U.S. Officials Review Approach in Pakistan

By Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 7, 2008

The political upheaval in Pakistan and emergence there of a new military leader has revitalized the Bush administration's long struggle to develop a coherent strategy for uprooting al-Qaeda from Pakistan's western tribal areas, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The administration is hopeful that Pakistan's new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, will support more robust efforts involving U.S. intelligence and military operatives targeting al-Qaeda's terrorist sanctuaries in the country, the officials said.

"Kiyani has a strong recognition that things haven't worked," said one senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "He recognizes the level of competence and proficiency" of Pakistan's forces "will need attention."

The unrest has led to a greater focus in Washington on threats facing Pakistan, including not only terrorism, but increasingly a growing religious insurgency, said another senior military official. "The conditions we face are not waiting, so why should we wait?" he said.

Senior U.S. officials discussed at the White House last week a new proposal to give U.S. Special Operations forces and the CIA greater leeway to conduct operations in the tribal areas.

But that proposal, along with several different U.S. scenarios for addressing the sanctuary, remains hampered by bureaucratic infighting in Washington, according to senior military officials familiar with the plans. "There should be a plan, singular. That is what we are trying to do now," one official said.

One point of contention involves who within the U.S. government would approve operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the rugged and lawless region bordering Afghanistan.

The Pentagon seeks greater authority to conduct operations while coordinating with the State Department. Adm. Eric Olson, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, visited Pakistan last month and discussed with President Pervez Musharraf and senior military leaders how else the U.S. military can assist in countering "a very complex insurgency," one military official said.

The State Department position is that the U.S. ambassador should approve every operation in Pakistan.

The impasse between the Pentagon and State Department proved a sticking point in last week's meeting, although the disagreement is known to have festered since 2002.

The meeting, attended by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior national security advisers, was first reported yesterday by the New York Times. Administration officials confirmed that the meeting took place, but spokesmen for the Pentagon, CIA and State Department declined yesterday to discuss it.

Currently, the main U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan consists of a multiyear package of economic development and military assistance that is now beginning to be implemented. The military component aims to bolster training and equipment for Pakistan's Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas, and to step up training of elite Pakistani Army units by U.S. Special Forces.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently warned that al-Qaeda and Taliban havens are a serious problem. "One of the top-agenda items that we have with the government of Pakistan is working together in terms of . . . what they can do more unilaterally, how we can work with them to help them be more effective, and whether there are instances in which we should or must take action by ourselves," Gates told a House committee.

In Pakistan, speculation has intensified for weeks that the Bush administration would act unilaterally in the northwestern frontier to counter al-Qaeda's growing presence.

Some U.S. military sources said that such public speculation, while unfounded, nevertheless serves to lessen the political cost of any U.S. actions.

Still, some Pakistani observers warn that a more visible U.S. presence would almost certainly trigger a backlash against Musharraf. "It would give the militant Islamic parties a strong whip to use against moderates, especially in the northwest territories," said Shuja Nawaz, a Washington-based Pakistani journalist and author.

Staff writers Joby Warrick and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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