The top two US intelligence officials made a secret visit to Pakistan earlier this month to seek permission from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for greater involvement of US forces in trying to ferret out al-Qaeda and other militant groups active in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border, a senior US official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the secret nature of the talks, declined to disclose what was said, but Musharraf was quoted two days after the Jan. 9 meeting as saying US troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan to hunt al-Qaeda militants.
The New York Times -- which first reported on the secret visit by CIA Director Michael Hayden and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence -- said Musharraf rebuffed an expansion of a US presence in Pakistan at the meeting, either through overt CIA missions or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces.
Pakistan has been under growing US pressure to crack down on militants in its tribal regions close to the Afghan border, a rugged area long considered a likely hiding place for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, as well as an operating ground for Taliban militants planning attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Several US presidential candidates have hinted they would support unilateral action in the area.
In a Jan. 11 interview, Musharraf told the Straits Times of Singapore that US troops would "certainly" be considered invaders if they set foot in the tribal regions.
"If they come without our permission, that's against the sovereignty of Pakistan," he said. "I challenge anybody coming into our mountains. They would regret that day."
South Waziristan is a semiautonomous region where the central government has never had much control. It is home to scores of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, many of whom fled there from neighboring Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2001.
The border region emerged as a front line in the war on extremist groups after Musharraf allied Pakistan with the US following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Washington has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to help government forces battle militants.
Musharraf, who toured Europe last week seeking support for his embattled government, rejected claims that the violence was a sign of a resurgent Taliban. More than 150 rebels and soldiers are reported to have been killed in the region this month alone.
Musharraf in the past has credited cooperation between Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA, both of whom believe that Pakistani militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was the mastermind of the Dec. 27 gun and suicide bomb attack that killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
But the State Department's counterterrorism chief, Dell Dailey, said on Tuesday that the Bush administration was displeased with "gaps in intelligence" received from Pakistan about the activities of extremist groups in the tribal regions.
"We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on al-Qaeda. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban," he said.
Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said Pakistan needs to fix the problem. However, he said the US was not likely to conduct military strikes inside Pakistan on its own, saying that would anger many Pakistanis.