When it comes to Pakistan, the Bush administration has a new message: "No options are off the table." That means the U.S. will not rule out using military force to fight al-Qaida inside Pakistan, and it reflects new thinking in Washington, D.C., about how to deal with a difficult but crucial ally.
Administration officials say sending in U.S. ground troops would be a last resort, but they're still committed to supporting Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.
With the situation inside Pakistan looking less stable by the day — and with a new U.S. intelligence estimate saying al-Qaida has rebuilt a haven there — the Bush administration faces a dilemma. Should the U.S. risk stepped-up intelligence or military action against al-Qaida — which might further destabilize Pakistan? Or should it risk inaction — which could result in another attack on U.S. soil?
White House adviser Frances Townsend was asked Sunday on Fox News why the U.S. isn't sending in special operations forces, pilotless drones and "everything we can to take out al-Qaida's safe haven."
"Well, just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing many of the things you're talking about," Townsend said.
She wouldn't go into details, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials confirm privately that U.S. intelligence teams are operating inside Pakistan — as are unmanned Predator planes. As to whether the U.S. might contemplate military force, Townsend delivered the administration's new message:
"The president's been clear: Job No. 1 is to protect the American people, and there are no options that are off the table," she said.
Democrats seem to be largely supporting the White House.
"I don't think we should take anything off the table," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Sunday on CBS. "Wherever we find these evil people, we should go get them."
A range of options are on the table for the U.S., starting with more drone aircraft and satellite surveillance. Then there's the options of inserting more covert teams inside Pakistan, on up to initiating targeted airstrikes from U.S. planes. At the riskiest, least-likely end of the spectrum would be a full-scale ground invasion.
Daniel Markey, a former State Department expert on Pakistan, says inserting thousands of U.S. troops would almost certainly weaken Musharraf and would turn Pakistanis against the U.S. In short, it might fail.
"When I hear critics saying ... 'The time has come for us to go in ... directly and fight this,' I think, well, do we want to own Pakistan as another problem? Do we want to have 165 million Pakistanis see us as the enemy? Because that's exactly what we'll have," Markey said.
Indeed, the tough talk from Washington has drawn a sour response.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, appeared on CNN, complaining about the Bush administration's new tone. And Monday at the White House, spokesman Tony Snow tried to walk things back a bit.
"I think there has been this notion afoot, or at least an attempt or an inclination, [that] somehow we're going to invade Pakistan," Snow said. "We always maintain the option of striking actionable targets, but we also realize that Pakistan is a sovereign government and a very important player in the war on terror."
An important player, certainly — but can Pakistan root out al-Qaida, without significant U.S. engagement on the ground?
The last time the Pakistani army went head to head with militants in its tribal areas, hundreds of soldiers were killed. It's legitimate to ask whether Pakistani forces would fare better this time around, without U.S. help in the form of airstrikes or ground troops.
Lisa Curtis has tracked Pakistan from positions at the CIA, the State Department and Capitol Hill. She argues that Pakistan is better prepared this time.
"So long as Musharraf takes the initiative, I think he will have his senior military commanders behind him, particularly after this Red Mosque situation," Curtis said. "So I think we'll see more energy and more will to the operations — and more support from the Pakistani public."
A senior administration official involved in the discussions — but not authorized to talk about them publicly — also pointed to the showdown at Islamabad's Red Mosque earlier this month as cause for optimism. The official says the episode left Pakistan's military "extremely likely to be motivated."
As to the looming, larger battle against al-Qaida, the official adds: "We will see very shortly whether Pakistan can do it. We seek to support their efforts. But if they don't have the ability, we don't rule anything out."