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U.S. escalates drone strikes in Pakistan

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 7:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The CIA has opened the year with a flurry of drone strikes in Pakistan, pounding Taliban targets along the country's tribal belt at a time when the Obama administration is preparing to disclose its plans for pulling most U.S. forces out of neighboring Afghanistan.

A strike on Thursday in North Waziristan was the seventh in 10 days, marking a major escalation in the pace of attacks. Drone attacks had slipped in frequency to fewer than one per week last year.

Current and former intelligence officials attributed the increased tempo to the drawdown in American forces that may leave fewer than 2,500 troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

The strikes are seen as a way to weaken adversaries of the Afghan government before the withdrawal and serve notice that the United States will still be able to attack.

The rapid series of CIA strikes “may be a signal to groups that include not just al-Qaida that the U.S. will still present a threat” after most American forces have gone, said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at Rand. “With the drawdown in U.S. forces, the drone may be, over time, the most important weapon against militant groups.”

Officials tied the escalation to recent intelligence gains on groups blamed for lethal attacks on American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Among those killed in the drone strikes, according to U.S. officials, was Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban commander accused of planning cross-border raids and providing protection for al-Qaida.

A former intelligence official with extensive experience in Afghanistan said the CIA has begun discussing plans to pare its network of bases across the country to five from 15 or more because of the difficulty of providing security for its outposts after most U.S. forces have left.

The CIA declined to comment.

“As the military pulls back, the agency has to pull back,” the former intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity, particularly from high-risk outposts along the country's eastern border that have served as bases for running informant networks and gathering intelligence on al-Qaida and Taliban.

The CIA is expected to continue operating the remotely piloted planes from fortified bases.

“Essentially we will become Fort Apache in Kabul and the major cities,” the former official said.

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