By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Covert U.S. strikes against al Qaeda, authorized and employed aggressively by President George W. Bush, look set to continue when Barack Obama takes office despite expected protests from allies and adversaries.
"This is perhaps the thorniest issue of Obama’s foreign-policy initiation," said Brian Glyn Williams, a University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth professor who has testified on al Qaeda at the Guantanamo war crimes trials.
Covert military operations around the globe, including in countries with which Washington is not at war, have been a part of U.S. policy for decades and have been mounted against the stateless al Qaeda since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
During his election campaign, premised on the need for change after eight years of Bush policies, Obama condemned Bush’s counterterrorism operations as ineffective and advocated more international diplomacy to isolate militant groups.
But he also vowed to strike al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan if the United States had good intelligence and Islamabad failed to act — setting the stage for a continuation of Bush’s policy there.
When he takes over in January he will have to balance the opportunities and risks of covert strikes and manage delicate relations with countries where the secret U.S. forces operate, analysts said.
"I don’t see any president of the United States giving up covert operations as an option," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert for the Rand Corp think tank and a former U.S. Army Special Forces captain.
Bush has given the military new authority to fight al Qaeda on its own and in coordination with the CIA. The New York Times reported on Monday that a classified order issued in 2004 by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with Bush’s approval, authorized military strikes on al Qaeda around the world,
It said that the order identified some 15 to 20 countries where militants were operating and that more than a dozen previously undisclosed attacks have taken place under it.
The White House, CIA and Pentagon declined to comment.
U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets, particularly in Pakistan, have increased in the past year, raising public protests from the government in Islamabad. A U.S. helicopter raid into Syria last month targeting a smuggler of fighters into Iraq drew harsh denunciations from the Syrian government.
Although U.S. law allows for such strikes, they would violate international law unless approved by the country where they took place, said Georgetown University professor Catherine Lotrionte, a former assistant general counsel of the CIA.
Obama must manage sensitive diplomacy to continue covert operations, even when governments give the United States secret approval for the strikes, Lotrionte said.
"There is still going to be potential diplomatic blowback, because of the illusion under which that state will have to protect its own integrity and potentially deny any authority to the public," she said.
Strikes are particularly sensitive in Pakistan, where a fledgling democratic government faces intense public anger over U.S. attacks on militants inside its border with Afghanistan, Williams said. "We will lose the war on terror if we lose control of Pakistan," he said.
Jenkins said in addition to the diplomatic consequences, Obama must also consider the risk of failure, the potential for civilian casualties and the impact on support from U.S. allies.
But an Obama intelligence adviser, former CIA official John Brennan, also has said the United States has no alternative but to work with Pakistan’s government.
"His conundrum is trying to find a way to continue the policy. It does keep al Qaeda on the run," Williams said. "But he might want to come up with some kind of mechanism for bringing the Pakistanis in on it."
Brennan also said that it should be possible to talk to some elements of the Taliban, which ruled Afghan and harbored al Qaeda until it was ousted after the Sept. 11 attacks, as part of a strategy of broad diplomatic engagement.
"The radical fringe may be beyond the pale, (but) it’s not a monolith," Brennan said of the Taliban. ‘I think it would be important to talk to people throughout the country." (Editing by David Storey)