Senior US military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistani tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there.
The proposal, described by US officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of US forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.
The plan has not yet been approved, but military and political leaders say a renewed sense of urgency has taken hold as the deadline approaches for the administration of US President Barack Obama to begin withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan.
Even with the risks, military commanders say that using US Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.
The Americans are known to have made no more than a handful of forays across the border into Pakistan in operations that have infuriated Pakistani officials. Now, US military officers appear confident that a shift in policy could allow for more routine incursions.
The US’ clandestine war in Pakistan has for the most part been carried out by armed drones operated by the CIA.
Additionally, in recent years, Afghan militias backed by the CIA have carried out a number of secret missions into Pakistan’s tribal areas.
These operations in Pakistan by Afghan operatives, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, have been previously reported as solely intelligence-gathering operations. However, interviews in recent weeks revealed that on at least one occasion, the Afghans went on the offensive and destroyed a militant weapons cache.
The decision to expand US military activity in Pakistan, which would almost certainly have to be approved by Obama, would amount to the opening of a new front in the nine-year-old war, which has grown increasingly unpopular among Americans.
It would run the risk of angering a Pakistani government that has been an uneasy ally in the war in Afghanistan, particularly if it leads to civilian casualties or highly public confrontations.
Still, one senior US officer said: “We’ve never been as close as we are now to getting the go-ahead to go across.”
The officials who described the proposal and the intelligence operations declined to be identified by name because they were discussing classified information.