WASHINGTON Late last year, top Bush administration officials decided to take a step they had long resisted. They drafted a secret plan to authorize the Pentagon's Special Operations forces to launch missions into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan to capture or kill top leaders of al-Qaida.
Intelligence reports for more than a year had been streaming in about Osama bin Laden's terror network rebuilding in the Pakistani tribal areas, a problem that had been exacerbated by years of missteps in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad; sharp policy disagreements; and turf battles between U.S. counterterrorism agencies.
But more than six months later, the Special Operations forces are still waiting for the green light. The plan has been held up in Washington by the very disagreements it was meant to eliminate. A senior Defense Department official said there was "mounting frustration" in the Pentagon at the continued delay.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush committed the nation to a "war on terrorism" and made the destruction of bin Laden's network the top priority of his presidency. But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with al-Qaida having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas.
While Bush vowed early on that bin Laden would be captured "dead or alive," the moment in late 2001 when bin Laden and his followers escaped at Tora Bora was almost certainly the last time the al-Qaida leader was in U.S. sights, current and former intelligence officials say. Leading terrorism experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before a major terrorist attack planned in the mountains of Pakistan is carried out on American soil.
"The United States faces a threat from al-Qaida today that is comparable to what it faced on Sept. 11, 2001," said Seth Jones, a Pentagon consultant and a terrorism expert at RAND Corp. "The base of operations has moved only a short distance, roughly the difference from New York to Philadelphia."
How al-Qaida, Arabic for "the base," has gained a new haven is in part a story of U.S. accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat. It is also a story of how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq.
Just as it had on Sept. 10, 2001, al-Qaida now has a band of terror camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired CIA officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds have as many as 2,000 Arab and Pakistani militants, up from several hundred three years ago.
Publicly, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have said that the creation of an al-Qaida haven in the tribal areas was in many ways inevitable that the lawless badlands where ethnic Pashtun tribes have resisted government control for centuries were a natural place for a dispirited terror network to find refuge. The U.S. and Pakistani officials also blame a disastrous cease-fire brokered between the Pakistani government and militants in 2006.
But more than 4 dozen interviews in Washington and Pakistan tell another story. U.S. intelligence officials say that the al-Qaida hunt in Pakistan, code-named Operation Cannonball by the CIA in 2006, was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the CIA, including about whether U.S. commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas.
Inside the CIA, the fights included clashes between the agency's outposts in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad. There were also battles between field officers and the counterterrorism center at CIA headquarters, whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missile strikes, was derided by officers in the Islamabad station as the work of "boys with toys."
An early arrangement that allowed U.S. commandos to join Pakistani units on raids inside the tribal areas was halted in 2003 after protests in Pakistan. Another combat mission that came within hours of being launched in 2005 was scuttled because some CIA officials in Pakistan questioned the accuracy of the intelligence, and because aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld believed that the mission force had become too large.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf allowed U.S. forces to use Pakistani bases to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, while Pakistani intelligence services worked closely with the CIA in tracking down al-Qaida operatives. But from their vantage point in Afghanistan, the picture looked different to U.S. Special Operations forces who saw signs that the militants whom the Americans had driven out of Afghanistan were effectively regrouping on the Pakistani side of the border.
When U.S. military officials proposed in 2002 that Special Operations forces be allowed to establish bases in the tribal areas, Pakistan flatly refused. Instead, a small number of "black" Special Operations forces Army Delta Force and Navy SEAL units were allowed to accompany Pakistani forces on raids in the tribal areas in 2002 and early 2003.
That arrangement only angered both sides. U.S. forces used to operating on their own felt that the Pakistanis were limiting their movements. And while Pakistani officials publicly denied the presence of Americans, local tribesmen spotted the Americans and protested their presence.
Under pressure from Pakistan, the Bush administration decided in 2003 to end the U.S. military presence on the ground.
In order to keep pressure on the Pakistanis about the tribal areas, officials decided to have Bush raise the issue in personal phone calls with Musharraf.
The conversations backfired. Two former U.S. government officials say they were surprised and frustrated when instead of demanding action from Musharraf, Bush instead repeatedly thanked him for his contributions to the war on terror.
Intragovernmental battles raged over the plan in early 2005 for a Special Operations mission intended to capture Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's top deputy, in what would have been the most aggressive use of U.S. ground troops inside Pakistan. The New York Times disclosed the aborted operation in a 2007 article, but interviews since then have produced new details about the episode.
But even as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers in parachute gear were boarding C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan, there were frenzied exchanges between officials at the Pentagon, Central Command and the CIA about whether the mission was too risky.
In the end, the mission was aborted after Rumsfeld refused to give his approval for it. By late 2005, many inside the CIA headquarters in Virginia had reached the conclusion that their hunt for bin Laden had reached a dead end.
Militants inside Pakistan only continued to gain strength. In the spring of 2006, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan launched an offensive in southern Afghanistan, increasing suicide bombings by sixfold and U.S. and NATO casualty rates by 45 percent. At the same time, they assassinated tribal elders who were cooperating with the government.
In the months after the agreement was signed, cross-border incursions from the tribal areas into Afghanistan rose by 300 percent.
U.S. commanders had been pressing for much of 2006 to get approval from Rumsfeld for an operation to capture Sheik Saiid al-Masri, a top Qaida operator and paymaster whom U.S. intelligence had been tracking in the Pakistani mountains.
Rumsfeld and his staff were reluctant to approve the mission, worried about possible U.S. military casualties and a popular backlash in Pakistan.
Finally, in November 2006, Rumsfeld approved operation of Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force commandos to move into Pakistan and capture Masri. But the operation was put on hold days later, after Rumsfeld was pushed out of the Pentagon, a casualty of the Democratic sweep of the 2006 election.
The decision last year to draw up the Pentagon order authorizing for a Special Operations campaign in the tribal areas was part of the effort to get Pakistan to step up its fight.
That the order remains unsigned reflects the bureaucratic fighting that persists, particularly from State Department officials opposed to any change that would allow military missions to be launched without the approval of the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad. With Qaida operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and CIA officials that the opportunity for decisive U.S. action against the militants may have been lost.