President George W Bush secretly approved US military raids inside Pakistan against alleged terrorist targets, according to current and former US officials with recent access to the Bush administration’s debate about how to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban inside the lawless tribal border area.
The officials spoke on Thursday on the condition of anonymity to describe the classified order. The New York Times reported that the July move allowing special operations forces to carry out assaults within the borders of a key "war on terror" ally marked a turn for the Bush administration which has struggled with Islamabad over how to combat al-Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban.
A senior US military official last week confirmed that a special forces attack had taken place about a mile across Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. That official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the internal debate over the US response to rising violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border includes discussion of classified intelligence.
The presidential order, first reported by The New York Times, was issued over the summer to give new authority to US special operations forces to target suspected terrorists in the dangerous area along the Afghanistan border, a former intelligence official said. More recently, the administration secretly gave conventional ground troops new authority to pursue militants across the Afghan border into Pakistan, the former official said.
The "rules of engagement" have been loosened, allowing troops to conduct border attacks without being fired on first if they witness attacks coming from the region, the former official said. That would include artillery, rockets and mortar fire from the Pakistan side of the border.
A US official familiar with South Asia said the new rules were adopted in response to increasing frustration with Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation. This frustration came to head with the discovery of evidence that Pakistan’s intelligence service had been compromised by militants and that some members of the service, known as the ISI, were helping extremists, particularly with the attack on the Indian embassy in Islamabad, the official said.
"Up to that point, the idea was to share intelligence with the Pakistanis and then proceed but there was a lot of frustration with delays and problems, including leaks to militants, in sharing the intelligence," the official said.
"[The new order] is a reaction to that and it was sped up by the revelations about the penetration of the Pakistani intelligence service," the official said. "It was decided that we had no choice but to free up the hands of our commanders."
The new authority allowed last week’s unprecedented US-led ground assault into the volatile region known as the tribal areas. The US forces were apparently seeking specific Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders. The senior US military official said the assault targeted "individuals who were clearly associated with attacks on US forces in Afghanistan."
The September 4 raid left at least 15 people dead, and embarrassed Pakistan’s new civilian-led government. Pakistani officials have also said US forces were involved. Bush’s decision to endorse cross-border attacks from Afghanistan without alerting Islamabad leaves President Asif Ali Zardari with a major foreign policy challenge.
Zardari and other politicians have called the cross-border attacks unacceptable and a violation of their country’s sovereignty. COAS Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took things a step further on Wednesday, when he said Pakistan’s territorial integrity would be "defended at all costs."
"Reckless actions" which kill civilians "only help the militants and further fuel the militancy in the area," Kayani said, reflecting the views of many Pakistanis.
At the crux of the dispute are militant havens that have grown on Pakistan’s side of the border at the same time that a resurgent Taliban has been increasing its attacks inside Afghanistan, leading Bush to commit on Wednesday to sending more troops there. Washington wants Pakistan to do more to crack down on its side of the border.
"Until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming," Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
"Frankly, we are running out of time." Pakistan says it is doing all it can.Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to mount a counterinsurgency campaign inside the tribal area was discussed at a National Security Council meeting held this week, according to notes of the meeting provided to The Associated Press.
The notes said Pakistan is still focused on fighting India and is "still denying the counterinsurgency problem". Top US and Pakistani military officials conducted a secret strategy session in August on an aircraft carrier off Pakistan to discuss the problem.
Senior White House officials this summer were debating whether to adopt a new, more aggressive military stance to attack the maturing al-Qaeda safe haven adjacent to the Afghan border.
The old strategy, relying on Pakistan to keep a lid on the tribal areas, was meant to support strong ally Musharraf. The official said Musharraf’s waning fortunes heavily influenced the debate in favour of stronger action.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on the matter on Thursday but said the US, Pakistan and the rest of the world share an interest in cracking down on militants along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
"We have clear interests there. The Pakistanis have clear interests, obviously, in combating the threat of violent extremism in their own country and how that effects others around them and others globally," he said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he’ll discuss a new approach to policing the Afghan-Pakistan border in talks with US President George W Bush. Brown said the two leaders were holding a video conference on Thursday to assess the work of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Brown says a new strategy is needed to halt the flow of Taliban and militant fighters between Pakistan and its neighbour. He told reporters that he’ll soon meet in London with Pakistan’s new president Asif Ali Zardari to discuss authorisation for cross-border raids.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday backed a proposed US strategy that would involve hitting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in neighbouring Pakistan, saying he had been calling for a changed approach for years.
"Change of strategy is essential," Karzai told a news conference. "It means that we go to those areas which are the training bases and havens of (terrorists) and we jointly got here and remove and destroy them."