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Afghanistan exit is seen as peril to drone mission

28 January, 2014

WASHINGTON: The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.

Until now, the debate here and in Kabul about the size and duration of an American-led allied force in Afghanistan after 2014 had focused on that country's long-term security. But these new concerns also reflect how troop levels in Afghanistan directly affect long-term American security interests in neighboring Pakistan, according to administration, military and intelligence officials quoted by The New York Times.

The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organized a team of intelligence, military and policy specialists to devise alternatives to mitigate the damage if a final security deal cannot be struck with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that American officials thought was completed last year.

If Obama ultimately withdrew all American troops from Afghanistan, the C.I.A.'s drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because it could no longer be protected.

Their concern is that the nearest alternative bases are too far away for drones to reach the mountainous territory in Pakistan where the remnants of Al Qaeda's central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear material or weapons in Pakistan and India.

A senior administration official, asked about the preparations, responded by email on Sunday that as the possibility of a pullout "has grown in Afghanistan, we have been undertaking a methodical review of any U.S. capabilities that may be affected and developing strategies to mitigate impacts."

The official added that the administration was determined to find alternatives, if necessary. "We will be forced to adapt," the official said, "and while perhaps less than most efficient, the United States will find ways necessary to protect our interests."

The issue is coming to the fore after the Pentagon recently presented Obama with two options for the end of the year. One option calls for a presence through the end of Obama's term of 10,000 American troops who could train Afghan troops, conduct counterterrorism raids and protect the American facilities, including those in eastern Afghanistan where drones and nuclear monitoring are based.

Under the other, so-called zero option, no American troops would remain. The United States has said that if it is unable to reach a final security arrangement with Mr. Karzai, it is prepared, reluctantly, to pull out completely, as it did in Iraq in 2011.

Saudi Arabia keen to buy JF-17 Thunder fighter from Pakistan

NEW YORK: Saudi Arabia has shown interest in buying JF-17 Thunder jet fighter aircraft manufactured under Pakistan-China cooperation.

Citing a report published in US journal, Saudi defence ministry and Saudi Air Force are keenly examining the JF-17 Thunder program and mulling over their participation in it.

The report claimed that Pakistan has offered Saudi Arabia for joint manufacturing of JF-17 Thunder aircraft along with technology transfer. This offer was made to the Saudi Arabia Deputy Defence Minister, Salman bin Sultan during his visit to Pakistan last week.

End.

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