President Bush has secretly approved U.S. military raids inside anti-terror ally Pakistan, according to current and former U.S. officials. The high-risk gambit prizes the death or capture of al-Qaida and Taliban extremists over the sensitivities of a shaky U.S.-backed civilian government that does not want to seem like Washington’s lapdog.
Bush acted in July to give U.S. forces greater leeway to cross from outposts in Afghanistan into the rugged area along the Pakistan border. Pakistan’s central government has little control in this area, where extremists have found what U.S. officials say is a comfortable safe haven.
Already frustrated with what the U.S. perceived as a balky and incomplete commitment to hunting militants seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said the last straw came when it appeared Pakistani authorities were passing tips to militants.
One official familiar with South Asia policy said the new rules were adopted in response to increasing problems with U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation — particularly evidence that Pakistan’s intelligence service, known as the ISI, had been compromised by militants and that some ISI elements were helping extremists. The official said extremists got Pakistani help before an attack July 7 on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"Up to that point, the idea was to share intelligence with the Pakistanis and then proceed but there was a lot of frustration with delays and problems, including leaks to militants, in sharing the intelligence," the official said.
"This (the new order) is a reaction to that and it was sped up by the revelations about the penetration of the Pakistani intelligence service," the official said. "It was decided that we had no choice but to free up the hands of our commanders."
Current and former U.S. officials described Bush’s orders covering special operations and conventional forces on condition of anonymity because "execute orders" are classified. The order was first reported in Thursday’s New York Times.
The Associated Press reported in early August that senior U.S. intelligence and military aides were pressing Bush to give American soldiers greater flexibility to operate against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Pakistan — for example, sending U.S. special forces teams into the tribal areas to hit high-value targets.
The "rules of engagement" have been loosened now, allowing troops to conduct border attacks without being fired on first if they witness attacks coming from the region, according to a former U.S. official with recent access to administration thinking. That would include artillery, rockets and mortar fire from the Pakistan side of the border.
A senior U.S. military official last week confirmed that a U.S. Special Forces attack had taken place about a mile across Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, killing at least 15. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the internal debate over the U.S. response to rising violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border includes discussion of classified intelligence.
That Sept. 3 raid was the first use of the new authority, which allows military teams to target suspected terrorists in the dangerous area along the Afghanistan border, the officials said. At the same time, the administration secretly has given conventional ground troops greater latitude to pursue militants across the Afghan border into Pakistan, they said.
The focus is on militant havens that have grown on Pakistan’s side of the border at the same time a resurgent Taliban has increased attacks inside Afghanistan. The situation led Bush on Wednesday to commit to sending more troops there. Washington wants Pakistan to do more to crack down on its side of the border.
Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to mount a counterinsurgency campaign inside the tribal area was discussed at a National Security Council meeting this week, according to notes of the meeting provided to the AP. The notes said Pakistan is still focused on fighting India and is "still denying the counterinsurgency problem."
Top U.S. and Pakistani military officials held a secret strategy session in August on an aircraft carrier off Pakistan to discuss the problem.
Bush’s decision to approve cross-border attacks without alerting Islamabad appears to undercut Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari days after his election. Zardari, widower of assassinated Pakistani political figure Benazir Bhutto, was chosen last week to replace Pervez Musharraf, who had been Washington’s point man in Pakistan. Musharraf resigned under pressure in August, done in partly by the perception that he was too close to Washington and took his orders from Bush.
Zardari and other politicians have called the cross-border attacks unacceptable and a violation of their country’s sovereignty.
U.S. counterterrorism operations along the border are highly unpopular in Pakistan. Many people in that country, including some now in government, think military action only invites further extremism.
Pakistan’s prime minister on Thursday backed a harsh rebuke of the U.S. by the Muslim nation’s military chief, a sign of a strain in the anti-terrorism partnership forged after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful but media-shy army leader, said a week after a deadly American-led ground assault in Pakistani territory that Pakistan would defend its sovereignty and that there was no deal to allow foreign forces to operate inside its borders.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful but media-shy army leader, said nearly a week after the American-led ground assault that Pakistan would defend its sovereignty and that there was no deal to allow foreign forces to operate inside its borders.
He said unilateral actions risked undermining joint efforts to battle Islamic extremism and warned that "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country will be defended at all cost."
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in comments reported Thursday by state media and confirmed by his office, said Kayani’s words reflected government opinion and policy.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he will press Pakistan to allow U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to take a new approach to hunting Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants who slip back and forth between the neighboring nations. But Brown offered no specifics on how the border could be better defended.
The U.S. forces were apparently seeking specific Taliban or al-Qaida leaders. The senior U.S. military official said the assault targeted "individuals who were clearly associated with attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan."