Washington: The CIA may start using new jet-powered drones to target al-Qaeda and Tali an militants in Pakistan to overcome some of the logistic hurdles posed by the slower-moving unmanned aircraft now being deployed from US bases in Afghanistan, according to a media report.
The new jet-powered drone called the Predator C or Avenger could figure in the Obama administration’s plans to use bases outside Afghanistan in case the US is forced to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Avenger could “get to ‘hot’ targets in Pakistan much faster and might solve some of these logistic problems posed by the slower-moving propeller-driven Predator and Reaper drones,” said Brian Glyn Williams, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of the book “Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda.”
General Atomics, which makes the Avenger, says it is ready for combat. So far, the San Diego-based company has built four prototypes, the report said.
The report also said that the US was making contingency plans to use air bases in Central Asia to conduct drone attacks in Pakistan in case the bilateral security agreement is not inked with Kabul.
If the security pact is not signed, the Pentagon’s biggest challenge will be closing huge military facilities like those in Bagram and Kandahar.
But even if alternative bases are secured, American officials said, the CIA’s capability to gather sufficientintelligence to find al-Qaeda operatives and quickly launch drone missiles at specific targets in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal region will be greatly diminished if the spy agency loses its drone bases in Afghanistan.
The CIA’s targeted killing programme thus may prove a casualty of the bitter standoff with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over whether any US troops can remain in Afghanistan after 2014, as the White House has sought, the report said.
The CIA cannot fly drones from its Afghan drone bases without US military protection, American officials said.
If the bases are evacuated, the CIA fleet of Predator and Reaper drones could be moved to airfields north of Afghanistan, US officials say, without naming the countries.
“There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north,” said one official.
The CIA and the military used an air base in Uzbekistan to conduct drone flights until the US was evicted in 2005. The US also has used a base in Kyrgyzstan to conduct air operations, including moving troops and supplies into Afghanistan.
America’s drone strikes have triggered fierce controversy in Pakistan. US officials say the drone attacks are key in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants based in Pakistan’s unruly tribal areas.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the drone attacks, many of them militants – but precise numbers and the identities of victims are in dispute.