Pakistan's decision to evict the United States from a Predator-drone launching base will have little impact on the CIA's ability to strike terrorists in the country's austere tribal areas because the U.S. built backup bases in Afghanistan, a senior defense official said Sunday.
The official told The Washington Times that the U.S. military and CIA built the launching strips in Afghanistan in anticipation of the day when Pakistan wanted U.S. forces out of the Shamsi facility run by Pakistan's intelligence service. Shamsi is widely understood to be the base of operations for the covert CIA drone war on terrorists in Pakistan's lawless border areas with Afghanistan.
Pakistan ordered the United States to leave the Shamsi base and shut down a vital supply line to NATO forces in Afghanistan after NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border clash Nov. 26.
President Obama on Sunday expressed condolences for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in a phone call to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the White House said in a statement.
Mr. Obama "made clear that this regrettable incident was not a deliberate attack on Pakistan and reiterated the United States' strong commitment for a full investigation," the statement said.
Both presidents "reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship, which is critical to the security of both nations, and they agreed to stay in close touch," the White House said.
The defense official, who asked not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity, said the administration's view is that Pakistan announced the eviction of the drone operation as a public relations move to placate political and Islamic groups.
"They are dealing with multiple audiences," the official said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, while CIA director in 2009, revealed that the Predator strikes in the tribal areas represented the only way for the United States to kill al Qaeda and Taliban targets because Pakistan would not allow any expanded ground or air assaults by American forces.
The Predator's importance, and shaky relations with Islamabad in recent years, prompted the CIA to ratchet down operations at Shamsi and launch more flights from Afghanistan.
"We have many redundancies," the official said. "We like to have multiple ways of doing things. It's not a big issue that would mean any huge degradation."
At one time, the CIA launched Predators from at least two bases in Pakistan run the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful military organization that at times aids the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the chief threat to the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan realizes that there are terrorists who threaten its regime. For that reason, Islamabad wants the U.S. to continue Predator attacks, the senior official said.
Pakistan also does not want to further jeopardize the huge amount of economic and military aid the United States sends its way. The Congressional Research Service reports that Congress has authorized $22 billion in such aid since 2002.
"They have to play both sides of the fence sometimes," the official said.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, lashed out Sunday at the ISI, saying it is time to release aid based on how Pakistan performs against U.S. enemies. The ISI is still supporting the Haqqani Network, which is killing Americans.
"That is unacceptable," Mr. McCain told CNN's "State of the Union."
"We have to address it in a realistic fashion, and aid has to be gauged on the degree of cooperation that they are showing us and helping us prevent the needless deaths of young Americans. That's our first obligation," he said.
In a related development, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused Pakistan of undermining attempts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.
"Up until now, they have sadly refused to back efforts for negotiations with the Taliban," Mr. Karzai told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in comments reported Sunday.
As part of its reaction to the NATO airstrikes, Pakistan announced plans to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan that opens in Germany on Monday. The meeting seeks to prepare Afghanistan for a withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014.
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