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.
Daniel Markey, a former State Department policy planning staffer who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said "the new faces" in Pakistan's leadership "are not certain how they want to manage their relationship with the United States. You can't blame them," because they are pulled in opposite directions by their electorate and the Bush administration.
But Kamran Bokhari, a Pakistani who directs Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence group in Washington, said the new government will almost certainly take a harder line against such strikes. "These . . . are very unpopular, not because people support al-Qaeda, but because they feel Pakistan has no sovereignty," he said.
The latest Predator strike, on March 16, killed about 20 in Shahnawaz Kot; a Feb. 28 strike killed 12 foreign militants in the village of Kaloosha; and a Jan. 29 strike killed 13 people, including senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi, in North Waziristan.
U.S. intelligence officials estimate that al-Qaeda has several hundred operatives in the Waziristan tribal region. "But as we learned on 9/11, it only takes 19," said the senior U.S. official. "These are not Tora Bora bomb-everything operations," he added, referring to the blanket bombing of Afghanistan's mountainous area where al-Qaeda leaders were hiding in late 2001.
A spokesman at CIA headquarters declined to comment on the strikes. The agency officially maintains a policy of strict secrecy regarding its counterterrorism operations in the border region and does not announce Predator strikes.
But other U.S. officials said that after months of prodding, the Bush administration and the Musharraf government this year reached a tacit understanding that gave Washington a freer hand to carry out precision strikes against al-Qaeda and its allies in the border region. The issue is a sensitive one that neither side is willing to discuss openly, the officials said.
Asked to comment, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell denied that the two governments have an "arrangement" or an "understanding." But he said that they face a mutual enemy and that "everything we do to go after terrorists operating there is in consultation and coordination with the Pakistani government."
Thomas H. Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said: "People inside the Beltway are aware that Musharraf's days are numbered, and so they recognize they may only have a few months to do this. Musharraf has . . . very few friends in the world -- he probably has more inside the Beltway than in his own country."
The administration's intensified effort against al-Qaeda also has benefited from shifting loyalties among residents of the border region. Some tribal and religious leaders who embraced foreign al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters as they fled from Afghanistan in 2001 now see them as troublemakers and are providing timely intelligence about their movements and hideouts, according to former U.S. officials and Pakistan experts.
"They see traffic coming and going from the fortress homes of tribal leaders associated with foreign elements, and they pass the information along," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani journalist in Washington and the author of a book on Pakistan's army. "Some quick surveillance is done, and then someone pops a couple of hundred-pound bombs at the house."
Yet despite a series of strikes, some U.S. military officers and experts question whether the strategy will be effective and worth its political costs.
"Jarring information loose is a method, but is it the most productive method? No. You need exploitation, troops on the ground. It's a huge operational stress, and it's probably not going to get the senior leadership," said a military officer with long experience in the region.
Local politicians also complain that the strikes only encourage militants to undertake retaliatory actions in urban areas. The politicians point to the recent string of suicide bombings of high-profile government targets in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Islamabad as evidence that militants are determined to take revenge for losses in the tribal areas.
"There's no way Pakistan can afford to follow a policy that is causing a war at home," said Khawaja Imran Raza, a top spokesman for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N faction. "There's a need to revisit the policy and there's a need to reassess because the domestic cost is so huge. We have lost a prime minister -- our top opposition leader. We have lost generals, and just look at our losses in Lahore."
In 2005, the United States also attacked al-Qaeda sites in tribal areas, killing top operative Abu Hamza Rabia. In 2006, a Predator strike targeting three top al-Qaeda operatives killed only local villagers.
U.S. strategy could backfire if missiles take innocent lives. "The [tribal] Pashtuns have a saying: 'Kill one person, make 10 enemies,' " Johnson said. "You might take out a bad guy in one of these strikes, but you might also be creating more foot soldiers. This is a war in which the more people you kill, the faster you lose."
Correspondent Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad and special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.