WAR ON TERRORISM U.S. plans military operation to wipe out Al-Qaida in Pakistan

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, deeply concerned about recent assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and a resurgence of Taliban forces in neighboring Afghanistan, is preparing a U.S. military offensive that would reach inside Pakistan with the goal of destroying Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida network, military sources said.
U.S. Central Command is assembling a team of military intelligence officers that would be posted in Pakistan ahead of the operation, according to sources familiar with details of the plan and internal military communications. The sources spoke on the condition they not be identified.
As now envisioned, the offensive would involve special operations forces, Army Rangers and Army ground troops, sources said. A Navy aircraft carrier would be deployed in the Arabian Sea.
Referred to in internal Pentagon messages as the "spring offensive," the operation would be driven by certain undisclosed events in Pakistan and across the region, sources said. A source familiar with details of the plan said this is "not like a contingency plan for North Korea, something that sits on a shelf. This planning is like planning for Iraq. They want this plan to be executable, now."
The Defense Department declined to comment on the planned offensive or its details.
Such an operation almost certainly would demand the cooperation of Musharraf, who previously has allowed only a small number of U.S. special operations forces to work alongside Pakistani troops in the semi-autonomous tribal areas. A military source in Washington said last week, "We are told we're going into Pakistan with Musharraf's help."
Yet a large-scale offensive by U.S. forces within the nuclear-armed Islamic republic could be political dynamite for Musharraf.
The army general, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has come under growing political pressure from Islamic parties, and his cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts is widely unpopular among average Pakistanis.
Nor can Musharraf count on the loyalty of all of Pakistan's armed forces or its intelligence agency, members of which helped set up and maintain the Taliban in Afghanistan and are suspected of ties to militant Islamic groups.
Changed his mind?
Speaking on Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Musharraf again rejected the need for U.S. forces to enter Pakistan to search for bin Laden.
"That is not a possibility at all," Musharraf said. "It's a very sensitive issue."
The U.S. military is operating under the belief that, despite his recent statements, Musharraf's thinking has changed, sources said. Musharraf said last week that bin Laden and his followers likely were hiding in the mountains along the Afghan border. He also said "we are reasonably sure that it is Al-Qaida" who was behind the two attempts on his life.
An offensive into Pakistan to pursue Al-Qaida would be in keeping with President Bush's vow to strike wherever and whenever the United States feels threatened and to pursue terrorist elements to the end.
"The best way to defend America ... is to stay on the offensive and find these killers, one by one," Bush said last week. "We're going to stay on the hunt, which requires good intelligence, good cooperation, good participation with friends and allies around the world."
Musharraf's vulnerability is of deep concern to U.S. officials. If he were killed, Bush administration officials say, it is unlikely that any successor would be as willing to work toward U.S. goals to eliminate Islamic extremists.