WASHINGTON – The Bush administration isn't satisfied with the quality of information it's getting about terrorist groups and militants operating in Pakistan's volatile tribal area, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
Despite the shortcomings, the United States won't conduct military strikes on its own inside Pakistan unless President Pervez Musharraf's government requests such direct support, said Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism chief.
"There's gaps in intelligence," Dailey said during a meeting with reporters. "We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on Al Qaeda. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban."
Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said the lack of information makes him "uncomfortable." Yet the solution to the problem rests mainly with the Pakistanis, who would likely see too much U.S. involvement as an unwelcome intrusion.
More than 40 percent of Pakistanis support or are sympathetic to Al Qaeda and radical Islam, Dailey said.
"We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that's a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support," Dailey said. "The blowback would be pretty serious."
Bush administration officials have been discussing expanding beyond small teams of U.S. military trainers and advisers now in the country. Groups in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan willing to battle Al Qaeda would be given special emphasis under a broader program of support.
Dailey's comments came on the same day that Islamic militants in Pakistan attacked a fort near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, triggering a fight with government forces that left at least five troops and 37 fighters dead, the Pakistani army said.
The attack occurred in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region where Al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked militants operate.
Musharraf played down the impact of recent attacks in the region, saying Tuesday they were "pinpricks" that his government must manage.
Aside from political repercussions of the U.S. acting unilaterally, Dailey said trying to blend even highly skilled U.S. commandos into such a hostile area is highly risky. Even a seemingly innocuous mistake, such as wearing a piece of native clothing incorrectly, could tip off the enemy and undermine the mission.
"Folks like the special operations (forces) are pretty darn good, but the potential to be detected is pretty high," Dailey said. "So unless it's a very, very, very focused effort, it's pretty tough to be immediately effective."
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who took control of Pakistan's military from Musharraf in December, has already shown he's an aggressive commander and U.S. officials are confident he will make progress. If Pakistanis ask for assistance, the United States will provide it, Dailey said.
On Tuesday, Adm. William Fallon — the head of the U.S. Central Command and top commander of American forces in the Middle East — was in Pakistan for talks with Kayani. The Pakistan army said the two men discussed the "security situation" in the region, but gave no more details.
In a related development, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration will fight congressional efforts to curb billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan while also warning that Musharraf must support and promote democracy.
Ahead of talks with Musharraf in Switzerland on Wednesday — the highest-level, face-to-face U.S. contact with the Pakistani leader since last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto — Rice said it is critical that legislative elections set for February be free and fair.
"The situation in Pakistan is very complicated, but our strong view is that we have to have a long-term, consistent, predictable relationship with Pakistan, not with any one person, but with the institutions of Pakistan," she told reporters Tuesday on her plane as she flew to Germany for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on new sanctions on Iran.
Dailey took over the State Department post in July after retiring from the Army after a 36-year career. His last military assignment was director of the Center for Special Operations, an organization in Tampa, Fla., that oversees clandestine missions against terrorist targets.
Despite Pakistan's political instability, Dailey said he is confident the country's nuclear arsenal is being properly protected. It's unlikely the United States would be asked to help provide security for those weapons, he said.
"The nuclear weapons for the Pakistanis is a crown jewel for them," Dailey said. "And if they had to have non-Pakistanis protect it, I think that would be really difficult for the Pakistani people to accept, and very difficult for the Pakistani government to solicit."
While Al Qaeda remains a serious threat, Dailey described the group as being increasingly disorganized and in search of new methods for attacking Western targets. As evidence, he pointed to the terror group's continued focus on highjacking commercial airliners to cause maximum damage.
"I do think it's a lack of imagination," Dailey said. "I think that they are inadequate. I think that they can't centrally plan from where they are currently located, whether it's Pakistan or not," he said.