President Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the tribal areas and striking at a different centre of Taliban power in Balochistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan, says a report in the New York Times.
Citing senior administration officials the newspaper said that two high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan forwarded to the White House in recent weeks called for broadening the target area to include a major insurgent sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.
It said that Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar had operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies.
According to The Times, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on a news show that the White House strategy review addressed the ‘safe haven in Pakistan — making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t provide a capability in the long run or an environment in which al Qaeda could return or the Taliban could return’.
But another senior official cautioned that ‘with the targets now spreading, an expanding US role inside Pakistan may be more than anyone there can stomach’.
As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilian and military officials familiar with the internal White House debate, Mr Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for future American commitments to Afghanistan.
President Obama’s core decision may be whether to scale back American ambitions there to simply assure it does not become a sanctuary for terrorists. ‘We are taking this back to a fundamental question,’ a senior diplomat involved in the discussions told the paper. ‘Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country? That was the problem Bush never really confronted.’
The extensive missile strikes being carried out by Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Balochistan which abuts the parts of southern Afghanistan where recent fighting has been the fiercest. Fear remains within the American government that extending the raids would worsen tensions. Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty.
But some American officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south towards Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both Gen David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt-Gen Douglas E. Lut, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.
Ground actions Many of Mr Obama’s advisers, the newspaper said, were also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas.
They also are recommending to preserve the option to conduct cross-border ground actions, using CIA and Special Operations commandos, as was done in September. Mr Bush’s orders also named as targets a wide variety of insurgents seeking to topple Pakistan’s government. Mr Obama has said little in public about how broadly he wants to pursue those groups.
The Times said that a spokesman for the National Security Council, Mike Hammer, declined to provide details and said: ‘We’re still working hard to finalise the review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president requested.’
No other officials would talk on the record about the issue, citing the administration’s continuing internal deliberations and the politically volatile nature of strikes into Pakistani territory.
‘It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programmes,’ said one senior administration official. ‘One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we’ve got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens.’
Mr Obama’s top national security advisers, known as the Principals Committee, met on Tuesday to begin debating all aspects of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Senior administration officials say Mr Obama has made no decisions, but is expected to do so in coming days after hearing the advice of that group.