Cross-border strikes sought

WASHINGTON -- American commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include American attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to U.S. officials.

The requests have been rebuffed for now, the officials said, after deliberations in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who fear that attacking Pakistani radicals may anger Pakistan's new government, which is negotiating with the militants, and destabilize an already fragile security situation there.


American commanders would prefer that Pakistani forces attack the militants, but Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas have slowed in recent weeks to avoid upsetting the negotiations.

Pakistan's government has given the Central Intelligence Agency limited authority to kill Arab and other foreign operatives in the tribal areas, using armed, remotely piloted Predator aircraft.


But the government has put far greater restrictions on American operations against indigenous Pakistani militant groups, including a group commanded by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the militant leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.

American intelligence officials say that the threat emanating from Pakistan's tribal areas is growing. They say Pakistani networks there have taken on an increasingly important role as an ally of al-Qaida in plotting attacks against American and other allied troops in Afghanistan and in helping foreign operatives plan attacks on targets in the West.

The officials said the American military's proposals included options for limited American cross-border artillery strikes into Pakistan, missile attacks by Predator aircraft or raids by small teams of CIA paramilitary forces or Special Operations forces.

In recent months, the American military officials in Afghanistan who are urging attacks in Pakistan discussed a list of potential targets with the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, officials said.

The requests by the American commanders for attacks on targets in Pakistan were described by officials who had been briefed on the discussions, but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions involved possible future operations.

The discussions are the latest example of a recurring problem for the White House: that the place where the terrorist threat is most acute is the place where American forces are most restricted from acting.

Officials involved in the debate said that the question of attacking Pakistani militants was especially delicate because some militant leaders, including Haqqani, were believed to still be on the payroll of Pakistan's intelligence service, called the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or another part of Pakistan's intelligence apparatus.

For years the intelligence services have relied on a web of sources among Pakistani militant groups to collect information on foreign groups like al-Qaida that have operated in the tribal areas.


A Pentagon adviser said that military intelligence officers in Afghanistan had drawn up the detailed list of potential targets that was discussed with Patterson. It is unclear which senior officials in Washington were involved in the debate over whether to authorize attacks.

One administration official said that the internal discussions in Washington involved President Bush's top national security aides and took place earlier this year.

Military and intelligence officials say that al-Qaida and its affiliates now have a haven to plan attacks, just as they used camps in Afghanistan before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, said last month that the security situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border "presents clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West in general, and to the United States in particular."

American officials involved in the discussions said that they had not ruled out striking Pakistani militants in the tribal areas. American forces in Afghanistan are authorized to attack targets in Pakistan in self-defense or if they are in "hot pursuit" of militants fleeing back to havens across the border.

American-led forces in Afghanistan fired artillery at what they suspected was a Haqqani network safe house on March 12 that an American spokesman said posed an "imminent threat." But the Pakistani army said the strike killed only civilians.


Administration officials say the risk of angering the new government in Pakistan and stirring increased anti-American sentiment in the tribal areas outweighs the benefits of dismantling militant networks in the region.

"It's certainly something we want to get to, but not yet," said one Bush administration official. "If you do it now, you can expect to do it without Pakistani approval, and you can expect to do it only once because the Pakistanis will never help us again."

Spokesmen for the White House and State Department declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Patterson in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The discussions over how to combat al-Qaida and Pakistani militant networks in the tribal areas have been going on for nearly two years, as American policy-makers have weighed the growing militant threat in the border area against American action that could politically weaken President Pervez Musharraf, a close ally in the global counterterrorism campaign.

A few weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December, two senior American intelligence officials reached a quiet understanding with Musharraf to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by Predator aircraft launched in Pakistan.

American officials have expressed growing alarm that the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, are negotiating with militant groups believed to be responsible for an increasing number of suicide attacks against Pakistani security forces and political figures.


The new government has signaled that in its relations with Washington, it wants to take a path more independent than the one followed by the previous government and to use military force in the tribal areas only as a last resort.