WASHINGTON -- The risk that President Barack Obama may be forced to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the U.S. intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against al-Qaida in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.
Until now, the debate in Washington and in Kabul about the size and duration of a U.S.-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 U.S. security interests in neighboring Pakistan, according to administration, military and intelligence officials.
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 Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that U.S. officials thought was completed last year.
If Mr. Obama ultimately withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the CIA's drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because they 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-Qaida's central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly if there were a crisis involving missing nuclear material or weapons from the arsenals and related facilities in Pakistan and India.
The issue is coming to the fore after the Pentagon recently presented Mr. Obama with two options for the end of the year. One option calls for a presence through the end of Mr. Obama's term of 10,000 U.S. troops who could train Afghan troops, conduct counterterrorism raids and protect the U.S. facilities, including those in eastern Afghanistan where drones and nuclear monitoring are based.
Under the other, zero option, no U.S. 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.
Mr. Obama has made "no decisions" on troop levels, said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. "We will be weighing inputs from our military commanders, as well as the intelligence community, our diplomats and development experts, as we make decisions about our post-2014 presence in Afghanistan," she said.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, however, Mr. Obama is expected to say that by the end of this year the Afghan war will be over -- at least for Americans -- slightly more than 13 years after it began, making it the longest in U.S. history.
Even though the zero option has few supporters in the administration, the idea has gained renewed credence with each day that Mr. Karzai delays signing the security accord and poses new demands to the United States. "Karzai has believed for some time that he has this leverage -- that we need him and his bases more than he needs us," said Daniel Markey, a former Bush administration official and the author of "No Exit From Pakistan," published last year.
Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet Pakistan's foreign and national security policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, today in Washington, and counterterrorism operations are to be a major subject of discussion, a senior State Department official said Sunday. Talking with Pakistan about its nuclear program is especially delicate.
In recent years the country has accelerated its drive to build small tactical nuclear weapons -- similar to what the United States placed in Europe during the Cold War -- that could be used to repel an invasion from India. But those weapons are considered more vulnerable to theft or use by a rogue commander, and they are one reason U.S. intelligence agencies have invested so heavily in monitoring the Pakistani arsenal.
A scare in 2009, when the United States feared that nuclear materials or a weapon was missing in Pakistan, led Mr. Obama to order the basing of a permanent monitoring and search capability in the region.
But the complexities of bringing those capabilities to an end are forcing the intelligence agencies, which run the covert strikes into Pakistan and monitor nuclear events around the world, to scramble. Their base inside Pakistan was closed after a shooting involving a CIA security contractor, Raymond Davis, and the raid into Pakistani territory that killed Osama bin Laden, both in 2011.
Crucial to the surveillance of bin Laden's house in Abbottabad was the use of an RQ-170 drone. Pakistani officials talked openly in the weeks after that raid about their fear that the unmanned aircraft was also being used to monitor their nuclear arsenal, now believed to be the fastest growing in the world. The raid, and those drones, came out of U.S. facilities just over the Afghan border.
The New York Times is withholding the location of the drone bases at the request of administration officials, who said identifying them would jeopardize the safety of Americans working there.