WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's strategy for pursuing al-Qaida in Pakistan's tribal region could stoke support for the Islamic militants who are protecting the terrorist network's leaders and battling Pakistan's U.S.-backed military regime, some U.S. diplomatic and defense officials and experts warn.
President Bush is under pressure to act following the release last week of a new intelligence assessment that said Osama bin Laden's network has re-established itself and is plotting attacks on the United States from the mountainous tribal region that borders Afghanistan.
The National Intelligence Estimate coincided with a surge in attacks in Pakistan by Islamic militants, who called off a truce with the Pakistani government in the tribal region after more than 100 people died when security forces stormed an extremist-held mosque.
The Bush administration is backing renewed Pakistani army operations against local extremists, Taliban fighters from Afghanistan and al-Qaida in Waziristan, which is part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA).
The White House is also threatening U.S. strikes in the region, where bin Laden and his closest followers are believed to have fled after the administration decided against sending U.S. forces to block their escape from Afghanistan in December 2001.
"There are no options off the table," Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, said on Fox News last Sunday.
Some U.S. military and diplomatic officials and many independent experts, however, warn that military intervention could fuel greater instability, anti-U.S. hatred and opposition to the Pakistani regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
"Military force will further complicate things," said Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who served as a mid-level police officer in the region.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that some officers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division who've recently returned from tours in Afghanistan have expressed similar concerns.
Thomas Fingar, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which includes the top U.S. intelligence analysts, told a House of Representatives panel on July 11 that there is "some risk" that U.S. military intervention in the tribal areas could spread anti-Musharraf unrest to other parts of Pakistan.
Sporadic U.S. airstrikes in the region, which has resisted subjugation for centuries, have failed to cripple al-Qaida and claimed the lives of civilian Pashtuns, the ethnic group whose tribal code includes a strong tradition of vengeance.
Sympathy for bin Laden and hatred for Musharraf's regime and its U.S. backers were also stoked by offensives by some 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed in 2003 at U.S. insistence. The operations, which involved heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, claimed numerous civilian lives.
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The regime, which lost some 700 troops, was forced last September to halt the operations and conclude the failed truce, which U.S. intelligence officials say has allowed al-Qaida's leadership to re-establish bases and training camps in Waziristan.
Some U.S. defense and diplomatic officials and many experts are also concerned about the administration's plan to bulk up a local paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, with $75 million in new weapons and equipment, including night-vision goggles.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the U.S. strategy calls for transforming the corps "into a different kind of force that's able to deal with the severe problems but also stabilize the area."
The corps is recruited from the tribes and commanded by regular Pakistani Army officers. It was created by Pakistan's former British colonial rulers and maintained after independence in 1947 as a means of providing jobs and winning cooperation in a destitute region where the government has little authority.
Corps members have been reluctant to fight the militants because they have ethnic, tribal and family ties to the Islamists, and a former senior U.S. commander who served in Afghanistan said some members have provided covering fire for Taliban fighters crossing the border into Afghanistan. There also are fears that some corps members could turn their U.S.-supplied equipment over to militants.
"These guys are low-paid tribal people. Each tribe gets a quota. It gives them a handout. They are poorly trained. They've never really had to fight. So they are corruption-prone," said Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to two Pakistani prime ministers who now teaches at Boston University.
Some U.S. officers on the Afghan side of the border "jokingly refer to the Pakistan military defending them against the Frontier Corps," said the former U.S. commander. "The people who are in the Frontier Corps have a stronger loyalty to the tribes and family members than they do to central authority."
"The battle lines are drawn in such a way (that) anyone who is fighting for Musharraf is considered fighting for the United States," Abbas said.
The former senior U.S. commander said the corps isn't suited for the kinds of counterinsurgency functions envisioned by the Bush administration.
The plan, he said, represents "a Western engineering mindset solution to a problem that essentially is much more convoluted than a lack of proper equipment."
Abbas said that any plan to deny al-Qaida its haven must begin with the restoration of a civilian government in Islamabad that can negotiate with the tribes.
It also must include the construction of roads, schools and other infrastructure, funds for which are part of the administration's strategy.
© Copyright 2007, The McClatchy Washington Bureau