WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is making plans for an offensive that would reach inside Pakistan in coming months to try to destroy operations of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, the Chicago Tribune reported on Wednesday.
The newspaper, in a report from Washington citing military sources, said the plans involved thousands of U.S. troops, some of them already in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government denied to Reuters that it would allow such an operation and the Pentagon declined to confirm that such a plan was being worked on.
The Chicago Tribune said the plans were advanced but their execution would depend on events on the ground.
This was “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,” one source was quoted as saying.
Such an intervention would be political dynamite for Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has only allowed a very limited U.S. military presence in his country. He has cooperated with Washington against al Qaeda but is under pressure from Islamic parties at home.
The newspaper said the U.S. plans were driven partly by concerns over two assassination attempts last month against Musharraf, whose cooperation has been vital to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and who is seen in Washington as a force for stability in the volatile region.
The plans were also prompted by a resurgence of attacks by the Taliban, which governed Afghanistan and harbored al Qaeda leaders until it was driven from power in a 1991 U.S.-led invasion.
CONCERN FOR MUSHARRAF
A U.S. defense official would not confirm the specific operation mentioned in the report, citing a policy against discussing future operations. The official did say that the attempts on Musharraf’s life had raised concerns among U.S. authorities.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters U.S. forces staged operations along the Afghan-Pakistan border “all the time,” and the American troops in Afghanistan had an “ongoing” offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.
The Chicago Tribune, quoting sources who requested anonymity, said a team of military intelligence officers would go in to Pakistan ahead of time to prepare an operation which would involve Special Operations forces, Army Rangers and ground troops and an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea.
The operation is being called “spring offensive” in internal Pentagon messages and a series of planning orders were issued in recent weeks, the newspaper said.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday Musharraf rejected the need for U.S. forces to enter Pakistan to search for bin Laden. Pakistan’s top military spokesman echoed that on Wednesday.
“No foreign forces will operate from Pakistan’s territory,” Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told Reuters when asked about the Tribune’s report.
But a military source described as “well-placed” told the newspaper: “Before we were constrained by the border. Musharraf did not want that. Now we are told we’re going into Pakistan with Musharraf’s help.”
Musharraf said last week that bin Laden and his followers likely were still hiding in the mountains along the Afghan border. He also said he was reasonably sure al Qaeda was behind the attempts on his life.