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, according to 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 American 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 American officials who spoke 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.
"There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official.