WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering widening missile strikes on al-Qaida and the Taliban inside Pakistan and is planning to bolster the training of Pakistan's forces in a key border battleground where militants fuel the escalating Afghan insurgency, according to U.S. officials.
The officials said the stepped-up moves against the militant networks could extend the air strikes further south, beyond the current target areas in Waziristan and into the western province of Baluchistan. U.S. special operations forces are also developing plans to expand their training of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps into that province.
President Barack Obama cited the war against al-Qaida as his main goal in a major address this week on his Afghan strategy but divulged no new details about how the U.S. would carry it out.
Nonetheless, there have been growing discussions in recent weeks about the need to expand the use of airborne missile-equipped drones into other volatile regions of Pakistan, broadening a covert CIA operation that has fueled anti-American sentiment in that country.
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, acknowledged that there have been "discussions, in Congress and a lot of different places, to expand the area" where the drone attacks are being conducted.
"We have limited operations now, and there are threats from other places in the region," Smith said.
He would not provide details, but a U.S. government official said Friday that discussions are under way to expand those attacks into Baluchistan. That official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified, and decisions on the training program are not yet final.
The CIA had already accelerated the pace of its drone attacks in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas this year, but U.S. officials are also concerned about Baluchistan because of its central role in stoking the Afghan insurgency.
Since Jan. 28, 2008, there have been 67 suspected U.S. missile strikes into Pakistan, killing 721 people, 556 of whom intelligence officials believe were militants, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press after each strike.
Officials believe that much of the direction, funding and weapons fueling the Taliban in Afghanistan comes from its fugitive leader, Mullah Omar, who is thought to be based close to the city of Quetta in Baluchistan province. More militants and resources come from a separate network commanded by Siraj Haqqani in the Waziristan tribal areas.
U.S. officials now estimate that there are about 500 al-Qaida members in Pakistan and Afghanistan, often moving back and forth across the border. And they say there are roughly 50,000 Taliban insurgents, dispersed among the Afghan and Pakistani tribes.
The Pentagon's plans to widen training for Pakistani government forces include the possible creation of a second training center in the rugged border region. That would add to an outpost already operating in the North West Frontier Province, according to a senior defense official.
There are 80 to 100 U.S. special operations forces and support staff now in Pakistan, including roughly 35 trainers. Officials are not sure whether additional trainers will be needed for the expanded effort.
According to the defense official, U.S. special operations forces have so far trained about 1,000 members of the Frontier Corps. U.S. funding for the additional training is already in place, but details are still being worked out with Pakistan, the official said.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials said their goal was to train more than 9,000 members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, and to slash the four-year training time by as much as half.
Training the paramilitary troops – budgeted at about $200 million in this fiscal year – is included in the administration's five-year, $3.5 billion funding package for military aid to Pakistan.
The U.S. sees the Frontier Corps as a critical ally in rooting out al-Qaida's hidden sanctuaries. The paramilitary corps members, said the senior defense official, have access to hard-to-reach border regions where the Pakistani Army has little presence.
"Giving extremists breathing room in Pakistan led to the resurgence of the Taliban and more coordinated, sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress this week.
Over the past year, U.S. leaders have pushed Islamabad to beef up its operations against militants on the border. But those efforts have been hindered by the strained relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
The loudest complaint from Pakistani leaders has been that the U.S. has been a fickle ally.
"It is important for the Pakistani government and its military leaders to know that we have a commitment to the region," said Smith, D-Wash. "Right now our relationship with the Pakistani population is not good. They don't like us. They don't trust us, and they have a hard time believing us ... I think the president is going is going to work very, very hard to build a relationship that is much more mutual."
Associated Press writers Pamela Hess in Washington and Chris Brummitt in Islamabad contributed to this story.