Zero-Option Limits CIA Drones Over Pakistan

RQ-170-2-magnify-560The so-called Zero Option in Afghanistan could put the intelligence collection programs of Al-Qaeda cells in Pakistan at risk, according to a report by the New York Times.

The growth of intelligence surveillance via drones has grown significantly, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, over the last decade. But it’s not just the military that depends on the drones stationed in Afghanistan. The CIA also flies drones out of U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

If a Bilateral Security Agreement is not signed and the U.S. military is forced to pull out all of its troops opposed to the proposed 10,000 that could be left behind to aid the Afghan National Security Forces, all of the U.S. airfields would also be shut down, according to the New York Times report.

The CIA bases the drones it often uses to fly over the Pakistan mountains to monitor Al Qaeda. The closure of these airfields means the drones will have to fly a longer distance to the target and thus have a shorter time on station.

The RQ-170 Sentinel played a key role in collecting data during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Before the RQ-170 was publicly acknowledged by the military, photos of it kept popping up on blogs after people took pictures of it taking off from Kandahar. If all the bases get shut down, it’s unclear where the Sentinel would fly from to reach Pakistan.


About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • rtsy

    How about anyone of a few dozen other bases in the region or even the much hyped carrier launch and recovery?

    Does anyone really think this is an obstacle to the CIA doing whatever it wants?

    • Tiger

      Dozen other bases? Uh, like where?

  • paul

    I predict it will take the Taliban less than 2 years to regain control of the country if America totally pulls out. Serves karzai right that corrupt idiot!

    • Musson

      Just remember that in the last war in Afghanistan – the real fighting in Kabul took place after the Russians withdrew. Afghanistan is a tribal society and plenty of people hate the Taliban.

      • RWB123

        Plenty of people hated the Taliban back when the fighting you mentioned was going on. But the Taliban still ended up running the country.

        • oblatt2

          Most of the people who hate the Taliban – the urban and rich who you see because they do western media interviews – will move to the US and Europe leaving the country to the Taliban and its rural supporters. If anything we can expect greater Taliban support this time.

          • Jeff M

            Who cares who’s ruining the country? Are you still thinking we can win the”hearts and minds”? Intercept the communications and blow them up before they attack us, that’s what seems to be working over there, haven’t seen much from al-Qaeda lately.

          • They are busy taking over two countries right now.

          • Tiger

            They have moved to other Dysfunctional spots in the world. Syria for example.

          • IronV

            Oh and girls and women trying to get an education. They hate the Taliban too. A lot…

      • Godzilla

        In my opinion the was *one* guy who could have run Afghanistan successfully. Massoud. Unfortunately he was killed before 9/11.

        Barring that the best option IMO would have been reinstating the monarchy. However instead we got Karzai. So…

        • zakaria

          US got fooled by Krayzee-zai. allowed his brother [butler in US, early times] 2 siphon almost 1 billion USD in offshore accounts,which bankrupted Kabul Bank, who got just returns, by getting killed by his most trusted bodyguard.

    • Afghanistan?
      We are setting up, in Afghanistan, exactly what we did
      to our Ally South Vietnam.
      Which is why Hamid Karzai is doing what he is doing.
      Seems the man knows history, unlike Americans.

  • The US Navy’s UCLASS program is separate from the Air Force/CIA. So are their missions – the answer does not lie with drone launches from carriers.

    • rtsy

      Can’t agree there. The CIA gets involved in every branch of the armed services, and is probably pushing for that carrier launch system harder than the AF itself.

    • Jeff M

      What you think long range carrier launched drones are for taking out pirate dinghys? LOL isn’t it obvious what the most sophisticated, longest range drones ever built will be used for? The lack of intelligence here amazes me, it truly does. Half of you must be drunk 24/7.

  • PolicyWonk

    We could always pull a Global Hawk out of mothballs – there were several the Chair Force didn’t want to use and squirreled away for a rainy day. And from the perspective of the clown Karzai, he rain may soon start a-falling.

  • hibeam

    I just hope Al-Qaeda does not take over the CIA before we can get Obama out of there.

    • Sam Shepard

      When Obama took over, Bush has all but ceded Afghanistan to the Taliban, and almost lost the whole G-D she-bang.

      Perhaps what you need to do is read General Stanley McCrystal’s Afghanistan Assessment (Spring 2009 – redacted version still available on-line). The usual conclusion from a reasonable individual is that you’ll realize how badly the previous incumbent and his clown posse screwed up.

      • oblatt2

        Bush had bigger fish to fry like turning Iraq into an Iranian ally.

      • Jeff M

        He started the war, hippy. McCrystal thought Obama was an idiot and resigned. Nice rose colored glasses you got there, you might want to clean them because apparently you can’t see the obvious, it’s staring you right in the face. Gates had a lot to say about Obama as well. Iraq was probably the only reason Afghanistan was even a remote chance of victory, we’d be fighting the entire middle east if Hussein was still banging around in his cage. Took balls to do that, he knew the pacifists in the senate would jump all over him, “this war is lost” as Harry Reid said.

        • blight_

          I’m sure more than one general in WW2 thought FDR was an idiot, but they kept their opinion to themself, or certainly did not give interviews and trumpet it. Macarthur opened his mouth in Korea (along with advocating protracted war,and nuclear war), and so he was sacked. Eliminating McCrystal is keeping with that precedent. I imagine McClellan’s criticism of Lincoln may have been behind his replacement, or did not do him any favors.

          What is with generals that are Mc or Mac and hating the C in C?

          Not sure what Saddam’s demise has to do with Afghanistan; though I wonder how the character of Arab Spring would’ve changed.

          • McCrystal never said anything disparaging about Obama (read what was actually said an who said it). McCrystal didn’t offer at the altar. Obama was upset that McCrystal actually told America what he thought he needed for Afghanistan (Obama never wanted the surge).

            It takes greater leadership and confidence to keep people around that don’t agree with you. Obama failed and has been failing since…

          • IronV

            While McCrystal didn’t actual disparage Obama, he screwed up BIG TIME. I like McCrystal. So did Obama. But he had to go for losing control of that mess…

            Failure is relative. And relative to Bush, Obama’s looking pretty sweet…

          • I’m not a McCrystal fan.

            McCrystals ROE was a significant screw up but it reflected the administration’s stated standard that zero civilian casualties is the standard.

            Benghazi, Fallujah, Ramadi, the majority of casualties in Afghanistan, Syria, Muslim Brotherhood n Egypt would disagree with your assessment and we aren’t done yet.

          • IronV

            “The majority of casualties” and “the Muslim Brotherhood?” You mean the 5000 dead and tens of thousands of maimed Americans in Iraq? Oh and sacrificed for exactly, precisely, NOTHING? They’d disagree with me?

            And after the demonstrable FACT Obama has hunted down and KILLED Islamic leadership with far more success and aggressiveness than Bush ever did or cared to (including OBL)–the Muslim Brotherhood would disagree with me?

            I think not… Islamic extremism is a disease that cannot be outright defeated. But it can be managed…

          • I was referring to the 2300+ and tens of thousands of Afghanistan, Obama’s “good war”.

            Also The relative scoreboard is about the same. Just about all of AQ’s top tier was wiped out during the Bush years. The media just doesn’t mention it and tosses out a statistic that only looks at drones. It’s a totally unique way to measure, the same trick the left uses when interest and casualty care is included in current costs though we’ve NEVER counted those costs in previous wars.

            Bush was far from perfect. I just can’t stand the convenient hypocrisy.

            As for Islamism, some had that attitude about fascism. Thank God the world didn’t listen to those morons either and history demonstrated their folly.

          • IronV

            I stand by my claim the “scorecard” is far from even. Obama has been demonstrably more successful and aggressive about killing terrorist leadership-regardless of means.

            For reasons beyond this discussion, it was simply not a priority of the Bush Administration to pursue and kill radical Islamic leadership. Did they do it to some extent? Yes. But Obama declared it a priority to take the war to these bastards and he has lived up to that declaration–and continues to do so.

            If you abhor hypocrisy, I presume you would also be inclined to give credit where credit is due.

            Whatever Obama’s mistakes, flaws etc, they pale in comparison to the Iraq debacle and its deleterious impacts reverberating to this day. Truly one of the greatest political and military (in the strategic sense) blunders in American history.

            Obama was stuck with the Afghanistan war as he was stuck with the Iraq war. I frankly don’t see how either could have been handled better by any President of any political stripe. There were and are no “good” exit strategies from these quagmires.

            It’s what we scientists call a “royal cluster f***.”

          • Obama’s bodycount does not exceed the years before unless you only look at Drones. It’s a simple fact the media and yourself ignore.

            Iraq right or wrong was not entered into unilaterally by a Pres unlike Libya or the threat of engaging in Syria. The subsequent failure to field a residual force which would have pre-empted AQ’s role in the Syrian revolution and recent fall of Fallujah and Ramadi is on this administration as will the results of what we do in Afghanistan. The difference is the left will not apply the same standards to their representatives.

            I’ve given this administration credit when it’s due. Hardly necessary though with all the spiking the ball and end zone dances it is prone to.

          • IronV

            You are demonstrably wrong. Obama has been far more aggressive and successful at eliminating Islamic terrorist leadership via multiple methods, including drones and special forces. You seem to be up on this stuff, so I don’t understand why you can’t access the same data I do easily. There were parts of the world the Bush administration wouldn’t touch as a matter of policy that the Obama administration has rejected outright.

            So, are you arguing we should have intervened in Syria with boots on the ground to pre-empt AQ in Syria? What in heavens in the historical record would suggest that would work? It sure as hell didn’t work in Iraq where we deployed hundreds of thousands of troops and a trillion dollars over 8 years!

            There is one way to prevent “the fall” of Fallujah etc. American boots on the ground. And you know what? Not sustainable. Not worth it.

            And it’s remarkable that you claim the messes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria (and I presume Mars) are “on this administration…” I’m sorry. But that claim is ludicrous on its face.

            Look. We can’t change the deeply engrained cultures and religious imperatives in the Middle East. Deeply engrained social imperatives that are hostile to the concept of a secular, pluralistic, constitutional republic.

            The very suggestion we could, as prescribed by the PENAC Doctrine, is absolutely NUTS. And Bush found that out.

            Precious American military force should be judiciously applied (however violently as required) to keep extremists who threaten us at bay.

            But you’re not going to win outright. We can manage the disease. Effectively to be sure. But not a finite cure. Ain’t gonna happen.

          • Do you really think SOF didn’t exist before Obama? You do know that the Bush administration was the one that greatly increased our SOF. It’s not an Obama accomplishment!. Yes the numbers of the enemy killed in the eight years before Obama are more than since (both key leaders and rank and file). I’m not demonstrably wrong unless you ONLY look at drones otherwise you would easily refute my point.

            Intervention doesn’t necessarily include boots on the ground though many will throw that canard out there to scare the audience. The US could have devastated Assad’s Air Force and increased aid to the secular rebels in response to chem use in Syria. It would also have showed Obama’s redline wasn’t transparent. It’s simplistic to say only boots on the ground would effect change. It’s not simple oversight that those that excuse our Syria bumbling forget the effectiveness in Libya and go for the emotional strings of “boots on the ground”..

            Libya, Syria, the MB in Egypt’s rise and Iraq’s downturn has happened on Obama’s watch. (Afghanistan is in the wings but the record doesn’t lok good) It’s only ludicrous to those that don’t keep up with current events or rely on the MSM to do their thinking for them.

            Finally, I reject the elitist attitude that the middle east can’t have plauralistic, constitutional or even secular (though not an absolute imperative) governance. It’s incredibly arrogant to think only the west can govern themselves. It’s not our job to build democracy anywhere but condemning a billion people to “whatever” because of their culture isn’t moral, in the American tradition or enlightened. The same was said of the brown people to our south.

          • blight_

            I suspect the real reason he got canned had nothing to do with Obama, but this:

            “This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we’ve backed – a danger that Eikenberry explicitly warned about in his cable. Even Team McChrystal privately acknowledges that Karzai is a less-than-ideal partner. “He’s been locked up in his palace the past year,” laments one of the general’s top advisers. At times, Karzai himself has actively undermined McChrystal’s desire to put him in charge. During a recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Karzai met three U.S. soldiers who had been wounded in Uruzgan province. “General,” he called out to McChrystal, “I didn’t even know we were fighting in Uruzgan!”

            That McChrystal called out Karzai in a time where they were (and we still are) trying to make him look like more than the Mayor of Kabul. Other than the fact that his staff think other civil servants are buffoons (and presumably, the others would say the same about McChrystal and his own entourage).

            Upon a deeper re-read, I’d forgotten that he was involved in Tillman, and somehow peripherally connected to Camp Nama.

            Government workers trash talking each other doesn’t normally warrant a firing. Indirect allusions to POTUS and McChrystal not being on the same wavelength isn’t a big deal either-though it just means POTUS waits for an acceptable excuse to get rid of you.

            There’s probably a back-end story about Obama not liking the guy, and finally getting his excuse to terminate him. It may help if McChrystal had power-play rivals in the Army that tipped his hand.

          • blight_

            I wonder if McChrystal might be offended to a comparison with Lawrence of Arabia. He understands COIN, but gets marginalized shortly after taking Damascus. Now what?

          • Guest

            Yes of course Major Rod, we all know that President Bush took “bad
            advice” from all the wrong people and took “good advice” from NO ONE, in the “Run Up” to the 2003 Iraq War.

            Confucius Say, “When Anger rises, think of the Consequences”. (470BC)

            Brent Scowcroft (Aug 2002) – “Don’t attack Saddam (Iraq), the results could well destabilize Arab Regimes and even swell the Ranks of Terrorists”.

          • Praetorian

            Ah ha, fifty cent brigade, you should not be paid for that post. Nothing was said about your party.

        • IronV

          Wow. Hard to get more crazy and 180 degrees away from reality than that!

          “McCrystal RESIGNED because he thought Obama was an idiot?”
          “Iraq was the only reason Afghanistan had a remote chance of victory?” “Fighting the whole middle east if Hussein was still around?”

          SAY WHAT!!!??? Dude you are on some serious recreational substance…

  • Marc Winger

    We shouldn’t be giving Afghanistan (Karzai) options.

    • oblatt2

      Losers cant be choosers.

      We aren’t giving Karzai options hes giving us ultimatums. If we had performed better in Afghanistan maybe the story would be different but now its obvious that Karzai’s future lies with an alliance with the Taliban.

    • Ben

      If that’s the case, why don’t we occupy the whole damn country and turn it into a US territory? Obviously we know how to run their society better than they do. (sarcasm)

    • blight_


      Karzai should abdicate and go into exile. Possibly Italy, like Zahir Shah did…

    • Tiger

      “We?” It is their nation. The days of Empire building is over.

  • There has to be a means of continuing the operation of drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Perhaps, India can accommodate that but I doubt it somehow. Perhaps, there can be a central Asian republic.

    • blight_

      Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kazahks to operate drones?

    • I think it would have to be this way. Would the drones have enough range to reach the area of operations you think?