U.S. seeks latitude for steps in Pakistan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The top two U.S. intelligence officials traveled secretly to Pakistan early this month to press President Pervez Musharraf to allow the CIA greater latitude to operate in the tribal territories where al-Qaida, the Taliban and other militant groups are all active, according to several officials who have been briefed on the visit.

But in the unannounced meetings on Jan. 9 with the two U.S. officials -- Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director -- Musharraf rebuffed proposals to expand any U.S. combat presence in Pakistan, either through unilateral covert CIA missions or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces.

Instead, Pakistan and the United States are discussing a series of other joint efforts, including increasing the number and scope of missions by armed Predator surveillance aircraft over the tribal areas, and identifying ways that the United States can speed information about people suspected of being militants to Pakistani security forces, officials said.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have questioned each other in recent months about the quality and timeliness of information that the United States has given to Pakistan to use in focusing on those extremists. U.S. officials have complained that the Pakistanis are not seriously pursuing al-Qaida in the region.

The Jan. 9 meetings, the first visit with Musharraf by senior administration officials since the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also included the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the director of Pakistan's leading military intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj. U.S. officials said the visit was prompted by an increasing sense of urgency at the highest levels of the U.S. government that al-Qaida and the Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government.

The CIA has fired 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 Ayman al-Zawahri, the second-ranking al-Qaida leader, who had attended a dinner in Damadola, a Pakistani village.

Pakistani authorities, in interviews, said they had more than 100,000 troops operating in the region, including a sizable force conducting what they said was a major offensive in South Waziristan. But in the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA, frustrations remain high, and there is concern that Musharraf's political problems will distract him from what the administration regards as its last chance to take aggressive action.

Despite the insistence of administration officials that the United States and Pakistan have a common goal in fighting al-Qaida, Musharraf has made clear in public proclamations that it is far from his first priority. At the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, Musharraf said several times that the 100,000 Pakistani troops that he said were now along the border were hunting for Taliban extremists and "miscreants," but he also said there was no particular effort being put into the search for al-Qaida fighters.

In Washington, however, the Bush administration has said that fighting terrorists, chiefly al-Qaida, is the primary purpose of the $10 billion in U.S. aid that has been sent to Pakistan, mostly for reimbursements for the cost of patrolling the tribal areas. President Bush has often praised Musharraf for fighting terrorism. But White House officials were silent when Musharraf said last week that his efforts were focused on the Taliban, and that the main problem the United States faced was in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.

U.S. officials said that recent intelligence analysis indicated that al-Qaida is operating in the tribal areas with an impunity similar to the freedom that it had in Afghanistan before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The CIA operatives in Afghanistan and the covert Special Operations forces there have made little secret of their desire to move into the tribal areas with or without Musharraf's explicit approval.

Musharraf has explicitly rejected that, and within days after McConnell and Hayden's departure, he told a Singapore newspaper that any unilateral action by the United States would be regarded as an invasion. In Davos, he dismissed the idea that Americans could be effective in the tribal areas.

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