- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

Top Bush administration officials are pressing the president to direct U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be more aggressive in pursuing militants into Pakistan on foot as part of a proposed radical shift in regional counterterrorism strategy, the Associated Press has learned.

Senior intelligence and military aides want President Bush to give American soldiers greater flexibility to operate against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who cross the border from Pakistan’s lawless tribal border area to conduct attacks inside Afghanistan, officials say.

The plan could include sending U.S. Special Forces teams, temporarily assigned to the CIA, into the tribal areas to hit high-value targets, according to an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the proposal.

Such a move would be controversial, in part because of Pakistani opposition to U.S. incursions into its territory, and the proposal is not universally supported in Washington. It comes amid growing political instability in Pakistan and concerns that elements of Pakistan’s security forces are collaborating with extremists.

Senior members of Mr. Bush’s national security team met last week at the White House to discuss the recommendations and are now weighing how to proceed, the officials said.

The top agenda item at the meeting of the so-called deputies committee — usually the No. 2 officials at the departments of Defense and State, plus the intelligence agencies and the National Security Council — was to “review and potentially revise cross-border strategy,” said a person familiar with the session.

“What the deputies committee has raised is, given the possibility that political fragmentation in Pakistan is going to continue, do we need to change our strategy?” the official said. He and other current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because sensitive foreign policy matters are involved.

The deputies committee is two levels down from the president, so its recommendations would not immediately affect policy.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to comment.

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq also refused to comment.

The current strategy — relying on Pakistan to keep a lid on the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan — was meant to support Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a strong ally of the U.S. who took control of Pakistan in 1999 in a bloodless coup. Mr. Musharraf was sidelined this spring when a coalition government trounced Mr. Musharraf’s allies in parliamentary elections. He remains president but with vastly diminished influence. Pakistan’s governing coalition announced Thursday it will seek to impeach Mr. Musharraf.

The Associated Press reported last year that U.S. rules of engagement allowed ground forces to go a little over 6 miles into Pakistan when in hot pursuit, and when forces were targeted or fired on by the enemy. U.S. rules allow aircraft to go 10 miles into Pakistan air space. Those rules would not be stretched under the plan. But U.S. forces would be encouraged to use that authority liberally.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. supports the plan.

“The argument that we may destabilize Pakistan has taken us to where we are right now,” Ambassador Said T. Jawad said.

But defense officials say violating its sovereignty would anger Pakistan and could affect U.S. use of the country as a base from which to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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