Defense officials are criticizing what they say is the failure to capture or kill top al Qaeda leaders because of timidity on the part of policy officials in the Pentagon, diplomats at the State Department and risk-averse bureaucrats within the intelligence community.
Military special operations forces (SOF) commandos are frustrated by the lack of aggressiveness on the part of several policy and intelligence leaders in pursuing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen, who are thought to have hidden inside the tribal areas of Pakistan for the past 6½ years.
The focus of the commandos’ ire, the officials say, is the failure to set up bases inside Pakistan’s tribal region, where al Qaeda has regrouped in recent months, setting up training camps where among those being trained are Western-looking terrorists who can pass more easily through security systems. The lawless border region inside Pakistan along the Afghan border remains off-limits to U.S. troops.
The officials say that was not always the case. For a short time, U.S. special operations forces went into the area in 2002 and 2003, when secret Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs worked with Pakistani security forces.
That effort was halted under Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who recently blamed Pakistan for opposing the joint operations. Mr. Armitage, however, also disclosed his diplomatic opposition to the commando operations. Mr. Armitage, an adviser to Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain, told the New York Times last month that the United States feared pressuring Pakistani leaders for commando access and that the Delta Force and SEALs in the tribal region were “pushing them almost to the breaking point.”
However, the officials said that without the training and expertise of the U.S. commandos, Pakistani forces took heavy casualties in the region, with about 1,000 troops killed by terrorists and their supporters.
Another major setback for aggressive special operations activities occurred recently with a decision to downgrade the U.S. Special Operations Command. Under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the command in 2004 began to shift its focus from support and training to becoming a front-line command in the covert war to capture and kill terrorists. In May, SOCOM, as the command is called, reverted to its previous coordination and training role, a change that also frustrated many SOF commandos.
Critics in the Pentagon of the failure to more aggressively use the 50,000-strong SOF force say it also is the result of a bias by intelligence officials against special forces, including Pentagon policy-makers such as former CIA officer Michael Vickers, currently assistant defense secretary for special operations; former CIA officer Mary Beth Long, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs; and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director.
The officials said the bias among intelligence officials against aggressive military special operations is long-standing. As evidence, they note that one of the very few recommendations of the 9/11 commission ignored by President Bush was the panel’s call for giving the Pentagon the lead role in paramilitary operations.
The commission report stated that “lead responsibility for directing and executing paramilitary operations, whether clandestine or covert, should shift to the Defense Department.” That has not occurred, and the officials said one result is that bin Laden and his deputies remain at large.
Said one Pentagon official: “The reason some Pentagon leaders appear to be so indecisive about President Bush’s order to catch Osama bin Laden dead or alive is that they have not unleashed the dogs of war. Too many bureaucrats have blocked ideas from the aggressive U.S. commandos in Afghanistan and at SOCOM headquarters who just want to carry out the president’s orders to stop al Qaeda from rebuilding.”
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to address any specifics of special operations policies but said he thinks senior commanders do not share the critics’ views.
On the hunt for bin Laden, Mr. Morrell said: “No one should question our commitment to bringing Osama bin Laden and the rest of his cowardly lieutenants to justice, one way or another. It will happen. it’s just a question of when.”
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