WASHINGTON — The White House is considering expanding counterterror operations in Pakistan to refocus on eliminating al-Qaida instead of mounting a major military escalation in Afghanistan.
Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against the terrorist organization could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
Top aides to President Barack Obama said he still has questions and wants more time to decide.
The officials said the administration would push ahead with the ground mission in Afghanistan for the near future, still leaving the door open for sending more U.S. troops. But Obama's top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, have indicated they are reluctant to send many more troops – if any at all – in the immediate future.
In weekend interviews, Obama emphasized that disrupting al-Qaida is his "core goal" and worried aloud about "mission creep" that moved away from that direction. "If it starts drifting away from that goal, then we may have a problem," he said.
The proposed shift would bolster U.S. action on Obama's long-stated goal of dismantling terrorist havens, but it could also complicate American relations with Pakistan, long wary of the growing use of aerial drones to target militants along the porous border with Afghanistan.
The prospect of a White House alternative to a deepening involvement in the stalemated war in Afghanistan comes as administration officials debate whether to send more troops – as urged in a blunt assessment of the deteriorating conflict by the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The two senior administration officials said Monday that one option would be to step up the use of missile-armed unmanned spy drones over Pakistan that have killed scores of militants over the last year.
The armed drones could contain al-Qaida in a smaller, if more remote area, and keep its leaders from retreating back into Afghanistan, one of the officials said.
Most U.S. military officials have preferred a classic counterinsurgency mission to keep al-Qaida out of Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban and securing the local population.
However, one senior White House official said it's not clear that the Taliban would welcome al-Qaida back into Afghanistan. The official noted that it was only after the 9/11 attacks that the United States invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban in pursuit of al-Qaida.
Pakistan will not allow the United States to deploy a large-scale military troop buildup on its soil. However, its military and intelligence services are believed to have assisted the U.S. with airstrikes, even while the government has publicly condemned them.
The Pakistan Embassy in Washington did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Wider use of missile strikes and less reliance on ground troops would mark Obama's second shift in strategy and tactics since taking office last January.
Such a move would amount to an admission that using a traditional military strategy to take on the Taliban with thousands more troops is doomed to failure, echoing Russia's disastrous Afghanistan invasion in the late 1980s and other ill-fated conquerors in the more distant past.
But stepping up attacks on the remnants of al-Qaida also would dovetail with Obama's presidential campaign promise of directly going after the terrorist network that spawned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Over the past few weeks, White House and Pentagon officials have debated the best way to defeat al-Qaida – and whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to battle the extremist Taliban elements that hosted Osama bin Laden and his operatives in the 1990s and have continued to aid the terrorist group.
McChrystal has argued that without more troops the United States could lose the war against the Taliban and allied insurgents.
"Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it," McChrystal wrote in a five-page Commander's Summary that was unveiled late Sunday by the Washington Post. His 66-page report, which was also made public by the Post in a partly classified version after appeals from Pentagon officials, was sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Aug. 30 and is now under review at the White House.
White House officials have made clear that Pakistan should be the top concern since that is where top al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden himself, are believed to be hiding. Very few al-Qaida extremists are believed to still be in Afghanistan, according to military and White House officials.
There have been more than 50 missile strikes against Pakistan targets since August 2008, according to an Associated Press count. Two weeks ago, a U.S. drone killed a key suspected al-Qaida recruiter and trainer, Pakistani national Ilyas Kashmiri.
A draft study by Notre Dame Law School professor Mary Ellen O'Connell found that drone attacks by the U.S. in Pakistan began in 2004, jumped dramatically in 2008 and continue to climb so far this year.
But the attacks target Taliban in Pakistan as well as al-Qaida, O'Connell said in an interview Monday, pointing to an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
"The only reason people think drones are successful is because they're doing a body count," O'Connell said. "They're not looking at the bigger picture" of Pakistani animosity, she added.
One of the White House officials said that Mehsud, an al-Qaida ally, was targeted as a threat to Pakistan at the behest of that nation's leaders.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers divided largely on party lines over whether more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan. Several said McChrystal's assessment shows that the American strategy in Afghanistan remains murky, and renewed demands that the general personally explain his conclusions to Congress.
"We have reached a turning point in Afghanistan as to whether we are going to formally adopt nation-building as a policy," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration.
High-level Obama aides said the Pentagon's case to send more troops was being pushed most aggressively by Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
White House officials were caught off guard and reacted with displeasure last week when Mullen told a Senate panel that more troops were all but certainly needed in Afghanistan, and that a second report asking for the additional forces would be delivered "in the very near future."
Gates has said he has not decided whether he agrees that more troops are needed, and Obama made clear in his weekend interviews that he is far from ready to decide.
AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven and AP researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.