Determined to capture or kill Osama bin Laden after two years of fruitless searching, U.S. troops are mustering for a spring offensive along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, Defense Department and other officials said Wednesday. The new operation comes as the Bush administration debates whether to press Pakistan harder to allow the U.S. to take the fight into its territory.
Defense officials said the offensive, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, would resemble military operations launched in spring 2003 and 2002 to capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters leaving winter bivouacs. The terrorist leader and some of his top aides are believed to be operating out of Pakistan’s Waziristan area or nearby in the mountainous border region between the two nations with the assistance or protection of tribal leaders in areas that are essentially off-limits to Pakistani law enforcement officials.
That poses a dilemma for the administration: how to press the hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda without putting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the “war on terror,” at further risk.
Two administration officials said some senior Pentagon officials were pushing for an aggressive hunt for Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, while some officials at the State Department and in the National Security Council argued that Musharraf’s already fragile regime, under growing pressure from Islamic hard-liners, would be further destabilized if he allowed foreign troops to operate on Pakistani soil.
Musharraf survived two assassination attempts in recent weeks and has said he suspected the Al Qaeda terrorist network was behind the attacks. As fundamentalist factions continue to gain support in Pakistan, Bush administration officials fear another attempt or a coup could lead to a new regime more hostile to American interests and more supportive of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials stressed Wednesday that no military operations would be carried out inside Pakistan without Musharraf’s approval. At a news conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, the Pakistani president ruled out such operations.
“No sir, that is not a possibility at all. It’s a very sensitive issue,” Musharraf said when asked if he would consider allowing U.S. troops to search for Bin Laden in Pakistan. “There is no room for any foreign elements coming and assisting us, we don’t need any assistance.”
One U.S. official said Pakistan was by far the most important country in the U.S. effort to find Bin Laden and several top aides.
“In our list of the top 10 countries who can help us in this,” the official said, “eight of them are Pakistan.”
Pentagon proponents of launching military operations in Pakistan argue that it will be in Musharraf’s “enlightened self-interest” to allow the U.S. to hunt down remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda before they assassinate him or launch another attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. official said.
Afghanistan is becoming increasingly chaotic as ex-Taliban regime members and Al Qaeda fighters ratchet up attacks on U.S. and other Western forces, U.S. officials say.
On Wednesday, a British soldier was killed and four were injured when a car bomber blew up a taxi near British troops in Kabul, the capital, in the second suicide attack against foreign peacekeepers in two days. The Land Rover was carrying about 200 pounds of explosives, Afghan officials told reporters.
Officials said Wednesday that the capture in December of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had freed resources to press the hunt for Bin Laden and his fighters.
“There’s an obvious ability now to refocus human assets on a far grander scale,” the U.S. official said. “It’s logical that the hunter-killer types would now be turned loose to deal with this more aggressively.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.