Washington: The Obama administration is making contingency plans to use air bases in Central Asia to conduct drone attacks in Pakistan in case the US is forced to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan at the end of this year, a media report said on Sunday.
But even if alternative bases are secured, American officials said, the CIA`s capability to gather sufficient intelligence to find al Qaeda 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 neighbouring Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The CIA`s targeted killing programme thus may prove a casualty of the bitter standoff with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over whether any US troops can remain in Afghanistan after 2014, as the White House has sought, the report said.
The CIA cannot fly drones from its Afghan drone bases without US military protection, American officials said.
If the bases are evacuated, the CIA fleet of armed Predator and Reaper drones could be moved to airfields north of Afghanistan, US officials say, without naming the countries.
"There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official briefed on the matter.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel publicly acknowledged for the first time this month that 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, where the threats are most significant, where do you have allies that are willing to work with you."
The CIA and the military used an air base in Uzbekistan to conduct drone flights until the US 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 US military also has used a base in Kyrgyzstan to conduct air operations, including moving troops and supplies into Afghanistan. The Pentagon said last fall that it would shift those operations to Romania this summer.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of US special operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, visited Tajikistan, which abuts Afghanistan`s northern border, for talks on "issues of bilateral security cooperation" and "continued military cooperation," according to a US Embassy statement in Dushanbe, the capital.
American officials refused to say whether they are seeking permission to base CIA drones in Tajikistan, which allows the US to ship military equipment and supplies through its territory. Several officials said Russia almost certainly would try to block any new US basing agreement in Central Asia. Moscow long has sought to deny Washington more of a foothold in the region, the report noted.