WASHINGTON, Sept 12: The United States continues to refuse to talk about US military actions inside Fata with the White House saying that it does not want to comment on rules of engagement with the enemy.
But unnamed Pentagon officials, in interviews to CNN, BBC, Fox News and other channels, confirmed that President Bush had authorised cross-border operations, involving both drones and ground troops, inside Pakistan.
And a former Pentagon expert on Afghanistan, Col David Hunt, told Fox News that a particular unit of the US Marine Corps Special Operations called ‘Detachment One’ conducted last Wednesday’s ground attack in South Waziristan that killed 20 people, including militants and civilians.
Also on Friday, yet another US missile attack was carried out, this time in North Waziristan.
Friday’s attack was particularly embarrassing for Pakistan’s Ambassador Husain Haqqani who told reporters on Thursday that he had been assured “at the highest levels” at the White House and the State Department that the US had no intention to carry out unilateral strikes inside Fata.
The issue was raised at the White House on Friday as well when reporters asked deputy spokesman Tony Fratto under what authority did President Bush order cross-border operations in Pakistan.
“I’m aware of the reports that you’re talking about. It’s not a story that I’m going to comment on,” he said. “And I’m not going to comment on rules of engagement with the enemy.”
His comments, particularly those about “rules of engagement with the enemy” can be interpreted as an indirect confirmation of media reports that recent US attacks were not “knee-jerk” reactions, as the Pakistan Embassy in Washington says, but are part of a new strategy for combating terrorists.
In a related development, a senior State Department official told reporters that there were no differences among various sections of the US administration on how to deal with the militants in Fata.
“We are all on this together,” said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher when asked if the US military’s decision to go public with the new strategy of increasing attacks inside Pakistan made his task tougher.
“The administration speaks on it in one voice,” said Mr Boucher who looks after South Asian affairs at the State Department.
Mr Boucher, however, dispelled the impression that the US had tried to bypass Pakistan while making a decision to launch military strikes inside its border.
“We are working closely with the Pakistanis,” said Mr Boucher while talking to reporters after giving a talk on the US-India nuclear deal on Capitol Hill.
As officials at the White House and the State Department refused to confirm or deny whether President Bush had authorised cross-border operations into Pakistan, a senior Pentagon official told BBC that he had.
An unnamed senior Pentagon official told the BBC the classified order had been made within the past two months.
The official said that President Bush’s order included authorisation to conduct military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.
Another official told AFP news agency that the US-led coalition ground troops in Afghanistan had been “given the green light to undertake unilateral cross-border operations against militants in Pakistan”.
Yet another senior US official told the Reuters news agency that the US military had the right to go after sponsors of cross-border attacks.
“What you’re seeing is an increased activity (by) our troops taking our rules of engagement to them,” the official said.
Reports like these that are attributed to unnamed officials come from background briefings held by senior Pentagon, State Department or White House officials. In such background briefings, a reporter is authorised to report what the officials say without identifying them.
Lisa Curtis, a former senior adviser on South Asian issues in the State Department, told reporters that Pakistan’s inability to dismantle “terrorist safe havens” in Fata had caused the US administration to decide “that ‘enough is enough’ and they needed to take these steps in order to try to take care of the problem on their own”. The move, she said, could be attributed to Pakistan’s attempt to forge peace deals with militants in the tribal areas recently that followed heavy casualties suffered by US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Col. David Hunt, a former Pentagon expert on Afghanistan, in an interview to Fox News, claimed that US intelligence sources, particularly CIA, had warned Pakistan before last Wednesday’s attack by US ground forces.
“We didn’t ask permission. We told them we were coming,” he said.
Col Hunt said US authorities decided to send troops into Fata after they concluded that they “cannot solve what’s going on in Afghanistan without solving the border region along the Pakistan-Afghan border”. Meanwhile, The Washington Post noted that the number of missile attacks by pilotless Predator drones in Pakistan had more than tripled in the past year.
The Post reported officials involved in the operations called the attacks part of a renewed effort to cripple Al-Qaeda’s central command. The drones were targeting top Al Qaeda members in the hope that they could lead authorities to Osama bin Laden, the report said.