State Department official: Better intelligence on terror group inside Pakistan needed

By Richard Lardner

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration isn’t satisfied with the quality of information it’s getting about terrorist groups operating in Pakistan’s volatile tribal area, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Despite the shortcomings, the United States won’t conduct military strikes on its own inside Pakistan unless President Pervez Musharraf’s government requests such direct support, said Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief.

“There’s gaps in intelligence,” Dailey said during a breakfast meeting with reporters. “We don’t have enough information about what’s going on there. Not on al-Qaida. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban.”

Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said the lack of information makes him “uncomfortable.” Yet the solution to the problem rests mainly with the Pakistanis, who would likely see too much U.S. involvement as an unwelcome intrusion.

“We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that’s a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support,” Dailey said. “The blowback would be pretty serious.”

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Dailey’s comments came on the same day that Islamic militants in Pakistan attacked a fort near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, sparking fighting with government forces that left at least five troops and 37 fighters dead, the Pakistani army said.

The attack occurred in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region where al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants operate.

Musharraf played down the impact of recent attacks in the region, saying Tuesday they were “pinpricks” that his government must manage.

Aside from political repercussions of the U.S. acting unilaterally, Dailey said trying to blend even highly skilled U.S. commandos into such a hostile area is highly risky. Even a seemingly innocuous mistake, such as wearing a piece of clothing incorrectly, could tip off the enemy and undermine the mission.

“Folks like the special operations (forces) are pretty darn good, but the potential to be detected is pretty high,” Dailey said. “So unless it’s a very, very, very focused effort, it’s pretty tough to be immediately effective.”

Pakistan’s new military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has already shown he’s an aggressive commander and U.S. officials are confident he will make progress. If Pakistanis ask for assistance, the United States will provide it, Dailey said.

Kayani took control of the military from Musharraf in December.

In a related development, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration will fight congressional efforts to curb billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan while also warning that Musharraf must support and promote democracy.

Ahead of talks with Musharraf in Switzerland on Wednesday – the highest-level, face-to-face U.S. contact with the Pakistani leader since last month’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto – Rice said it is critical that February legislative elections be free and fair.

“The situation in Pakistan is very complicated, but our strong view is that we have to have a long-term, consistent, predictable relationship with Pakistan, not with any one person, but with the institutions of Pakistan,” she told reporters Tuesday on her plane as she flew to Germany for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on new sanctions on Iran.

Also Tuesday, Adm. William Fallon – the head of the U.S. Central Command and top commander of American forces in the Middle East – was in Pakistan for talks with Kayani. The Pakistan army said the two men discussed the “security situation” in the region, but gave no more details.

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Berlin.