SINGAPORE — The upcoming withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces from Afghanistan may lead to an increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the country as well as in neighboring Pakistan.

The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, says: “Drones play a very important role in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even with 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground, the terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the border areas is difficult. The impossibility of accessing these areas, to counter the plans of Al Qaeda and the [Taliban-allied] Haqqani clan, has created a sanctuary inside Pakistan.”

This means that “drones are absolutely essential for reconnaissance and strike” capability, he says. “The reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will not change that. Drones may play an even more important role than they play” currently, he notes.

Eikenberry remarks June 18 were part of his keynote speech at the IISS Fullerton Lecture here.

Pakistan’s government has repeatedly called on the U.S. to stop using UAVs over Pakistan, arguing it infringes on the country’s sovereignty. The U.S., however, argues that Pakistan’s border areas have become a sanctuary for terrorists who mount attacks against NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

NATO forces in Afghanistan currently total around 130,000, but most are due to leave by the end of 2014, after which time a much smaller NATO mission will remain to train and advise Afghan forces. At the NATO summit in Chicago in May, alliance leaders endorsed an exit strategy that calls for their forces to hand control of the country over to Afghan forces by the middle of next year.

Eikenberry says the Afghan security forces total 346,000 and there is a plan to add 6,000 by year-end. Of the total, the Afghan army accounts for 195,000, he says. In 1985, when Afghan forces were fighting against Russia’s occupation of the country, the Afghan army had 90,000 personnel, he notes.

“There is a risk of Afghanistan becoming a national security state in which the resources that the security forces consume” are much greater than those in the private sector, he says.

There is a plan to reduce the size of the Afghan force sometime after 2014, Eikenberry adds. “However, if there is a reduction in the number of Afghan army and police, it has to be done” carefully considering Afghanistan has a problem with unemployment and underemployment, he says.

Eikenberry also predicts the withdrawal of foreign forces will lead to a slump in Afghanistan’s economy. “The Afghan government has revenues of about $2 billion a year, but foreign spending in Afghanistan is $10 billion a year, so Afghanistan’s economy is being artificially propped up by unsustainable levels of foreign spending.”

One of the challenges will be ensuring that money from Afghanistan’s narcotics industry does not fill the void. “It is estimated that 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opiates come from Afghanistan,” Eikenberry says, adding that about 25-40% of the money flowing though the country’s economy is from narcotics. He says the Afghan government has had some success in stamping out opium poppy cultivation in areas where it has control. “But the government doesn’t have positive control in large parts of the country, especially in the south. The past year has been disappointing,” because poppy cultivation has “spiked up again,” he adds.

Eikenberry was U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan from April 2009 to July 2011. He is also a former U.S. army general who served in Afghanistan in 2002-03 and 2006-07. He is now a lecturer in international studies at Stanford University.