January 6, 2008
U.S. Considers New Covert Push Within Pakistan
By STEVEN LEE MYERS, DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
This article is by Steven Lee Myers, David E. Sanger
and Eric Schmitt.
WASHINGTON President Bushs senior national security
advisers are debating whether to expand the authority
of the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to
conduct far more aggressive covert operations in the
tribal areas of Pakistan.
The debate is a response to intelligence reports that
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying efforts
there to destabilize the Pakistani government, several
senior administration officials said.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice and a number of President Bushs top
national security advisers met Friday at the White
House to discuss the proposal, which is part of a
broad reassessment of American strategy after the
assassination 10 days ago of the Pakistani opposition
leader Benazir Bhutto. There was also talk of how to
handle the period from now to the Feb. 18 elections,
and the aftermath of those elections.
Several of the participants in the meeting argued that
the threat to the government of President Pervez
Musharraf was now so grave that both Mr. Musharraf and
Pakistans new military leadership were likely to give
the United States more latitude, officials said. But
no decisions were made, said the officials, who
declined to speak for attribution because of the
highly delicate nature of the discussions.
Many of the specific options under discussion are
unclear and highly classified. Officials said that the
options would probably involve the C.I.A. working with
the militarys Special Operations forces.
The Bush administration has not formally presented any
new proposals to Mr. Musharraf, who gave up his
military role last month, or to his successor as the
army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who the White
House thinks will be more sympathetic to the American
position than Mr. Musharraf. Early in his career,
General Kayani was an aide to Ms. Bhutto while she was
prime minister and later led the Pakistani
But at the White House and the Pentagon, officials see
an opportunity in the changing power structure for the
Americans to advocate for the expanded authority in
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country. After years of
focusing on Afghanistan, we think the extremists now
see a chance for the big prize creating chaos in
Pakistan itself, one senior official said.
The new options for expanded covert operations include
loosening restrictions on the C.I.A. to strike
selected targets in Pakistan, in some cases using
intelligence provided by Pakistani sources, officials
said. Most counterterrorism operations in Pakistan
have been conducted by the C.I.A.; in Afghanistan,
where military operations are under way, including
some with NATO forces, the military can take the lead.
The legal status would not change if the
administration decided to act more aggressively.
However, if the C.I.A. were given broader authority,
it could call for help from the military or deputize
some forces of the Special Operations Command to act
under the authority of the agency.
The United States now has about 50 soldiers in
Pakistan. Any expanded operations using C.I.A.
operatives or Special Operations forces, like the Navy
Seals, would be small and tailored to specific
missions, military officials said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was on vacation
last week and did not attend the White House meeting,
said in late December that Al Qaeda right now seems
to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on
the Pakistani government and Pakistani people.
In the past, the administration has largely stayed out
of the tribal areas, in part for fear that exposure of
any American-led operations there would so embarrass
the Musharraf government that it could further empower
his critics, who have declared he was too close to
Even now, officials say, some American diplomats and
military officials, as well as outside experts, argue
that American-led military operations on the Pakistani
side of the border with Afghanistan could result in a
tremendous backlash and ultimately do more harm than
good. That is particularly true, they say, if
Americans were captured or killed in the territory.
In part, the White House discussions may be driven by
a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama
bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Currently,
C.I.A. operatives and Special Operations forces have
limited authority to conduct counterterrorism missions
in Pakistan based on specific intelligence about the
whereabouts of those two men, who have eluded the Bush
administration for more than six years, or of other
members of their terrorist organization, Al Qaeda,
hiding in or near the tribal areas.
The C.I.A. has launched missiles from Predator
aircraft in the tribal areas several times, with
varying degrees of success. Intelligence officials
said they believed that in January 2006 an airstrike
narrowly missed killing Mr. Zawahri, who had attended
a dinner in Damadola, a Pakistani village. But that
apparently was the last real evidence American
officials had about the whereabouts of their chief
Critics said more direct American military action
would be ineffective, anger the Pakistani Army and
increase support for the militants. Im not arguing
that you leave Al Qaeda and the Taliban unmolested,
but Id be very, very cautious about approaches that
could play into hands of enemies and be
counterproductive, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism
expert at Georgetown University. Some American
diplomats and military officials have also issued
strong warnings against expanded direct American
action, officials said.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani military and
political analyst, said raids by American troops would
prompt a powerful popular backlash against Mr.
Musharraf and the United States.
In the wake of the American invasions of Iraq and
Afghanistan, many Pakistanis suspect that the United
States is trying to dominate Pakistan as well, Mr.
Rizvi said. Mr. Musharraf who is already widely
unpopular would lose even more popular support.
At the moment when Musharraf is extremely unpopular,
he will face more crisis, Mr. Rizvi said. This will
weaken Musharraf in a Pakistani context. He said such
raids would be seen as an overall vote of no
confidence in the Pakistani military, including
The meeting on Friday, which was not publicly
announced, included Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bushs
national security adviser; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and top intelligence
Spokesmen for the White House, the C.I.A. and the
Pentagon declined to discuss the meeting, citing a
policy against doing so. But the session reflected an
urgent concern that a new Qaeda haven was solidifying
in parts of Pakistan and needed to be countered, one
Although some officials and experts have criticized
Mr. Musharraf and questioned his ability to take on
extremists, Mr. Bush has remained steadfast in his
support, and it is unlikely any new measures,
including direct American military action inside
Pakistan, will be approved without Mr. Musharrafs
He understands clearly the risks of dealing with
extremists and terrorists, Mr. Bush said in an
interview with Reuters on Thursday. After all,
theyve tried to kill him.
The Pakistan government has identified a militant
leader with links to Al Qaeda, Baitullah Mehsud, who
holds sway in tribal areas near the Afghanistan
border, as the chief suspect behind the attack on Ms.
Bhutto. American officials are not certain about Mr.
Mehsuds complicity but say the threat he and other
militants pose is a new focus. He is considered, they
said, an Al Qaeda associate.
In an interview with foreign journalists on Thursday,
Mr. Musharraf warned of the risk any counterterrorism
forces American or Pakistani faced in confronting
Mr. Mehsud in his native tribal areas.
He is in South Waziristan agency, and let me tell
you, getting him in that place means battling against
thousands of people, hundreds of people who are his
followers, the Mehsud tribe, if you get to him, and it
will mean collateral damage, Mr. Musharraf said.
The weeks before parliamentary elections which were
originally scheduled for Tuesday are seen as
critical because of threats by extremists to disrupt
the vote. But it seemed unlikely that any additional
American effort would be approved and put in place in
that time frame.
Administration aides said that Pakistani and American
officials shared the concern about a resurgent Qaeda,
and that American diplomats and senior military
officers had been working closely with their Pakistani
counterparts to help bolster Pakistans
Shortly after Ms. Bhuttos assassination, Adm. William
J. Fallon, who oversees American military operations
in Southwest Asia, telephoned his Pakistani
counterparts to ensure that counterterrorism and
logistics operations remained on track.
In early December, Adm. Eric T. Olson, the new leader
of the Special Operations Command, paid his second
visit to Pakistan in three months to meet with senior
Pakistani officers, including Lt. Gen. Muhammad Masood
Aslam, commander of the military and paramilitary
troops in northwest Pakistan. Admiral Olson also
visited the headquarters of the Frontier Corps, a
paramilitary force of about 85,000 members recruited
from border tribes that the United States is planning
to help train and equip.
But the Pakistanis are still years away from fielding
an effective counterinsurgency force. And some
American officials, including Defense Secretary Gates,
have said the United States may have to take direct
action against militants in the tribal areas.
American officials said the crisis surrounding Ms.
Bhuttos assassination had not diminished the
Pakistani counterterrorism operations, and there were
no signs that Mr. Musharraf had pulled out any of his
100,000 forces in the tribal areas and brought them to
the cities to help control the urban unrest.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Islamabad,
and David Rohde from New York.