US studying options for possible Pakistan strike: Post

Washington, May 29 (IANS) The US is studying options of striking Pakistan if a successful terror attack is traced back to that country, The Washington Post reported Saturday.

Ties between the alleged Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and elements of the Pakistani Taliban have sharpened the Obama administration’s need for retaliatory options, senior defence officials were quoted as saying by the newspaper.

They stressed that a US reprisal would be contemplated only under extreme circumstances, such as a catastrophic attack that leaves President Barack Obama convinced that the ongoing campaign of Central Iintelligence Agency (CIA) drone strikes is insufficient.

‘Planning has been reinvigorated in the wake of Times Square,’ one of the officials told the Post.

At the same time, the administration is trying to deepen ties to Pakistan’s intelligence officials in a bid to head off any attack by militant groups.

The US and Pakistan have recently established a joint military intelligence centre on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar in Pakistan, and are in negotiations to set up another one near Quetta, the Pakistani city where the Afghan Taliban is based, according to the US military officials.

The ‘fusion centres’ are meant to bolster Pakistani military operations by providing direct access to U.S. intelligence, including real-time video surveillance from drones controlled by the US Special Operations Command, the Post report said.

But in an acknowledgement of the continuing mistrust between the two governments, the officials added that both sides also see the centres as a way to keep a closer eye on one another, as well as to monitor military operations and intelligence activities in insurgent areas.

President Obama said during his campaign for the presidency that he would be willing to order strikes in Pakistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a television interview after the Times Square attempt that ‘if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.’

Obama dispatched his national security adviser, James L. Jones, and CIA Director Leon Panetta to Islamabad this month to deliver a similar message to Pakistani officials, including President Asif Ali Zardari and the military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

Jones and Panetta also presented evidence gathered by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that Shahzad received significant support from the Pakistani Taliban.

The US options for potential retaliatory action rely mainly on air and missile strikes, but could also employ small teams of US Special Operations troops already positioned along the border with Afghanistan.

One of the senior military officials said plans for military strikes in Pakistan have been revised significantly over the past several years, moving away from a ‘large, punitive response’ to more measured plans meant to deliver retaliatory blows against specific militant groups.

‘The general feeling is that we need to be circumspect in how we respond so we don’t destroy the relationships we’ve built’ with the Pakistani military, a second official said.

US Special Operations teams in Afghanistan have pushed for years to have wider latitude to carry out raids across the border, arguing that CIA drone strikes do not yield prisoners or other opportunities to gather intelligence.

But a 2008 US helicopter raid against a target in Pakistan prompted protests from officials in Islamabad who oppose allowing American soldiers to operate within their country.

The CIA has the authority to designate and strike targets in Pakistan without case-by-case approval from the White House. U.S. military forces are currently authorized to carry out unilateral strikes in Pakistan only if solid intelligence were to surface on any of three high-value targets: Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Taliban chief Mohammad Omar. But even in those cases, the military would need higher-level approval.

The report quoting a senior US military official said the centres would be used to track the Afghan Taliban leadership council, known as the Quetta shura. But other officials said the main mission would be to support the US military effort across the border in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a major US military push is planned.