WASHINGTON — Even as it faces an enduring terrorist threat and rising violence in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has failed to develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate al Qaida and its sanctuary in Pakistan's remote tribal region, the investigative arm of Congress said Thursday.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office's scathing report says that the administration has relied too heavily on Pakistani security forces to deal with a major U.S. national-security problem.
The report comes as Pakistan's recently elected civilian government formulates a new approach to curbing terrorism from that of the former military regime, including less reliance on force, a reduced U.S. role and negotiations with militant groups.
Majority congressional Democrats seized on the findings to renew charges that the Bush administration, which has called Iraq the main front in the fight against terrorism, has failed to deal responsibly with the primary terrorist threat to the United States.
"It is appalling that there is still no comprehensive, interagency strategy concerning this critical region, and this lack of foresight is harming U.S. national security," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, which requested the report.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe disputed the GAO's conclusion, saying the administration was tackling terrorism in Pakistan with "a variety of means across the political, economic and security fronts."
President Bush and his senior aides say that their top national-security priority is eliminating the threat posed by bin Laden's al Qaida network and other Islamic terrorist groups from their sanctuary on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
But the GAO report says that the United States has no plan that "includes all elements of national power — diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic and law enforcement support — called for by the various national-security strategies and Congress."
"The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy the terrorist threat and close the safe haven in Pakistan's FATA region," it says, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Pakistan has refused to allow large-scale U.S. military operations in the tribal areas, an impoverished Massachusetts-size region of mountains and valleys inhabited by deeply conservative Pashtun tribes.
Bin Laden, his core followers and other foreign extremists, as well as the Afghan Taliban, established training camps and bases in the region after fleeing the 2001 U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. Pakistani militant groups also have gained sanctuaries from which they have launched dozens of suicide bombings.
Al Qaida has used its haven to support the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan against U.S.-led NATO forces and President Hamid Karzai's government. Recent studies say the level of violence for the first quarter of this year is as high or higher than it was during the same period in 2007.
The Bush administration has relied primarily on the Pakistani military to crush the militants, the report says.
It's made only limited efforts to deal with "other underlying causes of terrorism in the FATA by providing development assistance or by addressing FATA's political needs," the report says.
About 96 percent of some $5.8 billion that the United States provided to Pakistan for addressing the problem in the tribal areas and adjoining districts from 2002 to 2007 has gone to reimbursing the Pakistani military for its operations, according to the report.
But Pakistan, which deployed 120,000 troops and paramilitary forces in the rugged region, has failed to eliminate al Qaida and allied militants based there even though it's killed and captured hundreds of extremists while losing about 1,400 of its own forces.
The report makes no mention of periodic strikes on suspected al Qaida targets by unmanned U.S. aircraft.
Many experts and tribal leaders contend that large numbers of civilian casualties caused by Pakistani and U.S. operations in the tribal areas are a major reason that al Qaida and other extremist groups have continued to find sanctuary and recruits in the region.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf asked Bush in March 2006 to support "a more comprehensive approach" that included economic development such as constructing roads and schools, the report says.
Yet senior diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad told the GAO that they had "not received a comprehensive plan from the CIA, Defense, State, the NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Center), the NSC (National Security Council), the White House or any other executive department," the report says.
The U.S. Embassy decided to coordinate American support for the nine-year, $2 billion Pakistani strategy calling for economic development and security assistance as well as extending the country's political and legal systems to the tribal areas.
The White House and key U.S. agencies, however, have yet to approve the approach, which would constitute "the U.S. government's first attempt" to harness key aspects of American power other than military force on the problem, the report says.