Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt
WASHINGTON: The White House has backed away from using U.S. commandos for further ground raids into Pakistan after furious complaints from its government, relying instead on an intensifying campaign of airstrikes by the Central Intelligence Agency against militants in the Pakistani mountains.
According to U.S. and Pakistani officials, attacks by remotely piloted Predator aircraft have increased sharply in frequency and scope in the past three months. Through Sunday, there were at least 19 Predator strikes since the beginning of August, some deep inside Pakistan's tribal areas, compared with five strikes during the first seven months of 2008.
At the same time, however, officials said that relying on airstrikes alone would not enable the United States to weaken Al Qaeda's grip in the tribal areas permanently. Within the government, advocates of the ground raids have argued that only by sending Special Operations forces into Pakistan can the United States successfully capture operatives and interrogate them for information about top Qaeda leaders.
The decision to focus on an intensified Predator campaign using Hellfire missiles appears to reflect dwindling options on the part of the White House for striking a blow against Al Qaeda in the Bush administration's waning days.
After months of debate within the administration and mounting frustration over Pakistan's failure to carry out more aggressive counterterrorism operations, President George W. Bush finally gave his approval in July for ground missions inside Pakistan. But the only U.S. ground mission known to have taken place was a Special Operations raid on Sept. 3, in which the roughly two dozen people killed included some civilians. U.S. officials say there has not been another commando operation since.
U.S. officials acknowledge that following the Sept. 3 raid they were surprised by the intensity of the Pakistani response, which included an unannounced visit to Washington, three weeks after the incursion, by the country's national security adviser, Mahmud Ali Durrani. He registered his anger in person with top White House officials, including Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser.
A senior administration official said Sunday that no tacit agreement had been reached between the sides to allow increased Predator strikes in exchange for a backing off from additional U.S. ground raids, an option the officials said remained on the table. But Pakistani officials have made clear in public statements that they regard the Predator attacks as a less objectionable violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
"There's always a balance between respecting full Pakistani sovereignty, even in places where they're not capable of exercising that sovereignty, and the need for our force protection," said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Top U.S. officials have sought to justify the Sept. 3 ground raid as a self-defense response against militants who use havens in Pakistan to carry out attacks against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. Those attacks have increased about 30 percent this year from a year ago, according to military officials.
As part of the intensified attacks in recent months, the CIA has expanded its list of targets inside Pakistan and has gained approval from the government in Islamabad to bolster eavesdropping operations in the border region, according to U.S. officials.
Once largely reserved for missions to kill senior Arab Qaeda operatives, the Predator is increasingly being used to strike Pakistani militants and even trucks carrying rockets to resupply fighters in Afghanistan. Many of the Predator strikes are taking place as deep as 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, into Pakistani territory, not just along the border.
Spokesmen for the White House and the CIA declined to comment for this article. The information about the U.S. operations inside Pakistan was described in interviews by a dozen military and civilian officials from the United States and Pakistan, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic concerns and because details about the Predator strikes and commando raids remained classified.
While Pakistan is now headed by a new civilian government, under President Asif Ali Zardari, the tense discussions between the countries over counterterrorism operations appear to reflect at least some of the uneasiness and codependence that long characterized the partnership between Bush and Pervez Musharraf, the former president, who was defeated in parliamentary elections in February.
Senior military and counterterrorism officials say the increased Predator strikes have disrupted planning, pushed some insurgents deeper into Pakistani territory, prompted some militant commanders to post additional sentries, and forced the militants to use their cellphones and satellite phones, which U.S. eavesdropping operations can monitor.
"It's fair to say that it has caused key Al Qaeda figures to focus even more on their safety and security," said a Western counterterrorism official. "It has caused them to be more suspicious of people they don't know well, and it also has caused frictions between Al Qaeda and tribal elements."
But the official acknowledged that the intensified operations had failed to shake Al Qaeda's hold on the tribal areas. "Things haven't gotten to the point that they would even consider another option," he said.
Pakistan and the United States are also taking steps to repair the relationship between their intelligence services, which reached a nadir this summer after evidence emerged that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had a hand in the July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's top military official, recently replaced not only the ISI's commander but also four midlevel generals who are believed to have had advance knowledge of the embassy bombing.
The CIA has also put a new station chief in Islamabad, replacing one whose tour of duty had ended and whose relationship with the ISI had become contentious.
Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the new head of the ISI, is in Washington this week and is scheduled to meet with the CIA director, Michael Hayden.
Pentagon officials have publicly praised the Pakistani Army's aggressive campaign against militants in the Bajaur tribal agency. But privately, some U.S. officials are wincing at a full-scale military operation that is taking a heavy toll on civilians as well as insurgents and has not diminished the cross-border attacks.
"They don't have a concept of counterinsurgency operations," one senior U.S. officer said of the Pakistanis. "It's generally a heavy punch, and then they leave."
More than 200,000 people have now fled the attack helicopters, warplanes, artillery and mortar fire of the Pakistani Army.
6 months ago