WASHINGTON - The National Intelligence Council, the U.S. intelligence community's focal point for estimating future developments, warned the George W. Bush administration last month that a decision to launch commando raids by U.S. troops against al Qaeda-related targets in Pakistan's North-West Frontier region would carry a high risk of further destabilising the Pakistani military and government, according to sources familiar with the intelligence community's response to the issue.
That blunt warning was conveyed to the White House in an oral briefing by a top official of the NIC two or three weeks ago, according to Philip Giraldi, former operations officer and counter-terrorist specialist in the CIA Directorate of Operations, who maintains contacts with the intelligence community.
Another source, who has been briefed by NIC officials on the issue, confirms that the NIC message, representing a consensus in the intelligence community, was conveyed to the Bush administration in August, just as an intense debate over whether to carry out commando raids against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan was still under way.
The source, who asked not to be identified because of the confidentiality of his contacts with the NIC, said the White House was warned that if U.S. commando raids continued over a longer period of time, the NIC believes they could threaten the unity of the Pakistani military.
U.S. special operations forces based at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan carried out a commando raid in South Waziristan on Sep. 3 which reportedly killed as many as 20 people, most of whom were apparently civilians. Both the New York Times and Washington Post said top officials indicated this was only the beginning of wider campaign of raids against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the frontier area of Pakistan.
The Pakistani government lodged a diplomatic protest over the raid, and the Pakistani Parliament condemned it in a resolution.
The intelligence community believes U.S. military incursions into Pakistan will benefit the political-military organisations allied with the Taliban that are seeking to destabilise the national government in Islamabad.
Patrick Lang, former defence intelligence officer for the Middle East at the Defence Intelligence Agency, told IPS he understands the intelligence community issued a 'pretty clear warning' against the commando raid. 'They said, in effect, if you want to see the Pakistani government collapse, go right ahead,' Lang said.
A key to the strategy of Islamic extremists in the FATA region in northwest Pakistan is believed to be winning over troops in both the Frontier Corps, the militia recruited from the local population, and the regular Pakistani army. The Pakistani military rejected a proposal earlier this year from U.S. military leaders for U.S. special operations officers to train units of the Frontier Corps in counter-insurgency, along with use of cash payments to obtain their cooperation against the Taliban and its allies.
But the intelligence community regards the Frontier Corps as already 'wavering', the source familiar with NIC thinking says, and it is feared that U.S. military raids would cause more of those units to actively support the militant Islamic organisations in the FATA.
The intelligence community's greatest fear, according to the source, is the impact of anti-U.S. anger on the morale of the regular Pakistani army. One reason for that concern is the fact that a disproportionate percentage of the army officers serving in the region are Pashtun. The tribal population of the FATA is largely Pashtun, and if the U.S. commando raids continue beyond a few months, analysts believe they could provoke large-scale defections from the Pakistani army serving in the FATA.
Selig Harrison of the Centre for International Policy, a veteran journalist and author specialising in Pakistan affairs, agreed in an interview that the raids, along with targeted missile strikes that have caused many civilian casualties, are likely to strain the loyalties of Pashtun army officers serving in the FATA.
In an article in the International Herald Tribune in August 2007, Harrison warned that the Pashtun-based radical movement in the northwest 'could lead to the unification of the estimated 41 million Pashtuns on both sides of the border, the breakup of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a new national entity, 'Pashtunistan', under radical Islamist leadership.'
Although the NIC is responsible for producing national intelligence estimates, it has not been asked to provide any estimate on the potential consequences of a policy of raids by U.S. special operations forces against targets in the FATA believed to be linked to al Qaeda, according to the former CIA official.
Ironically, it was the July 2007 national intelligence estimate produced by the NIC on al Qaeda that contributed to growing pressures for direct U.S. military actions in Pakistan. The conclusion of NIE that al Qaeda enjoyed a safe haven in Pakistan which had become the primary centre of its operations worldwide was highly publicised and highly charged politically.
The Pakistani military reacted to the U.S. raid last week by citing the danger that it would provoke new attacks by militants in the frontier area. The New York Times quoted the spokesman for the Pakistani military, Gen. Athar Abbas, as warning that, because of the killing of civilians, there is now a greater risk that tribesmen who have supported the Pakistani soldiers and opposed the Taliban in the past will shift their loyalties out of anger.
'Such actions are completely counterproductive and can result in huge losses, because it gives the civilians a cause to rise against the Pakistani military,' Abbas was quoted as saying.
According to Pakistan's leading daily newspaper, Dawn, Pakistan's National Security Council received an intelligence report in June 2007 on the 'Talibanisation' of the region, which cited 'the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan' and the 'growing feeling among Muslims that they are under attack' as factors contributing to the 'growing insurgency' in the region.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, 'Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam', was published in 2006.