U.S. ground forces crossed the border from Afghanistan and attacked suspected al Qaeda targets in Pakistan on Wednesday as part of an aggressive new strategy to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before President Bush leaves office, U.S. officials said.
The strategy also appears intended to take advantage of political turmoil in Pakistan, where militants associated with Pakistan’s Taliban movement attempted to kill the prime minister Wednesday and parliament is due to elect a new president on Saturday.
“I know the hunt is on; they’re pulling out all the stops,” said a Defense Department official with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be named. “They are leaving no stone unturned. They want to find bin Laden before the president leaves office and ensure that al Qaeda will not attack the U.S. during the upcoming elections.”
Pakistan protested the pre-dawn strike and reported that women and children were among 20 civilians killed in what Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistan army spokesman, said was the first U.S. ground incursion into Pakistani territory.
Previous U.S. attacks have come from bombers or unmanned aircraft.
The attack took place across from Afghanistan´s barren Paktika province, site of a U.S. military installation. Pakistani officials said they think the attack was mounted by U.S. commandos backed by helicopter gunships.
The attack took place in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The tribal areas have become safe havens for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, are thought to be hiding there. It was not clear whether any militants were killed or captured in the raid.
Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said representatives of his government met with U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson in Islamabad on Wednesday to protest the strike and complain that the United States did “not coordinate the operation with Pakistan.”
“They told the ambassador that nobody would like that this sort of event should happen again and that action should be taken against the people who planned the operation,” Mr. Kiani said. “This is the first time that U.S. ground troops crossed into sovereign territory and that women and children were killed. For that reason, the Pakistan government protested the U.S. government. We have to wait and see why, what reason, [the U.S.] would send ground troops.”
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry called the raid “a grave provocation” and “a gross violation of Pakistan’s territory. … Such actions are counterproductive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism,” the ministry said. “On the contrary, they undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish.”
Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said he had “nothing to provide” regarding the incident. U.S. Central Command officials also refused to comment, as did the White House and a spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “finding bin Laden has always been a priority” and that targeting al Qaeda bases is based on actionable intelligence. However, he added that the November elections in the U.S. have renewed a sense of urgency to capture the terrorist leader. “Any period of transition, like the upcoming election, can be seen as a potential vulnerability,” he said.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior official on the White House National Security Council and former CIA officer, agreed.
“Many people in the intelligence community are concerned about the transition in the United States as a time when al Qaeda may strike the U.S.,” he told The Times. “The best defense is offense to try to decapitate al Qaeda´s leadership, but that requires extraordinarily good intelligence.”
The Bush administration also appeared to be taking advantage of a power vacuum in Pakistan to mount the attack.
Pakistan’s president since 1999, Pervez Musharraf, was forced to resign last month or face impeachment. Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party and widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is expected to be elected on Saturday by parliament but is a controversial figure.
On Wednesday, snipers fired on a government motorcade en route to the Islamabad airport to pick up Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, striking a car window at least twice. Mr. Zardari picked Mr. Gilani for the post after the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto in December.
Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the banned militant organization Tahrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility and pledged more attacks to retaliate for Pakistani army operations in the tribal area. The Pakistani government had promised to stage no new operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began this week.
cThis article is based in part on wire service reports.