By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, April 29 (Reuters) - The Obama administration appears divided over whether CIA missile strikes should be used against Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province.
Like Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas, Baluchistan and its provincial capital Quetta provide a safe haven for Islamist militants intent on carrying out cross-border attacks against Afghan government and NATO targets, U.S. officials say.
"You find the same sort of leadership, medical support, logistics, personnel, recruitment, training," said a senior defense official, one of half a dozen U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
But while the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are home to al Qaeda and other militant groups, Baluchistan, which is on the FATA’s southern border, is a base for Afghan Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, who were driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001 by U.S.-led forces.
The province, stretching from Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea and west to Iran, is also an entry point for FATA-bound foreign fighters, Pakistani security officials say.
What to do about Baluchistan is a question facing U.S. policymakers now that President Barack Obama has opted to more than double the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year to 68,000 troops. That includes 12,000 Marine and Army combat forces expected there by summer.
Experts and officials say the administration may have less leverage in Baluchistan than in the FATA. Unlike al Qaeda and the other FATA-based groups, they say, Pakistan does not recognize the Afghan Taliban as a security threat and may fear that action against them would stir trouble with Baluchi separatists who have long opposed Islamabad.
STRIKE AT TALIBAN LEADERSHIP
The question has also sown division over the high-stakes tactic of using CIA missile strikes to degrade the Taliban leadership, officials say, with newer Obama appointees taking a hard look at the potential ramifications for Baluchistan. Some Pentagon officials are also reluctant to embrace the idea.
Some in the administration favor attacking Taliban leaders with missile strikes from pilotless CIA drones, saying the tactic has eliminated militant leaders and disrupted planning for cross-border attacks in the FATA.
But others fear missile attacks in Baluchistan could cause a destabilizing backlash for Pakistan’s fragile civilian government at a time when social and economic turmoil is fueling religious extremism across the country.
Officials say the main concern is that Taliban leaders are believed living in populated areas among an estimated 120,000 Afghans, including many prospective militant recruits whose families have lived in Baluchistan since the Soviet era.
"The Taliban’s Quetta shura are believed to be in the refugee camps outside the city. If you target the refugee camps, you wind up killing a lot of refugees and that’s a real human rights controversy," said David Kilcullen, a State Department expert on counterinsurgency under the Bush administration.
A U.S. drone fired a missile on Wednesday into Pakistan’s South Waziristan, which is part of the FATA and is north of Baluchistan, but there were no immediate reports of casualties, intelligence officials said.
Some experts say the United States is unlikely to launch a missile campaign as robust as the one in the FATA, and officials acknowledge that the threat of strikes is seen as a way to pressure Islamabad into taking at least limited action against Taliban leaders.
"Anything that makes that senior leadership uncomfortable, forces it to move more, maybe takes a few of them out through arrests, that alone would start showing benefits on the other side," the defense official said.
Officials in Washington have long acknowledged that CIA drone attacks in the FATA are carried out under a clandestine U.S.-Pakistani agreement that allows Islamabad to condemn the actions publicly.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari declared recently that there would be no U.S. missile strikes in Baluchistan. (Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore in Islamabad; editing by Philip Barbara)