Unilateral Strike Called a Model For U.S. Operations in Pakistan

By Joby Warrick and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone's operator, relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.

The missiles killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander and a man who had repeatedly eluded the CIA's dragnet. It was the first successful strike against al-Qaeda's core leadership in two years, and it involved, U.S. officials say, an unusual degree of autonomy by the CIA inside Pakistan.

Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan's national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government's formal permission beforehand.

It is an approach that some U.S. officials say could be used more frequently this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from yesterday's election and associated political tumult. The administration also feels an increased sense of urgency about undermining al-Qaeda before President Bush leaves office, making it less hesitant, said one official familiar with the incident.

Independent actions by U.S. military forces on another country's sovereign territory are always controversial, and both U.S. and Pakistani officials have repeatedly sought to obscure operational details that would reveal that key decisions are sometimes made in the United States, not in Islamabad. Some Pentagon operations have been undertaken only after intense disputes with the State Department, which has worried that they might inflame Pakistani public resentment; the CIA itself has sometimes sought to put the brakes on because of anxieties about the consequences for its relationship with Pakistani intelligence officials.

U.S. military officials say, however, that the uneven performance of their Pakistani counterparts increasingly requires that Washington pursue the fight however it can, sometimes following an unorthodox path that leaves in the dark Pakistani military and intelligence officials who at best lack commitment and resolve and at worst lack sympathy for U.S. interests.

Top Bush administration policy officials -- who are increasingly worried about al-Qaeda's use of its sanctuary in remote, tribally ruled areas in northern Pakistan to dispatch trained terrorists to the West -- have quietly begun to accept the military's point of view, according to several sources familiar with the context of the Libi strike.

"In the past, it required getting approval from the highest levels," said one former intelligence official involved in planning for previous strikes. "You may have information that is valid for only 30 minutes. If you wait, the information is no longer valid."

But when the autonomous U.S. military operations in Pakistan succeed, support for them grows in Washington in probably the same proportion as Pakistani resentments increase. Even as U.S. officials ramp up the pressure on Musharraf to do more, Pakistan's embattled president has taken a harder line in public against cooperation in recent months, the sources said. "The posture that was evident two years ago is not evident," said a senior U.S. official who frequently visits the region.

A U.S. military official familiar with operations in the tribal areas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the operations, said: "We'll get these one-off flukes once every eight months or so, but that's still not a strategy -- it's not a plan. Every now and then something will come together. What that serves to do [is] it tamps down discussion about whether there is a better way to do it."

The Target Is Identified

During seven years of searching for Osama bin Laden and his followers, the U.S. government has deployed billions of dollars' worth of surveillance hardware to South Asia, from top-secret spy satellites to sophisticated eavesdropping gear for intercepting text messages and cellphone conversations.

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