WASHINGTON — Even as the Obama administration launches new drone attacks into Pakistan's remote tribal areas, concerns are growing among U.S. intelligence and military officials that the strikes are bolstering the Islamic insurgency by prompting Islamist radicals to disperse into the country's heartland.
Al Qaida, Taliban and other militants who've been relocating to Pakistan's overcrowded and impoverished cities may be harder to find and stop from staging terrorist attacks, the officials said.
Moreover, they said, the strikes by the missile-firing drones are a recruiting boon for extremists because of the unintended civilian casualties that have prompted widespread anger against the U.S.
"Putting these guys on the run forces a lot of good things to happen," said a senior U.S. defense official who requested anonymity because the drone operations, run by the CIA and the Air Force, are top-secret. "It gives you more targeting opportunities. The downside is that you get a much more dispersed target set and they go to places where we are not operating."
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U.S. drone attacks "may have hurt more than they have helped," said a U.S. military official who's been deeply involved in counterterrorism operations. The official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, called the drone operations a "recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban."
"A significant number of bad actors aren't where they used to be," but have moved to "places where we can't get at them the way we could," he added.
As a result of the drone attacks, insurgent activities are "more dispersed in Pakistan and focusing on Pakistani targets," said Christine Fair of the RAND Corp., a policy institute that advises the Pentagon. "So we have shifted the costs."
President Barack Obama for now has embraced the drone strikes, which U.S. officials said have killed up to one dozen important al Qaida operatives.
"If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we're going after them," Obama said in a March 29 interview with CBS News.
Several U.S. intelligence, military officials and independent experts, however, said that they're especially worried by an influx of extremists from the tribal areas into the slums of Karachi. The capital of southern Sindh Province, with a population of at least 12 million, is Pakistan's financial center and main port as well as the entry point for most of the supplies bound for U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Many militants are thought to have taken refuge among Karachi's estimated 3.5 million Pashtuns, the ethnic group comprising the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their presence is stoking tensions with other groups in the southern city, which has a long history of communal bloodshed and terrorism, including against Western targets.
"The who's who of extremism is present in Karachi," said Faisal Ali Subzwari, a Sindh government minister. "There are many areas where police and (paramilitary) Rangers cannot even dare to enter. It is a safe haven for those who want a hiding place."
Subzwari, whose Mohajir Quami Movement represents immigrants from India and has repeatedly warned of the "Talibanization" of Karachi, said that part of his own constituency is one of these "no-go" areas.
U.S. officials have long identified Karachi as the headquarters of the Afghan Taliban's fundraising committee, and many top militants were educated at the Binori Mosque, a key center of radical Islamic ideology. A "feeder" network of militant seminaries in Karachi supplies young suicide bombers, they said.
An upheaval in Karachi, home to Pakistan's stock exchange and other financial institutions, would be catastrophic for a country that has only avoided bankruptcy with a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund emergency credit line. Financial activities, as well as imports and exports for both Pakistan and landlocked Afghanistan, could be paralyzed, as could supplies for U.S.-led NATO forces in the region.
Concerns over "blowback" from the drone strikes is fueling a debate in the Obama administration over whether they should be extended from the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the region bordering eastern Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding, to Baluchistan Province, the alleged refuge of the Afghan Taliban leadership, U.S. officials said.
Proponents of the drone strikes cite the killing of key al Qaida operatives and the disruption of the terrorist network's ability to plot new attacks; opponents, said to include some senior administration officials, fear that the operations are too destabilizing for nuclear-armed Pakistan and are doing nothing to halt the insurgencies tearing through the country and Afghanistan.
"There is no uniform opinion on this," the senior defense official said. "You have some concerns that they are causing a ripple effect, that the consequences are too large for Pakistan to absorb."
Several U.S. officials argued that it would be easier for U.S. and Pakistani authorities, including the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, to track down militants who leave the remote border region for the cities. They pointed out that senior al Qaida operatives in U.S. custody were found in Pakistani urban areas.
Critics, however, noted that the ISI and the Pakistani military can't be relied on to cooperate, because while they've turned over foreign militants, some former and current ISI and army officers are believed support Afghan and Pakistani groups.
There've been dozens of drone strikes in the past year, the most recent killing 13 people in the tribal region of North Waziristan on Saturday. The next day, a top Pakistani Taliban leader threatened to launch two suicide attacks every week unless the strikes stop. His threat followed a series of suicide bombings in the heartland province of Punjab.
A senior Pakistani official reiterated the government's opposition to the drone operations after talks Tuesday in Islamabad with Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"They (drone strikes) are counterproductive," said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. "My view is they are causing collateral damage, my view is that they are alienating people, my view is that they are working to the advantage of the extremists. We (Pakistan and the U.S.) have agreed to disagree on this."
CIA and the Air Force operators remotely pilot the missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones, known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs, from the U.S. But the aircraft fly from an airbase in Baluchistan, according to some experts, with the permission of Pakistani military officials who privately back the operations and want U.S. approval to buy drones of their own.
"Obviously, this enjoys high-level (Pakistani) approval," Fair said.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said that the U.S. drone strikes are only one factor behind the outflow of extremists into other parts of Pakistan.
News reports that the Obama administration is considering extending the attacks to Taliban refuges in Pashtun-dominated northern Baluchistan, including around the provincial capital of Quetta, have also contributed to the movement, they said.
Moreover, they said, some militants have moved into Pakistan's heartland because of tensions between the groups in the tribal region.
A U.S. intelligence official who's been deeply involved in the counter-terrorism campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, called the drone operations "a major catalyst" for the movement.
"The UAV strikes have had two unintended consequences," said the U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak publicly and because much of the information is classified.
"First, al Qaida and the Taliban have used our use of unmanned aircraft in their propaganda to portray Americans as cowards who are afraid to face their enemies and risk death. In their culture, and in the context of what they portray as a war between Western religions and Islam, that can be a powerful argument," he said.
"Second and not surprisingly," he continued, "rather than sit around in the (tribal region) waiting for the next strike, some of the jihadis have moved into Pakistan proper, into Karachi and even into Punjab, where we can't target them and where they're in a better position to attack the Pakistani government."
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