WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) - Top Bush administration officials drafted a secret plan late last year to make it easier for U.S. Special Operations forces to operate inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, but Washington turf battles and the diversion of resources to Iraq have held up the effort, the New York Times reported on Monday.
The Times quoted a senior Defense Department official as saying there was "mounting frustration" in the Pentagon at the continued delay in deployment of special operations teams into Pakistan’s mountainous and lawless western tribal regions, where senior al Qaeda operatives are thought to be hiding.
The Times report, based on more than four dozen interviews in Washington and Pakistan, said al Qaeda’s new safe haven in Pakistan was in part due to the administration’s accommodation to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, whose advisers have long played down the terrorist threat.
It was also a story, the report concluded, of infighting between U.S. intelligence agencies and a shifting in White House priorities from counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the war in Iraq.
The Times quoted a retired CIA officer as estimating that al Qaeda training compounds in Pakistan now host as many as 2,000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago.
Infighting within the CIA included battles between field officers in Kabul and Islamabad and the counter-terrorism center at CIA headquarters in Virginia whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missiles strikes, was derided by field officers as the work of "boys with toys," the Times reported.
Turf battles between CIA officials in Afghanistan and others in Pakistan have also impeded progress, the Times reported, with officers in Kabul expressing alarm at what they see as a growing threat from the tribal areas and those in Islamabad, who are more prone to accept the Pakistani government’s argument that the tribal areas are beyond anyone’s control.
The level of expertise among CIA officers in the region was also a drag on operations, the report said. "We had to put people out in the field who had less than ideal levels of experience," it quoted a former senior CIA official as saying.
One reason for that, two former intelligence officials told the Times, was that the Iraq war had drained away most of the CIA officers with field experience in the Islamic world.
The Times said the Pentagon’s top commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, ordered military officers, Special Operations and CIA operatives to assemble a dossier in late 2006 showing Pakistan’s role in allowing militants to establish a safe haven in the tribal territories.
The general’s order reflected a "broader feeling of outrage" within the Pentagon that the war on terror "had been outsourced to an unreliable ally, and at the grim fact that America’s most deadly enemy had become stronger."
In response to Eikenberry’s dossier, the White House sent Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy CIA Director Stephen Kappes to Islamabad in March 2007 to register U.S. concern.
That visit, the Times said, was the beginning of a more aggressive effort by the administration to pressure Pakistan into stepping up the fight. Last year’s decision to draw up the Pentagon order authorizing a Special Operations campaign in the tribal areas was part of that effort, it said.