- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Obama administration is considering widening missile strikes on al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan, and is planning to bolster the training of Pakistan’s forces in a key border battleground where militants fuel the escalating Afghan insurgency, according to U.S. officials.

The officials said the stepped-up moves against the militant networks could extend the air strikes farther south, beyond the current target areas in Waziristan and into the western province of Baluchistan. U.S. special operations forces are also developing plans to expand their training of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps into that province.

President Obama cited the war against al Qaeda as his main goal in a major address this week on his Afghan strategy but divulged no new details about how the U.S. would carry it out.

Despite that silence, there have been growing discussions in recent weeks about the need to expand the use of airborne missile-equipped drones into other volatile regions of Pakistan, broadening a covert CIA operation that has fueled anti-American sentiment in that country.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, acknowledged that there have been “discussions, in Congress and a lot of different places, to expand the area” where the drone attacks are being conducted.

“We have limited operations now, and there are threats from other places in the region,” Mr. Smith said.

He would not provide details, but a U.S. government official said Friday that discussions are under way to expand those attacks into Baluchistan. That official and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified, and decisions on the training program are not yet final.

The CIA had already accelerated the pace of its drone attacks in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas this year, but U.S. officials are also concerned about Baluchistan because of its central role in stoking the Afghan insurgency.

Since January 28, 2008, there have been 67 suspected U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan, killing 721 people, 556 of whom intelligence officials believe were militants, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and witnesses interviewed by the Associated Press after each strike.

Officials believe that much of the direction, funding and weapons sustaining the Taliban in Afghanistan come from its fugitive leader, Mullah Omar, who is thought to be based close to the city of Quetta in Baluchistan province. More militants and resources come from a separate network commanded by Siraj Haqqani in the Waziristan tribal areas.

U.S. officials estimate that there are about 500 al Qaeda members in Pakistan and Afghanistan, often moving back and forth across the border. And they say there are about 50,000 Taliban insurgents dispersed among the Afghan and Pakistani tribes.

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