The New York Times reports that the American intelligence agencies are alarmed that if President Obama pulls out all troops from Afghanistan by this year’s end, the intelligence community could lose strategic air bases vital for the US drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a potential nuclear crisis in the region:
The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organized 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 American officials thought was completed last year. If Mr. Obama ultimately withdrew all American troops from Afghanistan, the C.I.A.’s drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because it 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 as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear material or weapons in Pakistan and India… “There’s no easy alternative to Afghanistan,” one former senior American counterterrorism official said.
As I argued in an article last year, that the United States needs a significant post-2014 military presence in Afghanistan for two vital interests: 1) to sustain the gains made over the past decade and prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from reconstituting themselves in parts of Afghanistan; and 2) to fight al Qaeda and its associates in Pakistan and ensure they will not get access to the country’s nuclear arms.
Without a post-2014 military presence, the CIA-led drone strikes into Pakistan’s tribal regions will either cease or be rendered ineffective. With Washington’s intelligence cooperation with Pakistan at its lowest point since 2002, the US drone campaign against terrorists in South and North Waziristan is now entirely reliant on bases in Afghanistan. The US intelligence may not have been able to locate and kill bin Laden without bases in eastern Afghanistan. In addition to geography, as I’ve explained here, a complete withdrawal will also deny the intelligence community another essential asset: human intelligence and local contact.
It is true that President Karzai has not been a reliable ally, but the Obama administration should decide on the size and scope of its post-2014 engagement in Afghanistan based on national security needs in South Asia rather than the Afghan president’s erratic behavior. After all, there will be a new president in Afghanistan after April, and most Afghans back an enduring partnership with the United States. A complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has resulted in a resurgence of al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and in the broader Middle East. Repeating the mistake in Afghanistan will allow “core al Qaeda” and its Pakistani and Afghan terrorist associates to reestablish themselves along the Afghan-Pakistan border, from where they could plot against America and its allies.
Follow AEIdeas on Twitter at @AEIdeas.