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U.S. Considers New Covert Push Within Pakistan

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/washington/06terror.html?ei=5065&en=4d9a85a2dc657cc0&ex=1200286800&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print January 6, 2008 U.S.
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      January 6, 2008
      U.S. Considers New Covert Push Within Pakistan

      This article is by Steven Lee Myers, David E. Sanger
      and Eric Schmitt.

      WASHINGTON — President Bush’s 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 Bush’s 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
      Pakistan’s 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 military’s 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
      intelligence service.

      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. “I’m not arguing
      that you leave Al Qaeda and the Taliban unmolested,
      but I’d 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
      General Kayani.

      The meeting on Friday, which was not publicly
      announced, included Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s
      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
      official said.

      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. Musharraf’s

      “He understands clearly the risks of dealing with
      extremists and terrorists,” Mr. Bush said in an
      interview with Reuters on Thursday. “After all,
      they’ve 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.
      Mehsud’s 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 Pakistan’s
      counterterrorism operations.

      Shortly after Ms. Bhutto’s 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.
      Bhutto’s 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.
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