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Obama to expand covert war in Pakistan?

March 18, 2009 15:12 IST

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United States President Barack Obama [Images] is considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the tribal areas to strike at a different centre of Taliban [Images] power in Balochistan, from where the top leaders of the outfit are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.

Two high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to include a major insurgent sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taliban government that was ousted in the American-led invasion in 2001, has operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies, the daily said.

The extensive missile strikes being carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Balochistan, a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government in Pakistan, and which abuts the parts of southern Afghanistan.

Fear, the daily reported, remains within the American government that extending the raids would worsen tensions. Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty. But some American officials were quoted as saying that the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda [Images] to flee south towards Quetta, making them more vulnerable.

In separate reports, groups led by both General David H Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E Lute, top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency, the daily reported.

Many of Obama's advisers, it said, are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by former president George W Bush [Images] to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas.

They are also recommending preserving the option to conduct cross border ground action, using the CIA and the US Special Operations commandos, as was done in September last.

Bush's orders also named as targets a wide variety of insurgents seeking to topple Pakistan's government. Obama has said little in public about how broadly he wants to pursue those groups, the paper said.

"It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programs," one senior administration official told the daily.

"One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we've got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens," the official added/

Obama's top national security advisers, known as the Principals Committee, met on Tuesday to begin debating all aspects of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, the daily reported.

Any expansion of the war, the paper said, is bound to upset those in Obama's party who worry that he is sinking further into a lengthy conflict in Afghanistan, even while reducing forces in Iraq.

It is possible that the decisions about covert actions will never be publicly announced, the paper added. Several administration and military officials, the paper said, stressed that they continued to prod the Pakistani military to take the lead in a more aggressive campaign to root out the Taliban and the Qaeda fighters who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan and increasingly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan.

But with Pakistan consumed by political turmoil, fear of financial collapse and a spreading insurgency, American officials say they have few illusions that the US will be able to rely on Pakistans own forces. However, each strike by Predators or ground forces reverberates in Pakistan, and Obama will be weighing that cost, the report added.

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