Washington: US President Barack Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a different centre of Taliban power in Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.
According to senior administration officials, two of the high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to reach the Taliban and other insurgent groups to a major sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taliban government that was ousted in the US-led invasion in 2001, has operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies.
The missile strikes being carried out by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Baluchistan, a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government, and which abuts the parts of southern Afghanistan where recent fighting has been the fiercest. There remains fear within the US government that extending the raids would worsen tensions. Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty.
But some US officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south towards Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both General David H. Petraeus, commander of US forces in the region, and Lt Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding US operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.
Many of Obama’s advisers are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas, and to conduct cross-border ground actions, using CIA and special operations commandos. Bush’s orders also named as targets a wide variety of insurgents seeking to topple Pakistan’s government. Obama has said little in public about how broadly he wants to pursue those groups.
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Mike Hammer, declined to provide details, saying, “We’re still working hard to finalize the review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president requested.” No other officials would talk on the record about the issue, citing the administration’s continuing internal deliberations and the politically volatile nature of strikes into Pakistani territory.
“It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programmes,” said one senior administration official. “One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we’ve got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens.”
Obama’s top national security advisers, known as the Principals Committee, met on Tuesday to begin debating all aspects of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Senior administration officials say Obama has made no decisions, but is expected to do so in coming days after hearing the advice of that group.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on The Charlie Rose Show on PBS last week that the White House strategy review addresses the “safe haven in Pakistan—making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t provide a capability in the long run or an environment in which Al Qaeda could return or the Taliban could return”.
But another senior official cautioned that “with the targets now spreading, an expanding US role inside Pakistan may be more than anyone there can stomach”.
As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilian and military officials familiar with the internal White House debate, Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for future US commitments to Afghanistan.
His core decision may be whether to scale back US ambitions there and simply assure that it does not become a sanctuary for terrorist groups. “We are taking this back to a fundamental question,” a senior diplomat involved in the discussions said. “Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country? That was the problem Bush never really confronted.”
A second option, officials say, is to significantly boost the US commitment to train Afghan troops, with Americans taking on the Taliban with increasing help from the Afghan military. President Bush pursued versions of that strategy, but the training always took longer and proved less successful, than plans called for.
A third option would involve devoting full US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) resources to a large-scale counterinsurgency effort. But Obama would be bound to face considerable opposition within Nato, whose leaders he will meet with early next month in Strasbourg, France. At the very time the US is seeking to expand its presence in Afghanistan, many of the allies are scheduled to leave.
As for US strikes on militant havens inside Pakistan, administration officials say the Predator and Reaper attacks in the tribal areas have been effective at killing nine of Al Qaeda’s top 20 leaders, and the aerial campaign was recently expanded to focus on the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as his fighters and training camps. US intelligence officials say that many top Taliban commanders remain in hiding in and around Quetta, but some Afghan officials say that other senior Taliban leaders have fled to the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Missile strikes or US commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, US officials acknowledge.
Thom Shanker in Washington and Carlotta Gall in Islamabad contributed to this story.