U.S. Steps Up Unilateral Strikes in Pakistan

By Robin Wright and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 27, 2008

The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan's new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.

Washington is worried that pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who has generally supported the U.S. strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead, and so it wants to inflict as much damage as it can to al-Qaeda's network now, the officials said.

Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives. The moves followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said.

About 45 Arab, Afghan and other foreign fighters have been killed in the attacks, all near the Afghan border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. The goal was partly to jar loose information on senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, by forcing them to move in ways that U.S. intelligence analysts can detect. Local sources are providing better information to guide the strikes, the officials said.

A senior U.S. official called it a "shake the tree" strategy. It has not been without controversy, others said. Some military officers have privately cautioned that airstrikes alone -- without more U.S. special forces soldiers on the ground in the region -- are unlikely to net the top al-Qaeda leaders.

The campaign is not designed to capture bin Laden before Bush leaves office, administration officials said. "It's not a blitz to close this chapter," said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing operations. "If we find the leadership, then we'll go after it. But nothing can be done to put al-Qaeda away in the next nine or 10 months. In the long haul, it's an issue that extends beyond this administration."

Musharraf, who controls the country's military forces, has long approved U.S. military strikes on his own. But senior officials in Pakistan's leading parties are now warning that such unilateral attacks -- including the Predator strikes launched from bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad in Pakistan -- could be curtailed.

"We have always said that as for strikes, that is for Pakistani forces to do and for the Pakistani government to decide. . . . We do not envision a situation in which foreigners will enter Pakistan and chase targets," said Farhatullah Babar, a top spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party, whose leader, Yousaf Raza Gillani, is the new prime minister. "This war on terror is our war."

Leaders of Gillani's party say they are interested in starting talks with local Taliban leaders and giving a political voice to the millions who live in Pakistan's tribal areas. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher heard the message directly yesterday from tribal elders in the village of Landi Kotal in the Khyber area.

"We told the visiting U.S. guests that the traditional jirga [tribal decision-making] system should be made effective to eliminate the causes of militancy and other problems from the tribal areas," said Malik Darya Khan, an elder. "We also told them that we have some disgruntled brothers" -- an indirect reference to local Taliban and militants -- who should be pulled into the mainstream through negotiations and dialogue, he said.

"The tribal turmoil can be resolved only through negotiations, not with military operations," Khan added. But he and others have said little specifically about how the new government should cope with foreign fighters, causing the Bush administration to engage in heavy lobbying on that issue.

President Bush called Gillani on Tuesday, for example, to stress the importance of the U.S.-Pakistani alliance and to emphasize that "fighting extremists is in everyone's interest," a White House spokesman said.

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