President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow U.S. special operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior U.S. officials.
The classified orders mark a watershed for the Bush administration after nearly seven years of trying to work with Pakistan to combat al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, and after months of high-level stalemate about how to confront the militants' increasingly secure base in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
U.S. officials say they will notify Pakistan when they conduct limited ground attacks like the Sept. 3 raid in a Pakistani village near the Afghan border, but will not ask for its permission.
“The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity . “We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued.”
The new orders reflect concern about safe havens for al-Qaida and the Taliban inside Pakistan, as well as an American view that Pakistan lacks the will and capability to combat militants. They also illustrate lingering American distrust of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies and a belief that some past American operations have been compromised once Pakistanis were advised of the details.
The CIA has for several years fired missiles at militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the new orders for the military's special operations forces relax what have until now been firm restrictions on conducting ground raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.
Pakistan's top army officer said Wednesday that his forces would not tolerate U.S. incursions like the one that took place last week and that the army would defend the country's sovereignty “at all costs.”
It was unclear precisely what legal authority the U.S. has invoked to conduct even limited ground raids in a friendly country. A second senior American official said the Pakistani government had privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults by special operations forces against significant militant targets, but does not approve each mission.
Any new ground operations in Pakistan raise the prospect of American forces being killed or captured in the restive tribal areas — and a propaganda coup for al-Qaida. Last week's raid also presents a major test for Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who supports more aggressive action by his army against the militants but cannot risk being viewed as an American lapdog, as was his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.