- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2014

President Obama’s call to cut the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to 5,000 troops in 18 months will end an era of American drone superiority over the region and jeopardize hard-fought gains against al Qaeda just as the terrorist movement’s original core is rising again, former senior defense officials and national security sources say.

One U.S. official told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama’s plan has prompted frustration in the administration’s national security and intelligence circles and triggered a heated fight inside the Pentagon over what specific units will remain inside Afghanistan, as well as the extent to which they can remain at all “counterterrorism-relevant.”

The official confirmed that Mr. Obama’s decision to confine remaining U.S. forces to Kabul and Bagram Air Field, just north of the Afghan capital, by the end of 2015 will eliminate a strategic patchwork of forward operating bases used for drone missions and required for Special Forces raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan three years ago.

A former senior U.S. military official told The Times that the closure of forward operating bases, including one in the northeastern city of Jalalabad, which deployed vital backup when a helicopter went down during the bin Laden operation, will render similar raids against remaining al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri impossible.

The Obama plan risks “leading us back into the 1990s, when we were semi-blindly firing off Tomahawk missiles into empty training camps hours after bin Laden had flown the coop and hopped into a Toyota Land Cruiser,” said David Sedney, who served until last year as a deputy assistant defense secretary overseeing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

With regard to drone operations, the heavy U.S. troop presence in northern Afghanistan over the past decade created the logistical capability for sustained cross-border targeting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where more than 250 U.S. drone strikes were reported from 2005 through 2013.

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Although the strikes served to underpin Mr. Obama’s claims during recent years that al Qaeda’s “core” in the region was “decimated,” the administration has kept the true scope and logistical details of its drone campaign under a cloak of secrecy.

Mr. Sedney said he is a “supporter of the way President Obama has used the drone program over the past five years to keep America safe.”

However, Mr. Sedney and others raised questions about the extent to which the administration is abandoning what many in the intelligence community saw as one of Washington’s most effective and futuristic strategies for containing al Qaeda.

Amid intense public and political outcry from Pakistan over claims that thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by American drone strikes, the Obama administration’s use of the tactic over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has appeared to evaporate this year.

Pakistani media reports suggest there have been virtually no drone strikes in the region in recent months. At the same time, Mr. Sedney said, al Qaeda “appears to be reclaiming lost ground, with its activities once again increasing in the region and its ability to exercise leadership control from Pakistan seeming to be on an upswing.”

According to other sources, a portion of the debate gripping White House intelligence and national security advisers centers on whether a serious and sustainable drone campaign over the Afghan-Pakistani border region could be ramped up again as needed.

SEE ALSO: Obama defends Afghan pullback, outreach to Syria

General Atomics’ Grey Eagle drone, which the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has deployed to Afghanistan, can fly for more than 25 hours at a time at altitudes up to 29,000 feet and carry four Hellfire missiles. Such characteristics conceivably would allow for widespread drone missions inside Afghanistan, as well as cross-border missions into Pakistan, to be carried out from Bagram Air Field.

The catch, according to one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the drone program, is that the Grey Eagle’s accuracy and efficiency depend on ground intelligence gathered by soldiers at forward operating bases in the region.

“Technically, you can probably continue to do drone operations from Bagram, but the important question is: Where are you going to get targetable intel from?” said the source. “How are you going to know what to hit and know that it’s going to be there when your drones get there? Are you going to just have Afghans call in the targets? That’s not how we usually operate.”

“The Army used to have a saying that ‘every soldier is a sensor,’” added the U.S. official, who spoke with The Times on Thursday. “Well, we’re going to have a lot fewer soldiers on the ground, and that means a lot fewer sensors.”

What’s worse, Mr. Sedney said, is that once the U.S. loses the capability provided by forward operating bases in Afghanistan, that capability will be difficult to restore. “Theoretically, you could ramp it back up, but practically it’s very hard because it involves re-establishing support structures, including gaining the trust of locals to let you back in.

“Politically, there will also be a great cost for it,” he said. “It’s one thing to continue an activity. It’s another thing to renew it.”

Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the current U.S. force of nearly 35,000 troops in Afghanistan will be cut to roughly 9,800 by the end of this year.

“By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half and will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Air Field,” the president said. By the end of 2016, he said, the U.S. military will “draw down to a normal embassy presence” in the Afghan capital.

Mr. Obama offered few details about how U.S. troops will operate beyond saying that “we’re open to cooperating with Afghans on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”

The Pentagon offered similarly guarded responses this week when pressed for details about the future of U.S. drones, Special Forces and counterterrorism operations that have included incursions into Pakistan from forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

“I won’t detail the specifics in terms of exactly how counterterrorism operations are going to work going forward,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top press secretary, told CNN on Tuesday. “We know it’s a persistent challenge, and nobody is going to turn their back on that.”

Despite such assurances, many counterterrorism analysts are skeptical. “The reality is that the fewer troops we have in Afghanistan, the fewer bases we have there and [the] less ability we have to conduct airstrikes, be it droned or manned aircraft,” said Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal and a scholar focused on al Qaeda at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Mr. Roggio, who spoke with The Times before Mr. Obama’s announcement this week, said 5,000 to 10,000 troops on the ground is “just not enough coverage to conduct air operations and counterterror operations in Afghanistan, let alone Pakistan.”

“When you get down to 6,000, you’re getting down to the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone,” said Frederick W. Kagan, who heads the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project in Washington.

“What you have is one base that can defend itself and probably not even make sure that Kabul doesn’t fall to the Taliban,” said Mr. Kagan, who also spoke with The Times before Mr. Obama’s announcement.

What’s particularly disconcerting, Mr. Sedney said, is the manner in which al Qaeda appears to be recovering from gains made by the 2005-to-2013 drone campaign and the 2011 raid that killed bin Laden.

“These strikes were just having a dampening effect. They were not permanently degrading or defeating al Qaeda,” Mr. Sedney said. “Al Qaeda is an ideology, not a core of individuals. The number of attacks is ramping up again. The flow of recruits never stopped; the flow of money has not stopped. A lot of the flow has gone to Syria, but much of that is because al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan wanted it there.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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