U.S. officials now publicly say that the possibility of U.S. military action against al-Qaida and Taleban safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas cannot be ruled out. The U.S. has criticized Pakistan for what U.S. officials consider its soft approach to the safe haven issue. But as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the criticism may mask some quiet cooperation.
When the Taleban and their al-Qaida guests were ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, their leaders managed to escape across the border to the rugged and lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.
Until now, Washington has nudged Islamabad behind closed doors to get tough about cleaning out the terrorist sanctuaries. But after a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate earlier this month concluded that al-Qaida had regrouped in the tribal areas, U.S. criticism became more public and pointed.
In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns raised the possibility that the U.S. might act in the tribal areas if Pakistan does not.
"Given the primacy of the fight against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, if we have in the future a certainty of knowledge, then of course the United States would always have the option of taking action on its own," said Burns. "But we prefer to work with the Pakistani forces, and we in most situations, nearly every situation, do work with them."
In Islamabad Thursday, Pakistan's foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri called talk of a unilateral U.S. attack "irresponsible and counterproductive."
Analysts agree that any large-scale U.S. incursion into the tribal areas is extremely unlikely. But Daniel Markey, who was until recently on the South Asia Policy Planning staff at the State Department, says the United States is already involved in attacks inside Pakistan in an indirect way.
"I think the United States is involved, if not directly, then indirectly by providing intelligence, surveillance, satellite photos, and so on that would allow the Pakistanis to be more effective," said Markey. "So in that narrow sense, the United States already has been involved in attacks in Pakistan."
Some analysts believe U.S. actions may already be more direct. Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, says Pakistani officials may be turning a blind eye to U.S. cross-border pursuit of terrorist suspects so long as such operations remain low-key and secret.
"I speculate that there is a backroom deal about you guys coming across, do what you've got to do, quietly, and as long as there's plausible deniability, we'll put up with it," said Goodson. "I don't know; that's just speculation. But I suspect that since there have been these kinds of cross-border operations that no one talks about, that there is something of -- it's not a green light, maybe sort of a yellow light -- for some of that activity to go forward.
Daniel Markey says the argument over the sanctuary issue centers on the different views that Washington and Islamabad have about the threat residing in the tribal areas.
"The United States and Pakistan don't necessarily see the problem of the tribal areas in identical ways," said Markey. "The United States is much more interested in the global terrorist threat, whereas Pakistan is much more interested in kind of local challenges to Pakistani stability and its influence in the region."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cut deals with tribal leaders for their help in rooting out terrorist strongholds. Peter Rodman, who was assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Bush administration, says this approach did not work.
"The government of Pakistan reached some agreements on the ground last year with certain of the tribes, sort of non-aggression pacts," said Rodman. "I mean, the army backed away and made little treaties with some of these tribes, which were designed to deal politically with this problem. And we were very disappointed with that. We thought this really gave the Taleban a free hand. And that is how it has worked out, unfortunately, in some of these cases."
According to a report published earlier this year, a U.S. covert operation was planned to snatch al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri from his Pakistani safe haven in 2005.
However, the operation was called off at the last minute by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as being too risky after what was envisioned as small U.S. paramilitary team had ballooned into a large force.