The risk that President Barack Obama may be forced to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the U.S. intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.
Until now, the debate here and in Kabul about the size and duration of a U.S.-led allied force in Afghanistan after 2014 had focused on that country’s long-term security. But these new concerns also reflect how troop levels in Afghanistan directly affect long-term U.S. security interests in neighbouring Pakistan, according to administration, military and intelligence officials.
The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organised a team of intelligence, military and policy specialists to devise alternatives to mitigate the damage if a final security deal cannot be struck with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that U.S. officials thought was completed last year.
If Mr. Obama ultimately withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the CIA’s drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because they could no longer be protected.
Their concern is that the nearest alternative bases are too far away for drones to reach the mountainous territory in Pakistan where the remnants of al-Qaeda’s central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly if there was a crisis involving missing nuclear material or weapons from the arsenals and related facilities in Pakistan and India.
The issue is coming to the fore after the Pentagon recently presented Mr. Obama with two options for the end of the year. One option calls for a presence through the end of Mr. Obama’s term of 10,000 U.S. troops who could train Afghan troops, conduct counterterrorism raids and protect the U.S. facilities, including those in eastern Afghanistan where drones and nuclear monitoring are based.
Under the other, zero option, no U.S. troops would remain. The United States has said that if it is unable to reach a final security arrangement with Mr. Karzai, it is prepared, reluctantly, to pull out completely, as it did in Iraq in 2011.
Mr. Obama has made “no decisions” on troop levels, said Caitlin M. Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “We will be weighing inputs from our military commanders, as well as the intelligence community, our diplomats and development experts, as we make decisions about our-post 2014 presence in Afghanistan,” she said.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, however, Mr. Obama was expected to say that by the end of this year the Afghan war will be over — at least for Americans — slightly more than 13 years after it began, making it the longest in U.S. history.
— New York Times News Service