NPR has learned that the raid by helicopter-borne U.S. Special Operations forces in Pakistan last week was not an isolated incident but part of a three-phase plan, approved by President Bush, to strike at Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida leadership.
The plan calls for a much more aggressive military campaign, said one source, familiar with the presidential order, which gives the green light for the military to take part in the operations. The plan represents an 11th-hour effort to hammer al-Qaida until the Bush administration leaves office, two government officials told NPR.
"Definitely, the gloves have come off," said a source who has been briefed on the plan. "This was only Phase 1 of three phases."
Pentagon and White House officials have declined to discuss the new plan.
The intelligence community already had approval from the president to carry out operations inside Pakistan, which included attacks by Predator drones, which can carry 100-pound Hellfire missiles.
Additional authority came from the president just recently that allowed incursions by U.S. Special Operations forces, the source said.
A second source said that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were briefed on the new plan shortly before The New York Times broke the story this week about the Special Operations raid from Afghanistan into Pakistan. The source also said that CIA personnel from around the world were being pulled into the Afghan-Pakistan border area, an intelligence-community "surge" to go after bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures.
There was concern by some lawmakers about the political ramifications in Pakistan. The Pakistan government is offering some cooperation in halting the cross-border attacks by Islamist fighters from the tribal areas into Afghanistan. And Pakistan is a key logistics route for U.S. equipment heading into Afghanistan.
Should the U.S. raids continue on Pakistani soil, there is fear that the Pakistani government may halt — or at least curtail — its cooperation with American counterterrorist efforts in the border area. A military source says that the Pakistani government side is given little prior notice of the American military activity.
There have been some complaints within the military that the Pakistanis, even before last week's raid, were not doing enough to stop the cross-border attacks. And the nation's leaders are balking at allowing more Special Operations forces inside Pakistan to train the country's security forces. Currently, the Pentagon does some limited training of short duration, defense sources say.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this week that he is drafting a new military strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he mentioned that he continues to press Pakistani military and government leaders to do more to curtail the activities of Islamist extremists in the tribal lands.
The raid last week by an elite U.S. Navy SEAL team was a planned operation that took place miles inside Pakistan and led to the deaths of at least nine and as many as 20 individuals — some of them civilians. Sources say the raid was part of a "snatch and grab" operation aimed at Taliban or al-Qaida figures.
A powerful AC-130 gunship, essentially a flying battleship, was used in the operation. The SEAL team members were flown out of Pakistan by helicopter into Afghanistan. A western military source says a SEAL team remains on standby for similar missions on short notice.
"They were definitely after al-Qaida forces," said one of the sources. "But the bleedover between those two," he added, referring to the Taliban, "is significant."
Both sources say those in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill are raising questions about the political intent of this new aggressive stance.
"The question is," said one of the sources, "Why wasn't this done a year ago?"