Reuters: U.S. counting on Pakistani action against al Qaeda

Thursday, August 02, 2007

U.S. counting on Pakistani action against al Qaeda

By David Morgan | August 2, 2007

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite calls for U.S. action against al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Bush administration is counting on Pakistani forces to cripple militant operations in a series of U.S.-backed raids, officials and experts say.

Pakistani troops, equipped with U.S. helicopters, night vision goggles and other sophisticated gear, are unlikely to eradicate the militant network's safe haven in remote North Waziristan, U.S. officials said.

But officials believe they could eliminate some al Qaeda leaders and disable main facilities in what some describe as a network of small militant compounds strung across the harsh mountainous terrain.

The administration believes eliminating al Qaeda's influence in the region will require a long-term, multimillion-dollar, hearts-and-minds campaign to erode support for militants among a tribal populace known for its hostility to outside authority.

Pakistani forces, which have clashed with militant tribesmen in Waziristan since a 10-month peace treaty ended a month ago, are thought to have already stepped up surveillance in areas where al Qaeda is active.

"The Pakistanis have the lead," said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue involves classified information. "There are expectations that actions will be taken."

Renewed U.S. concern about al Qaeda spilled into public debate last month when the Bush administration declassified excerpts of an intelligence report saying the United States faced a heightened risk of attack.

Administration officials say Washington is prepared to act on its own, but only if the intelligence is certain -- a condition some privately acknowledge to be unlikely.

"If we had perfect knowledge about the location of al Qaeda ... then of course we wouldn't hesitate," Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, told C-SPAN.


Unilateral U.S. action could pose too great a risk for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is experiencing the weakest period in his eight-year rule.

"There is a real possibility that the injection of U.S. forces could lead to a broader war by destabilizing the Pakistani government and radicalizing large segments of the population," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

Pakistani officials had already voiced fear that al Qaeda would become a U.S. election issue, before Democratic candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said he would order U.S. troops into Pakistan as president if Islamabad failed to act.

It is not clear how far Musharraf is willing to go with Pakistan's forces, given that he has already lost nearly 800 men in Waziristan since 2003 and Islamists have launched a wave of bombings in Pakistani cities in recent weeks.

But current and former U.S. officials say the most likely scenario would involve small-scale ground assaults by Pakistani forces with backing from U.S. intelligence including spy satellite imagery, and possibly U.S. air support.

"It won't be a simple campaign," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Something like this isn't done in one set of attacks. What you're talking about is something that at a minimum plays out over months."

A major Pakistani military assault is unlikely given conditions in the country as elections approach, analysts say.

But smaller-scale raids would still pose risks, including civilian casualties. Many potential targets are said to be in villages, near mosques and other public structures.

U.S. officials said a main prong of Bush administration policy is to dissuade locals from cooperating with al Qaeda by following up attacks on militant targets with generous offers of economic development through the Pakistani government.

President George W. Bush has asked Congress for $750 million to help bring jobs and other development to the lawless region.

(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore in Islamabad and Kristin Roberts in Washington)

© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.