brian Glyn Williams, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of the book Predators: The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda.
The military also has used a base in Kyrgyzstan to conduct air operations, including moving troops and supplies into Afghanistan. The Pentagon said in the fall that it would shift those operations to Romania this summer.