WASHINGTON – Top Bush administration officials are urging the president to direct U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be more aggressive in pursuing militants into Pakistan on foot as part of a proposed radical shift in its regional counterterrorism strategy, The Associated Press has learned.
Senior intelligence and military aides want President Bush to give American soldiers greater flexibility to operate against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who cross the border from Pakistan's lawless tribal border area to conduct attacks inside Afghanistan, officials say.
The plan could include sending U.S. special forces teams, temporarily assigned to the CIA, into the tribal areas to hit high-value targets, according to an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the plan.
Such a move would be controversial, in part because of Pakistani opposition to U.S. incursions into its territory, and the proposal is not universally supported in Washington. It comes amid growing political instability in Pakistan and concerns that elements of Pakistan's security forces are collaborating with extremists.
Senior members of Bush's national security team met last week at the White House to discuss the recommendations and are now weighing how to proceed, the officials said.
The top agenda item at the meeting of the so-called deputies committee — usually the No. 2 officials at the departments of Defense, and State, plus the intelligence agencies and the National Security Council — was to "review and potentially revise cross-border strategy," a person familiar with the session told the AP.
"What the deputies committee has raised is, given the possibility that political fragmentation in Pakistan is going to continue, do we need to change our strategy?" the official said. He and other current and former officials spoke on condition of anonymity because sensitive foreign policy matters are in play.
The deputies committee is two levels down from the president, so its recommendations would not immediately affect policy.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to comment.
The current strategy — relying on Pakistan to keep a lid on the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan — was meant to support Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a strong ally of the U.S. who took control of Pakistan in 1999 in a bloodless coup. Musharraf was sidelined this spring when a coalition government trounced Musharraf's allies in parliamentary elections. He remains president but with vastly diminished influence.
Pakistan's governing coalition announced Thursday it will seek to impeach Musharraf, cranking up pressure on the U.S.-backed former general to resign.
In Washington, the State Department and some Pentagon officials are leery of the new proposal, warning of repercussions from the Pakistani government, which they fear could be further destabilized, while some officials in the CIA are pushing the plan.
Officials closer to the front lines in Afghanistan also are pushing for a newly aggressive stance. The rules currently limiting U.S. incursions into Pakistan when in hot pursuit of enemy fighters or targets would not be stretched under the plan. But U.S. forces would be encouraged to use that authority liberally.
The Associated Press reported last year that U.S. rules of engagement allowed ground forces to go a little over 6 miles into Pakistan when in hot pursuit, and when forces were targeted or fired on by the enemy. U.S. rules allow aircraft to go 10 miles into Pakistan air space.
Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. supports the plan.
"The argument that we may destabilize Pakistan has taken us to where we are right now," Ambassador Said T. Jawad told the AP. "Pursuing the policy of public praise and private pressure on Pakistan doesn't work."
But defense officials say they are cautioning against stepping up military operations in Pakistan without specific approval from Islamabad. They say violating Pakistani sovereignty would anger the Pakistani people and could affect U.S. use of the country as a base from which to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Jawad said U.S. and Afghan forces know the location of training camps, places Taliban extremists live and where there have been large gatherings of Al Qaeda members, but the current rules of engagement have hampered attacking those targets.
"We need to enhance the capacity of hitting these targets," he said.
The recommendations also call for developing direct relationships with Pashtun tribes on the Pakistani side of the border. That engagement has largely been left to Pakistan's security service, which U.S. officials increasingly fear is riddled with extremists and militant sympathizers.
Pakistan and the United States have somewhat contrary short-term interests in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, a Maryland-sized swath of ungoverned territory bordering Afghanistan.
It is home to about 2 million Pakistanis, representing between 20 and 30 fiercely independent tribes, several with well-armed, militant branches. The region also is increasingly home to Al Qaeda terrorists and a growing network of foreign fighters, according to Defense Department officials.
Bowing to U.S. pressure, Musharraf three years ago directed a military crack down on the tribal area to root out Al Qaeda fighters. The tribes resisted the intrusion into their affairs. Prior to 2007 there were around a dozen tribal attacks a year in Pakistan. Last year there were nearly 100, according to U.S. defense officials.
Many tribes have decades-long associations with Al Qaeda leaders, dating back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that they fought against. Al Qaeda leaders have intermarried with the tribes and are a source of arms and weapons.
Now, the defense officials said, Pakistani officials are primarily concerned with negotiating an end to the attacks outside the tribal areas. But the U.S. concern is primarily Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, and the negotiations are unlikely to affect Al Qaeda's increasingly free rein throughout the region.