By Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Top Pentagon and State Department officials said yesterday that U.S. Special Forces would enter Pakistan if they had specific intelligence about an impending terrorist strike against the United States, despite warnings from the Pakistani government that it would not accept U.S. troops operating independently inside its borders.
The statements were the clearest assertion yet of the Bush administration's willingness to act unilaterally inside tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan where al-Qaeda's top commanders are believed to have taken refuge. But the officials also voiced strong support for President Pervez Musharraf, who they said has repeatedly backed U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in the region at great political cost.
"If there were information or opportunity to strike a blow to protect the American people," U.S. forces would act immediately, Peter Verga, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security, said during an unusual joint session held by the House's Armed Services Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
At a separate Senate hearing, R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs, suggested that a unilateral strike would be a last resort.
"Given the primacy of the fight against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, if we have in the future certainty of knowledge, then of course the United States would always have the option of taking action on its own," Burns said during questioning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But we prefer to work with the Pakistani forces, and we, in most situations -- nearly every situation -- do work with them."
The statements were prompted by lawmakers' questions about an intelligence assessment released last week that concluded that a resurgent al-Qaeda was using a rugged, largely autonomous tribal area of northwestern Pakistan as a sanctuary for planning attacks against the United States.
Previous assessments had said only that al-Qaeda leaders were operating in the frontier area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new assessment suggested that Pakistan had not been effective in combating the terrorist group and its allies.
At a news conference last week, Frances Fragos Townsend, the homeland security adviser, said the administration would pursue "actionable targets anywhere in the world, putting aside whether it was Pakistan or anyplace else." Those remarks prompted a strong reaction from Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which warned that a U.S. military strike would be "irresponsible and dangerous," as well as deeply resented throughout the country.
"We have stated in the clearest terms that any attack inside our territory would be unacceptable," the ministry said in a formal statement released Tuesday in Islamabad.
Officials at both hearings said Pakistan remains a strong ally in the war against al-Qaeda. James R. Clapper Jr., the Pentagon's top intelligence official, said the Musharraf government is not "doing 100 percent of everything we might like," but he added, "I think they are doing what they can, given the constraints."
New efforts by Pakistan to rout al-Qaeda out of its haven "are only in the first week or so of implementation," Clapper said, "and so, at this point, it is much too early to try to provide an assessment of the impact of these latest Pakistani moves."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.