Current and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed the increased tempo to a sense of urgency surrounding expectations that President Obama will soon order a drawdown that could leave Afghanistan with fewer than 6,000 U.S. troops after 2014. The strikes are seen as a way to weaken adversaries of the Afghan government before the withdrawal and serve notice that the United States will still be able to launch attacks.
The rapid series of CIA strikes “may be a signal to groups that include not just al-Qaeda that the U.S. 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 U.S. forces, the drone may be, over time, the most important weapon against militant groups.”
U.S. officials also tied the increase to recent intelligence gains on groups blamed for lethal attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Among those killed in the drone strikes, according to U.S. 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 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, current and former officials said.
A former U.S. 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 U.S. forces have left.
The CIA declined to comment.
“As the military pulls back, the agency has to pull back,” the former U.S. 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.
“Essentially we will become Fort Apache in Kabul and the major cities,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, describing a pared back CIA presence. Even if the drones continue to take off and land, the diminished presence in Khost and other locations could hamper “our ability to gather intelligence on where Zawahiri is and what al-Qaeda is doing in the North-West Frontier Province” of Pakistan, he said, referring to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the region now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.