The Pentagon has drafted a secret plan that would send U.S. special forces into the wild tribal regions of Pakistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, but the White House has balked at giving the mission a green light, The New York Times reported today.
The Bush administration, which has seven months left in its term, gave the go-ahead for the military to draw up the plan to take the war on terror across the Afghan border and into the mountains of Pakistan where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, according to the newspaper.
Intelligence reports have concluded that bin Laden has re-established a network of new training camps, and the number of recruits in those camps has risen to as many as 2,000 in recent months from 200 earlier this year.
Although the special forces attack plan was devised six months ago, infighting among U.S. intelligence agencies and among White House offices have blocked it from being implemented, the Times reported.
The Bush team would like to leave office next January having put bin Laden, the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks, behind bars or in his grave.
But sending U.S. forces into Pakistan would be controversial and risky. The rugged mountain area is populated by bin Laden sympathizers, hurting the chances that such a raid could succeed. It would also trigger a diplomatic outcry from the Pakistani government.
The United States has conducted a series of aerial drone attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, killing several key Qaeda figures and narrowly missing bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, in one strike. But an attack earlier this month killed several Pakistani border guards instead and has made Pakistan less willing to allow U.S. strikes on its territory.
The Taliban of Pakistan, who are close al Qaeda allies, have grown alarmingly stronger in Pakistan's lawless border areas and threatened the regional capital of Peshawar last week.
Pakistan's new coalition government, which has made a series of truces with the militants in recent months, was forced over the weekend to launch an offensive to push the militants back from the outskirts of Peshawar.
Pakistan called the operation a success, even though none of the heavily armed militants in the area were reported killed.
Pakistan announced Sunday that Bush had invited Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to Washington next month. High on that visit's agenda is the question of whether Pakistan can restrain the Taliban by itself or whether the United States could decide to take action in the tribal areas.
A separate report said the Bush administration has also begun a "major escalation of covert operations against Iran ... to destabilize the country's religious leadership."
The charge was made by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Hersh claims that elite American commando units are operating inside Iran and that Congress has authorized $400 million for the covert operations.
The article claimed that U.S. special forces have been conducting clandestine operations against Iran since last year and have seized members of the Iran commando force al Quds and taken them to Iraq for questioning.
The U.S. ambassador in Iraq Ryan Crocker denied the report.
"I'll tell you flatly that U.S. forces are not operating across the Iraqi border into Iran, in the south or anywhere else," he said in an interview from Baghdad Sunday.