Uncertainty about US future in Afghanistan forces Pentagon to explore Pakistan drone options

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Uncertainty about whether any U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan next year jeopardizes the American drone program over Pakistan, forcing the Pentagon to explore other options to keep it alive.

Without U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. would have to close its bases, including the ones responsible for launching drones.

Asked Friday at a Pentagon press conference whether the military would consider basing drones in India, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “we have to consider everything, as we are.”

Already there has been a drop in confirmed U.S. drone strikes over Pakistan from 122 in 2010 to just 26 last year, according to numbers provided by the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that any further reduction in drone operations would be tied mostly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s unwillingness to let U.S. forces stay beyond 2014.

"We will also have either no troops or a significantly reduced number of troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” Carney said. “And that, obviously, lessens the force protection needs that we have. So I think those factors play into what the president said about a reduced need for unmanned strikes."

Yet top Al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman Al Zawahiri remain in Pakistan.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.,chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said earlier this week that a reduction in drone strikes is bad policy.

“Let me be the first to say publicly, the president's May 2013 policy changes for the U.S. targeted strikes are an utter and complete failure, and they leave Americans' lives at risk,” Rogers said.

To keep the drone program alive, the White House would need Karzai to sign a security pact, which he has been reluctant to do.

Or Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north, Kyrgyzstan, would need to renew a U.S. contract to use its airbase in Manas, which expires this July.

The prospect of using India, Pakistan's nuclear enemy, as a base would likely rile the Pakistanis and add to tensions.

Meanwhile anti-war Democrats and Tea Party Republicans want any further commitment to Afghanistan to be approved by Congress.

At a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said, “"before any American soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is committed to staying in Afghanistan after 2014, Congress should vote. Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships, but it isn't the right approach when it comes to war."