WASHINGTON — The top two American intelligence officials traveled secretly to Pakistan early this month to press President Pervez Musharraf to allow the Central Intelligence Agency greater latitude to operate in the tribal territories where Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups are all active, according to several officials who have been briefed on the visit.
But in the unannounced meetings on Jan. 9 with the two American officials — Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director — Mr. Musharraf rebuffed proposals to expand any American combat presence in Pakistan, either through unilateral covert C.I.A. missions or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces.
Instead, Pakistan and the United States are discussing a series of other joint efforts, including increasing the number and scope of missions by armed Predator surveillance aircraft over the tribal areas, and identifying ways that the United States can speed information about people suspected of being militants to Pakistani security forces, officials said.
American and Pakistani officials have questioned each other in recent months about the quality and time lines of information that the United States has given to Pakistan to use in focusing on those extremists. American officials have complained that the Pakistanis are not seriously pursuing Al Qaeda in the region.
The Jan. 9 meetings, the first visit with Mr. Musharraf by senior administration officials since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, also included the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the director of Pakistan’s leading military intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj. American officials said the visit was prompted by an increasing sense of urgency at the highest levels of the United States government that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government.
The C.I.A. has fired missiles from Predator aircraft in the tribal areas several times, with varying degrees of success. Intelligence officials said they believed that in January 2006 an airstrike narrowly missed killing Ayman al-Zawahri, the second-ranking Qaeda leader, who had attended a dinner in Damadola, a Pakistani village.
Pakistani authorities, in interviews, say they have more than 100,000 troops operating in the region, including a sizable force conducting what they said was a major offensive in South Waziristan. But in the White House, the Pentagon and the C.I.A., frustrations remain high, and there is concern that Mr. Musharraf’s political problems will distract him from what the administration regards as its last chance to take aggressive action.
Despite the insistence of administration officials that the United States and Pakistan have a common goal in fighting Al Qaeda, Mr. Musharraf has made clear in public proclamations that it is far from his first priority. At the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, Mr. Musharraf said several times that the 100,000 Pakistani troops that he said were now along the border were hunting for Taliban extremists and “miscreants,” but he also said there was no particular effort being put into the search for Qaeda fighters.
In Washington, however, the Bush administration has said that fighting terrorists, chiefly Al Qaeda, is the primary purpose of the $10 billion in American aid that has been sent to Pakistan, mostly for reimbursements for the cost of patrolling the tribal areas. President Bush has often praised Mr. Musharraf for fighting terrorism, pointing out that Al Qaeda has tried to kill the Pakistani leader. But White House officials were silent when Mr. Musharraf said this week that his efforts were focused on the Taliban, and that the main problem the United States faced was in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.
Accounts of the discussions between Mr. Musharraf and the intelligence officials were provided by American and Pakistani officials over the past two weeks after The New York Times inquired about the secret trip. While officials confirmed some details of the discussion, much remains unknown about the continuing dialogue between Islamabad and Washington.
The trip by Mr. McConnell and General Hayden, a 14,000-mile over-and-back visit for one day of discussions, occurred just five days after senior administration officials debated new strategies for dealing with Pakistan. No decisions were made at that meeting of the National Security Council, which gathered all of Mr. Bush’s top national security officials but not the president.
In the ensuing three weeks, however, the debate appeared to be intensifying, as senior American officials said they believed that American forces — whether as combat troops or trainers — could enhance the efforts of Pakistan’s military in the mountainous and lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
“The purpose of the mission,” a senior official said, “was to convince Musharraf that time is ticking away,” and that the increased attacks on Pakistan would ultimately undermine his effort to stay in office.
Other officials said that recent intelligence analysis indicated that Al Qaeda was now operating in the tribal areas with an impunity similar to the freedom that it had in Afghanistan before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The C.I.A. operatives in Afghanistan and the covert Special Operations forces there have made little secret of their desire to move into the tribal areas with or without Mr. Musharraf’s explicit approval. In the administration, there has been discussion of whether Mr. Bush should give orders to allow them more latitude. Mr. Musharraf has explicitly rejected that, and within days after Mr. McConnell and General Hayden’s departure, he told a Singapore newspaper that any unilateral action by the United States would be regarded as an invasion. In Davos, he dismissed the idea that Americans could be effective in the tribal areas.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States was willing to send combat troops to Pakistan to conduct joint operations against Al Qaeda and other militants if the Pakistani government asked for American help. Mr. Gates said that Pakistan had not requested American assistance, and that any American troops sent to Pakistan would likely be assigned solely to train Pakistani forces. The top American commander in the region, Adm. William J. Fallon, visited Pakistan last Tuesday to discuss counterterrorism issues with senior Pakistani officials, including General Kayani.
American and Pakistani spokesmen confirmed that the meetings between Mr. Musharraf and American intelligence officials took place, but they declined to offer any details. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in an interview that the meetings were about “improving coordination, discussing the war on terror, and filling the gaps between intelligence and operations,” but he declined to provide details.
Last Tuesday, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, Lt. Gen. Dell L. Dailey, echoed some of those concerns, telling reporters that there were gaps in what the United States knew about the threat in the tribal areas. “We don’t have enough information about what’s going on there,” said General Dailey, who retired from the Army with extensive experience in military Special Operations. “Not on Al Qaeda. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban.”
In dealing with the American requests, Mr. Musharraf is conducting a delicate balancing act. American officials contend that now, more than ever, he recognizes the need to step up the battle against extremists who are seeking to topple his government. But he also believes that if American forces are discovered operating in Pakistan, the backlash will be more than he can control, especially because the Taliban and Al Qaeda are trying to cast him as a pawn of Washington. One result appears to be a compromise: Mr. Musharraf is willing, they say, to accept training, equipment, and technical help, but has insisted that no Americans get involved in ground operations.
Pakistani officials insist they are taking the militant threat seriously and have completed major operations in the Swat Valley to drive out extremists. In the past few days, about 1,000 Pakistan Army troops and Frontier Corps paramilitary forces have also begun a three-pronged attack against the South Waziristan stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader with links to Al Qaeda who is the main suspect in the assassination of Ms. Bhutto.
The New York Times News Article
PHOTO: Area of Operation Against Militants
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