Obama poised to send CIA deeper into Pakistan to hunt Taleban
PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a centre of Taleban power in Baluchistan, where Taleban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.
According to senior administration officials, two of the high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan handed to the White House in recent weeks have called for a broadening of the target area to reach the Taleban and other insurgent groups at a major sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taleban government that was ousted in the US-led invasion in 2001, has operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies.
The missile strikes being carried out by CIA-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Baluchistan, a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government. Some US officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced leaders of the Taleban and al-Qaeda to flee south toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable.
The US military has said the Predator and Reaper drone attacks in the tribal areas have killed nine of al-Qaeda's top 20 leaders, and the aerial campaign was recently expanded to focus on the Pakistani Taleban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as his fighters and training camps.
In separate reports, groups led by both General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the region, and Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding US operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Mike Hammer, declined to provide details, saying: "We're still working hard to finalise the review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president requested."
A senior administration official said: "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."
Mr Obama's top national security advisers, known as the principals committee, met on Tuesday to begin debating all aspects of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. British Defence Secretary John Hutton and Foreign Secretary David Miliband have also contributed to the review this week. .
Senior US administration officials say Mr Obama has made no decisions, but is expected to do so in coming days after hearing the advice.
As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilian and military officials, Mr Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for future US commitments to Afghanistan. His core decision may be whether to scale back US ambitions and simply assure that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorist groups.
"We are taking this back to a fundamental question," a senior diplomat involved in the discussions said. "Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country?"
A second option, officials say, is to significantly boost the US commitment to train Afghan troops, with Americans taking on the Taleban with increasing help from the Afghan military.
A third option would involve devoting full US and Nato resources to a large-scale counterinsurgency effort – one not popular with most US allies.
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