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WASHINGTON: U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include U.S. attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to U.S. officials.
The requests have been rebuffed for now, the officials said, after deliberations in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who fear that attacking Pakistani radicals may anger Pakistan’s new government, which is negotiating with the militants, and destabilize an already fragile security situation there.
U.S. commanders would prefer that Pakistani forces attack the militants, but Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas have slowed in recent weeks to avoid upsetting the negotiations.
Pakistan’s government has given the CIA limited authority to kill Arab and other foreign operatives in the tribal areas, using armed, remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the government has put far greater restrictions on U.S. operations against indigenous Pakistani militant groups, including a group commanded by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the legendary militant leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
U.S. intelligence officials say that the threat emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas is growing and that Pakistani networks there have taken on an increasingly important role as an ally of Al Qaeda in plotting attacks against American and other allied troops in Afghanistan, and in helping foreign operatives plan attacks on targets in the West. The officials said the U.S. military’s proposals included options for limited American cross-border artillery strikes into Pakistan, missile attacks by Predator aircraft or raids by small teams of CIA paramilitary forces or Special Operations forces.
In recent months, the U.S. military officials in Afghanistan who are urging attacks in Pakistan discussed a list of potential targets with the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, officials said.
The requests by the U.S. commanders for attacks on targets in Pakistan were described by officials who had been briefed on the discussions but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions involved possible future operations.
The discussions are the latest example of a recurring problem for the White House: that the place where the terrorist threat is most acute is the place where U.S. forces are most restricted.
Officials involved in the debate said that the question of attacking Pakistani militants was especially delicate because some militant leaders, including Haqqani, were believed to still be on the payroll of Pakistan’s intelligence service or another part of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus.
For years, the intelligence services have relied on a web of sources among Pakistani militant groups to collect information on groups like Al Qaeda that have operated in the tribal areas.
A Pentagon adviser said that military intelligence officers in Afghanistan had drawn up the detailed list of potential targets that was discussed with Patterson. It is unclear which senior officials in Washington were involved in the debate over whether to authorize attacks.
One administration official said that the internal discussions in Washington involved President George W. Bush’s top national security aides and took place earlier this year.
Military and intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda and its affiliates now have a haven to plan attacks, just as they used camps in Afghanistan before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, said last month that the security situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border “presents clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West in general, and to the United States in particular.”
U.S. officials involved in the discussions said that they had not ruled out striking Pakistani militants in the tribal areas. American forces in Afghanistan are authorized to attack targets in Pakistan in self-defense or if they are in “hot pursuit” of militants fleeing back to havens across the border.
On March 12, U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan fired artillery at what they suspected was a Haqqani network safe house that an U.S. spokesman said posed an “imminent threat.” But the Pakistani Army said the strike had killed only civilians.
Administration officials say the risk of angering the new government in Pakistan and stirring increased anti-American sentiment in the tribal areas outweighs the benefits of dismantling militant networks in the region.
“It’s certainly something we want to get to, but not yet,” said one Bush administration official. “If you do it now, you can expect to do it without Pakistani approval, and you can expect to do it only once because the Pakistanis will never help us again.”
Spokesmen for the White House and State Department declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Patterson in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
Intelligence officials say they believe that leaders of the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups have in recent months forged closer ties to the cadre of Qaeda leaders in the tribal leaders. Officials say that they believe that the leader of the Taliban there, Jalaluddin Haqqani, may have died last year, and that his son has made aggressive efforts to recruit foreign fighters from the Gulf and elsewhere in Central Asia to move to Pakistan.
“The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda and other groups such as the Haqqani network, are stronger today than they were, and they’re primarily based on the Pakistani side of the border,” said Seth Jones, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, in congressional testimony this month after his trip to Afghanistan.
Allied officials have accused Sirajuddin Haqqani of organizing a suicide attack on March 3 that killed two NATO soldiers at an Afghan government office. He is also suspected of orchestrating a bomb attack in January at the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people.
The discussions over how to combat Al Qaeda and Pakistani militant networks in the tribal areas have been going on for nearly two years, as U.S. policy makers have weighed the growing militant threat in the border area against unilateral American action that could politically weaken President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, a close ally in the global counterterrorism campaign.
A few weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December, two senior U.S. intelligence officials reached a quiet understanding with Musharraf to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by Predator aircraft launched in Pakistan.
U.S. officials have expressed growing alarm that the leaders of Pakistan’s new coalition government, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, are negotiating with militant groups believed to be responsible for an increasing number of suicide attacks against Pakistani security and political figures.
The new government has signaled that in its relations with Washington, it wants to take a path more independent than the one followed by the previous government and to use military force in the tribal areas only as a last resort.
In congressional testimony this month, a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the need for more action was urgent. “A senior member of the administration needs to go to Pakistan and take the intelligence we have on Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network inside of Pakistan and lay it out for their most senior leadership,” said the former commander, Lieutenant General David Barno.
He said the U.S. envoy should “show them exactly what we know about, what they don’t know about what’s going on in their tribal areas and say, ‘This is not a tolerable situation for you nor for us.’ ”
“And,” Barno added, “we need to sit down and think through what we can collectively do abou