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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush has often said that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. But lately, U.S. military and intelligence leaders are talking more about Pakistan. That's where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were said to have gone after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001.

Earlier this month, the top two U.S. intelligence officials traveled to Pakistan. They pushed for a stronger role for the CIA there in going after al-Qaeda. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, they met with mixed results.

TOM GJELTEN: In the last six months, al-Qaeda in Iraq has gotten weaker, U.S. officials say, while in Pakistan, bin Laden and his network have grown stronger, mainly along the border with Afghanistan. By November, the Bush administration had drawn up a plan to equip and train the Pakistani government's frontier corps - a paramilitary force that operates along the boarder with Afghanistan. Then came the killing last month of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader.

U.S. intelligence officials now say the assassination was the work of militants tied to the Pakistan-based al-Qaeda network. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at the Pentagon last week, underscored the danger that al-Qaeda now represents in Pakistan.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Secretary): Al-Qaeda has threatened to try and destabilize Pakistan. We have the impression that they have allied with other groups, other extremist groups in the border area. Some of this lacks real clarity. But they clearly are much more active and working with other people.

GJELTEN: Within a few days of the Bhutto assassination, senior U.S. officials gathered at the White House to discuss the possibility of new covert actions aimed at al-Qaeda in the Pakistani border area. The CIA was to take the lead. On January 9th, according to a U.S. intelligence official, General Michael Hayden, the CIA director, and Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, traveled secretly to Pakistan to meet with President Pervez Musharraf to review the plan. Among the topics discussed was the possibility of more missions by unmanned predator surveillance aircraft. Predators carry missiles that can be fired remotely.

Another was how U.S. intelligence agencies could supply the Pakistani's frontier corps with more information about suspected militant activity. But according to U.S. officials, Musharraf resisted the idea of a more direct CIA role.

One senior U.S. intelligence official says, quote, "We're trying to be more aggressive there, but it's very frustrating," end quote.

Hayden and McConnell met separately with General Ashfaq Kiani, the new Army chief of staff in Pakistan. U.S. officials have high hopes for Kiani, but on the issue of U.S. operations in Pakistan, he, too, has taken a hard line.

In Europe last week, President Musharraf said Pakistani forces were themselves capable of dealing with the threat from al-Qaeda. But at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates said the danger al-Qaeda represents is not to Pakistan alone.

Secretary GATES: We're all concerned about the reestablishment of al-Qaeda safe havens in the border area. And I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan.

GJELTEN: Pakistan has long been a difficult area for U.S. forces because of the sensitivity there to any U.S. presence. In the past, the CIA has undertaken a number of secret missions with Pakistani cooperation. A missile strike last November that killed five militants was widely believed to be a CIA operation. Teresita Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says the rebuff that Hayden and McConnell received from the Pakistani government is likely to mean that secret CIA actions in Pakistan will be harder to arrange.

Ms. TERESITA SCHAFFER (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia): We've now had the government of Pakistan specifically say no, we will not allow this to happen. So that this slightly hazy middle ground of operating with the implicit approval of the government of Pakistan is going to become a lot more difficult to occupy.

GJELTEN: It's a very dangerous turn of events, she says.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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