WASHINGTON - Late last year, top Bush administration officials decided to take a step they had long resisted. They drafted a secret plan to authorize the Pentagon's Special Operations forces to launch missions into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan to capture or kill top leaders of al-Qaida.
Intelligence reports for more than a year had been streaming in about Osama bin Laden's terror network rebuilding in the Pakistani tribal areas, a problem that had been exacerbated by years of missteps in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad; sharp policy disagreements; and turf battles between U.S. counterterrorism agencies.
The new plan, outlined in a highly classified Pentagon order, was designed to eliminate some of those battles. And it was meant to pave an easier path into the tribal areas for U.S. commandos, who for years have bristled at what they see as Washington's risk-averse attitude toward Special Operations missions inside Pakistan. They also argue that catching bin Laden will come only by capturing some of his senior lieutenants alive.
But more than six months later, the Special Operations forces are still waiting for the green light. The plan has been held up in Washington by the very disagreements it was meant to eliminate.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush committed the nation to a "war on terrorism" and made the destruction of bin Laden's network the top priority of his presidency. But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with al-Qaida having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world.
Just as it had on Sept. 10, 2001, al-Qaida now has a band of terror camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired CIA officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds have as many as 2,000 Arab and Pakistani militants, up from several hundred three years ago.
Publicly, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have said that the creation of haven for al-Qaida in the tribal areas was in many ways inevitable — that the lawless badlands where ethnic Pashtun tribes have resisted government control for centuries were a natural place for a dispirited terror network to find refuge. The U.S. and Pakistani officials also blame a disastrous cease-fire brokered between the Pakistani government and militants in 2006.
But more than four dozen interviews in Washington and Pakistan tell another story. U.S. intelligence officials say that the hunt for al-Qaida in Pakistan, code-named Operation Cannonball by the CIA in 2006, was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the CIA, including about whether U.S. commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas.
Inside the CIA, the fights included clashes between the agency's outposts in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad. There were also battles between field officers and the counterterrorism center at CIA headquarters, whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missile strikes, was derided by officers in the Islamabad station as the work of "boys with toys."
Intragovernmental battles raged over the plan in early 2005 for a Special Operations mission intended to capture Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's top deputy, in what would have been the most aggressive use of U.S. ground troops inside Pakistan. The New York Times disclosed the aborted operation in a 2007 article, but interviews since then have produced new details about the episode.
But even as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers in parachute gear were boarding C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan, there were frenzied exchanges between officials at the Pentagon, Central Command and the CIA about whether the mission was too risky.
In the end, the mission was aborted after Rumsfeld refused to give his approval for it. By late 2005, many inside the CIA headquarters in Virginia had reached the conclusion that their hunt for bin Laden had reached a dead end.
Militants inside Pakistan only continued to gain strength. In the spring of 2006, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan launched an offensive in southern Afghanistan, increasing suicide bombings by sixfold and U.S. and NATO casualty rates by 45 percent.
U.S. commanders had been pressing for much of 2006 to get approval from Rumsfeld for an operation to capture Sheik Saiid al-Masri, a top Qaida operator and paymaster whom U.S. intelligence had been tracking in the Pakistani mountains.
Rumsfeld and his staff were reluctant to approve the mission, worried about possible U.S. military casualties and a popular backlash in Pakistan.
Finally, in November 2006, Rumsfeld approved operation of Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force commandos to move into Pakistan and capture Masri. But the operation was put on hold days later, after Rumsfeld was pushed out of the Pentagon, a casualty of the Democratic sweep of the 2006 election.
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