U.S. Commanders Seeking to Widen Pakistan Attacks
By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT, April 20, 2008, New York Times
WASHINGTON — American commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include American attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to United States officials.
The requests have been rebuffed for now, the officials said, after deliberations in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who fear that attacking Pakistani radicals may anger Pakistan’s new government, which is negotiating with the militants, and destabilize an already fragile security situation.
American commanders would prefer that Pakistani forces attack the militants, but Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas have slowed recently to avoid upsetting the negotiations.
Pakistan’s government has given the Central Intelligence Agency limited authority to kill Arab and other foreign operatives in the tribal areas, using remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But administration officials say the Pakistani government has put far greater restrictions on American operations against indigenous Pakistani militant groups, including one thought to have been behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
American intelligence officials say that the threat emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas is growing, and that Pakistani networks there have taken on an increasingly important role as an ally of Al Qaeda in plotting attacks against American and other allied troops in Afghanistan, and in helping foreign operatives plan attacks on targets in the West. The officials said the American military’s proposals included options for limited cross-border artillery strikes into Pakistan, missile attacks by Predator aircraft or raids by small teams of C.I.A. paramilitary forces or Special Operations forces.
In recent months, the American military officials in Afghanistan who are urging attacks in Pakistan discussed a list of potential targets with the United States ambassador in Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, officials said.
The requests by the American commanders for attacks on targets in Pakistan were described by officials who had been briefed on the discussions but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions involved possible future operations.
The discussions are the latest example of a recurring problem for the White House: that the place where the terrorist threat is most acute is the place where American forces are most restricted from acting.
Officials involved in the debate said that the question of attacking Pakistani militants was especially delicate because some militant leaders were believed to still be on the payroll of Pakistan’s intelligence service, called the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or another part of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. Among the groups thought to be targets was one commanded by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the legendary militant leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, as well as the network led by Baitullah Mehsud that is believed to have been behind Ms. Bhutto’s death.
For years the intelligence services have relied on a web of sources among Pakistani militant groups to collect information on foreign groups like Al Qaeda that have operated in the tribal areas.
A Pentagon adviser said military intelligence officers in Afghanistan had drawn up the detailed list of potential targets that was discussed with Ambassador Patterson. It is unclear which senior officials in Washington were involved in the debate over whether to authorize attacks.
One administration official said the internal discussions in Washington involved President Bush’s top national security aides, and took place earlier this year.
Military and intelligence officials say Al Qaeda and its affiliates now have a haven to plan attacks, just as they used camps in Afghanistan before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, said last month that the security situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border “presents clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West in general, and to the United States in particular.”
American officials involved in the discussions said that they had not ruled out striking Pakistani militants in the tribal areas. American forces in Afghanistan are authorized to attack targets in Pakistan in self-defense or if they are in “hot pursuit” of militants fleeing back to havens across the border.
American-led forces in Afghanistan fired artillery at what they suspected was a Haqqani network safe house on March 12 that an American spokesman said posed an “imminent threat.” But the Pakistani Army said the strike killed only civilians.
Administration officials say the risk of angering the new government in Pakistan and stirring increased anti-American sentiment in the tribal areas outweighs the benefits of dismantling militant networks in the region.
“It’s certainly something we want to get to, but not yet,” said one Bush administration official. “If you do it now, you can expect to do it without Pakistani approval, and you can expect to do it only once because the Pakistanis will never help us again.”
Spokesmen for the White House and State Department declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Ambassador Patterson in Pakistan.
Intelligence officials say they believe that leaders of the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups have in recent months forged closer ties to the cadre of Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas. Officials have said that they thought the leader of the Taliban there, Jalaluddin Haqqani, may have died last year. But Mr. Haqqani recently released a video denying those reports and made reference to a military attack in eastern Afghanistan that happened this March. Mr. Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin, has also made aggressive efforts to recruit foreign fighters from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in Central Asia.
“The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda and other groups such as the Haqqani network, are stronger today than they were, and they’re primarily based on the Pakistani side of the border,” said Seth Jones, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, in Congressional testimony this month after his trip to Afghanistan.
The Haqqanis are suspected of organizing a suicide attack on March 3 that killed two American soldiers at an Afghan government office. Sirajuddin Haqqani is also suspected of orchestrating a suicide bomb attack in January at the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people.
The discussions over how to combat Al Qaeda and Pakistani militant networks in the tribal areas have been going on for nearly two years, as American policy makers have weighed the growing militant threat in the border area against unilateral American action that could politically weaken President Pervez Musharraf, a close ally in the global counterterrorism campaign.
A few weeks after Ms. Bhutto’s assassination in December, two senior American intelligence officials reached a quiet understanding with Mr. Musharraf to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by Predator aircraft launched in Pakistan.
American officials have expressed alarm that the leaders of Pakistan’s new coalition government, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), are negotiating with militants believed to be responsible for an increasing number of suicide attacks against the security forces and political figures.
The new government has signaled that in its relations with Washington, it wants to take a path more independent than the one followed by the previous government and to use military force in the tribal areas only as a last resort.
In Congressional testimony this month, a former top American commander in Afghanistan said the need for more action was urgent. “A senior member of the administration needs to go to Pakistan and take the intelligence we have on Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network inside of Pakistan and lay it out for their most senior leadership,” said the retired commander, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno.
He said the American envoy should “show them exactly what we know about, what they don’t know about what’s going on in their tribal areas and say, this is not a tolerable situation for you nor for us.”
“And,” he added, “we need to sit down and think through what we can collectively do about this.”
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.