The CIA has opened the year with a flurry of drone strikes in Pakistan, pounding Taliban targets along the country’s tribal belt at a time when the Obama administration is preparing to disclose its plans for pulling most US forces out of neighbouring Afghanistan.
The rapid series of CIA strikes “may be a signal to groups that include not just al-Qaeda that the US will still present a threat” after most American forces have gone, said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. “With the drawdown in US forces, the drone may be, over time, the most important weapon against militant groups.”
US officials also tied the increase to recent intelligence gains on groups blamed for lethal attacks on US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Among those killed in the drone strikes, according to US officials, was Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban commander accused of planning cross-border raids and providing protection for al-Qaeda fighters.
The CIA may see a diminishing window for using drones with such devastating effectiveness as the military begins sharp reductions in the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan, current and former officials said.
A former US intelligence official with extensive experience in Afghanistan said the CIA has begun discussing plans to pare back its network of bases across the country to five from 15 or more because of the difficulty of providing security for its outposts after most US forces have left.
“As the military pulls back, the agency has to pull back,” the former US intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity, particularly from high-risk outposts along the country’s eastern border that have served as bases for running informant networks and gathering intelligence on al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.
Such a retrenchment could slow the process of identifying fresh targets for drone strikes, although the agency is expected to continue operating the remotely piloted planes from fortified bases, such as a landing strip in Jalalabad.
The CIA’s base plans are among a wide range of issues that the US government has been negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is visiting top officials in Washington this week. A CIA spokesman declined to say whether agency officials had met with Karzai.
The surge in drone activity comes as key leadership positions at the CIA and in Obama’s national security cabinet are in flux.
Former CIA director David H. Petraeus, who had previously commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan, had sought to place tighter restrictions on the agency’s drone campaign in Pakistan, leading to clashes with the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, former officials said.
The strikes so far this year have been scattered across North and South Waziristan, semi autonomous regions targeted in the vast majority of the more than 300 strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan since 2004.
Pakistanis in the tribal region said they were baffled by the surge in activity.
“This is beyond our understanding why the drone attacks are increased,” a tribal elder from Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, said during a telephone interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concern for his safety.