Another story about an October Surprise from al-CIA-duh
By Philip Sherwell in New York and Massoud Ansari in Islamabad
Last Updated: 12:20AM BST 28 Sep 2008
The Pentagon has ordered that raids on suspected terrorist targets within Pakistan be stepped up to pressurise al-Qaeda leaders and distract them from preparing attacks on American targets elsewhere.
"The aim is to disrupt their scope for planning and keep their leaders on the move so that it is more difficult for them to co-ordinate complicated plots," a senior US intelligence official told The Sunday Telegraph.
The operations launched from neighbouring Afghanistan have led to sharply increased tensions with Pakistan's armed forces since President George W.Bush recently authorised assaults involving "boots on the ground" without prior approval by Pakistan's government, a supposed US ally.
Those hostilities almost turned lethal last week when Pakistani troops shot at two clearly marked US helicopters, and the two sides then traded fire. The Pentagon said the aircraft were just inside Afghan air space but Pakistani officials insisted they had crossed the volatile border.
There were no injuries in the clash but US and Pakistani officers have arranged meetings this week to discuss the tensions. While new Pakistani president Asif Zardari praised US support for his country as a "blessing" on Friday in New York, senior officials in Islamabad angrily warned US troops not to intrude on its territory.
The US has been increasingly alarmed about the growth of attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan launched from safe havens established by Islamic terror groups in the lawless mountainous tribal districts just inside Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, the defence secretary, told lawmakers last week that an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of attacks in Afghanistan were staged by fighters based in, or commanded from, Pakistan - a significant rise on previous years.
The approach of the US election has fuelled fears that al Qaeda or its allies, including the increasingly active Haqqani network, will seek a headline-grabbing strike against a symbolic American target such as an overseas embassy.
Last week's devastating truck bomb attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel further highlighted security concerns in Pakistan. The blast claimed the lives of 53 people, including two US military personnel, the Czech ambassador and a Danish intelligence officer.
"The level of sophistication and destruction was a message to the international community and the Pakistanis that we can pretty much hit you any place, any time," said Seth Jones, a senior regional analyst with the Rand Corporation, a leading security think-tank.
Kamran Bokhari, Middle East director at Stratfor, an intelligence analysis company, said that the scale of the attack - involving up to 1,000 kilogrammes of explosives - was a clear indication that al Qaeda or its allies were involved.
"The target and modus operandi have the signature of a sophisticated jihadi operation," he said. "The hotel is in a very sensitive area. If they can hit the Marriott, why can't they hit courts or ministries or the prime minister's house?"
Against this backdrop, a senior US intelligence official said that al Qaeda was seeking to stafe a major attack on an American target close to the election, to test the new president-elect.
"Their goal would not be to influence the election but merely to send a message that they are still a force to be reckoned with," the official said. "They know that a successful attack in the election season will have maximum impact, and they want to give the new president the jitters."
Any attack in the weeks before the Nov 4 election - what is known in American political circles as an "October surprise" - would almost certainly give a decisive boost to John McCain, the Republican candidate who already holds a commanding lead on questions of national security.
The US has for several years attacked suspected militant bases inside Pakistan with missiles fired from Predator drones. Tribesmen regularly shoot at the unmanned aircraft, although both the US and Pakistan rejected claims that a drone that crashed near the border last week was broight down by gunfire.
But in July, Mr Bush approved classified orders authorising special operations forces to conduct ground assaults inside Pakistan without seeking Islamabad's approval after his commanders presented him with evidence about the militants' increasingly secure bases in the tribal areas. Small commando units are flown in and out by helicopter for precisions raids.
"To tackle the insurgency in Afghanistan, you have to deal with what's happening in Pakistan," said Mr Bokhari. "It's not just the border now.
Pakistan increasingly feels like a state under siege."
Mr Jones said: "The US has been increasingly aware that the command and control networks for groups such as Al Qaeda and its allies in the Haqqani network conducting attacks in Afghanistan are based in Pakistan."
The new US approach has infuriated senior Pakistani commanders who feel freer to express their anger since President Pervez Musharraf was forced from office. New army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani has told his US counterparts that US incursions without prior approval are "unacceptable".
Pakistan is also mounting a major ground offensive against militants in the Bagaur region and claims to have killed 1,000 fighters in an operation that may have prompted the Marriott attack in retaliation.
But Gen Kiyani's combative approach has taken the US aback. "He is trying to assert himself more than they (US) expected and sooner than they expected," a Western diplomat said.
Relations plummeted after US commandos landed by helicopter on a raid in early September in Pakistan and killed seven innocent civilians, according to the Pakistanis. The mood was already raw after a US missile fired from Afghanistan killed several Pakistani soldiers at a border post in June.
Pakistani army officials said that the Americans do not understand that Gen Kiyani is already facing major obstacles in deploying his soldiers against the militants.
"It is just adding to the problem for him to engage these soldiers against the militants when they are being taunted by their fellow Muslims that they are working for the US against the Muslims," said a senior army official.
Scores of soldiers have deserted in the past few years especially when they were stationed in the tribal areas after refusing to fight. Nearly 1200 Pakistani soldiers have died since in the tribal region since 2001.
"There is a limit to what one could cooperate and army chief alone knows how difficult it is for his to keep the morale of his soldiers," the same official said.
Additonal reporting: William Lowther, Washington