Senior U.S. officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond
Pakistan's tribal region and into a major city in an attempt to
pressure the Pakistani government to pursue Taliban leaders based in
The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war.
The prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta, a sprawling city,
signals a new U.S. resolve to decapitate the Taliban. But it also risks
rupturing Washington's relationship with Islamabad.
The concern has created tension among Obama administration officials
over whether unmanned aircraft strikes in a city of 850,000 are a
realistic option. Proponents, including some military leaders, argue
that attacking the Taliban in Quetta -- or at least threatening to do so
-- is crucial to the success of the revised war strategy President
Obama unveiled last week.
"If we don't do this -- at least have a real discussion of it --
Pakistan might not think we are serious," said a senior U.S. official
involved in war planning. "What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the
Taliban that there is too much pressure from the U.S.; we can't allow
you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore."
But others, including high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials, have
been more skeptical of employing drone attacks in a place that
Pakistanis see as part of their country's core. Pakistani officials
have warned that the fallout would be severe.
"We are not a banana republic," said a senior Pakistani official
involved in discussions of security issues with the Obama
administration. If the United States follows through, the official said,
"this might be the end of the road."
The CIA in recent years has stepped up a campaign against Al Qaeda and
the Taliban in Pakistan, much of it with drone strikes in the rural
tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The operations have been
conducted with the consent of the government of President Asif Ali
Zardari, who has proved a reliable ally to America in his first 15
months in office.
Zardari, however, is facing mounting political woes, and the CIA
airstrikes are highly unpopular among the Pakistani public, because of
concerns over national sovereignty and civilian casualties. If drone
attacks now confined to small villages were to be mounted in a sizable
city, the death rate of innocent bystanders would probably increase.
Obama has endorsed an expansion of CIA operations in the country,
approving the deployment of more spies and resources in a clandestine
counterpart to the 30,000 additional U.S. troops being sent into
But the push to expand drone strikes underscores the limits of the Obama
offensive. The administration has given itself 18 months to show
evidence of a turnaround in Afghanistan. But progress in Pakistan
depends almost entirely on drone strikes and prodding a sometimes
reluctant ally, which provides much of the intelligence to conduct the
strikes, to do more.
U.S. and Pakistani officials stressed that the United States has stopped
short of issuing an ultimatum to Pakistan. "It just doesn't make a
whole lot of sense to use heavy-handed tactics when you've got this kind
of relationship," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. Like others,
he discussed the issue on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the subject.
Obama alluded to the effort to enlist more Pakistani help on the day his
strategy was announced.
"The most important thing we can do in Pakistan is to change their
strategic orientation," Obama said in a meeting with news columnists
Dec. 1. The pursuit of Al Qaeda involves a range of activities, he said,
"some of which I can't discuss."
As Obama deliberated over the strategy for Afghanistan through fall,
administration officials consulted with Pakistan in high-level meetings
in Islamabad, also using those sessions to pressure the government to do
Among those involved were Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's national security
advisor; Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan;
and Leon E. Panetta, director of the CIA.
"We have applied enormous pressure," the senior U.S. official said.
Pakistan is not expected to hand over Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban
leader and longtime ally of Osama bin Laden who fled Afghanistan when
U.S. forces invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks. Omar is believed to have
used Quetta as a base from which to orchestrate insurgent attacks in
But U.S. officials said they have presented Pakistan with a list of
Taliban lieutenants and argued that, with a U.S. pullout scheduled to
begin in 18 months, the urgency of dismantling the so-called Quetta shura
is greater than at any time in the 8-year-old war.
The senior Pakistani official bristled at the suggestion that Pakistan
has been reluctant to target militants in Quetta, saying U.S. assertions
about the city's role as a sanctuary have been exaggerated.
"We keep hearing that there is a shadow government in Quetta, but we
have never been given actionable intelligence," the Pakistani official
Pakistan is prepared to pursue Taliban leaders, including Omar, even
when the intelligence is imprecise, the official said. "Even if a
compound 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer is identified, we will go find him."
But, he added, "for the past two years we haven't heard anything more."
Pakistan has launched a series of military operations against Islamic
militants over the last year. But those operations have been aimed
primarily at Taliban factions accused of carrying out attacks in
Pakistan, not the groups directing strikes on U.S. forces across the
The CIA has carried out dozens of Predator strikes in Pakistan's tribal
belt over the last two years, relying extensively on information
provided by informant networks run by Pakistan's spy service,
The campaign is credited with killing at least 10 senior Al Qaeda
operatives since the pace of the strikes was accelerated in August 2008,
but has enraged many Pakistanis because of civilian casualties.
The number of attacks has slowed in recent months. Possible causes
include weather disruptions and difficulty finding targets as insurgents
get better at eluding the Predator, and larger Reaper, drone patrols.
Of 48 attacks carried out this year, only six have taken place since
the end of September, according to data compiled by the website The Long War Journal. The
latest attack occurred Friday, in which a senior Al Qaeda operations
planner named Saleh Somali is believed to have been killed.
The drone attacks have been confined to territories along Pakistan's
northwestern border, regions essentially self-governed by Pashtun
tribes. The province of Baluchistan, however, has a distinct ethnic
identity and its own separatist movement. It is one of Pakistan's main
provinces, and strikes against its main city, Quetta, would probably be
seen as a violation of the nation's sovereignty.
A former senior CIA official said he and others were repeatedly rebuffed
when proposing operations in Baluchistan or pushing Pakistan to target
the Taliban in Quetta. "It wasn't easy to talk about," the official
said. "The conversations didn't last a long time."
Pakistan is working with the CIA to coax certain Taliban lieutenants in
Omar's fold to defect. U.S. officials said contacts have been handled
primarily by the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. The results
of the effort are unclear.
The CIA's main objective in Pakistan remains the hunt for Al Qaeda
leader Osama bin Laden. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently said
that it had been "years" since any meaningful information had surfaced
in that search.