WASHINGTON—Despite President Bush's repeated warnings that al-Qaida wants to turn Iraq into a base from which to attack the United States, administration terrorism experts believe there's a graver and more immediate threat from Pakistan's tribal areas. But the war in Iraq is constraining the president's ability to respond.
An intelligence assessment given to Congress, together with a new policy review calling for more troops and funding for civilian programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, point to the Bush administration's growing dilemma: how to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
At a closed Senate committee hearing last week, administration officials devoted more time to the sanctuary that al-Qaida and its Taliban allies have secured in the lawless Pakistani region than they did to the terrorist network's threat to Iraq, according to U.S. officials familiar with the session.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing on terrorist havens was held behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration recently concluded a strategic internal review on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. It called for stanching the flow of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from Pakistan, boosting foreign troops and increasing aid for reconstruction and Afghan security forces before an expected Taliban offensive this spring.
But with priority going to Iraq, the administration has chosen to rely on balky U.S. allies to supply the additional troops to bolster Afghan President Hamid Karzai. And the White House has rejected financing for several proposals to lessen the influence of Islamic militants in the Pakistani-Afghan border area, U.S. officials said.
"We're trapped in . . . this overwhelming Iraq focus," lamented a State Department official. He and other U.S. officials who discussed the Afghanistan policy review requested anonymity because the findings haven't been made public.
The review was prompted by the unexpected resurgence last year of the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic movement that sheltered bin Laden before the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention.
While the insurgents suffered serious battlefield defeats by U.S. troops and peacekeepers of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the fighting this year is forecast to be even bloodier.
One reason U.S. officials are predicting worse violence this year is that Islamic militants have consolidated their grip on parts of Pakistan's tribal areas since they concluded a truce with the country's military regime last fall.
U.S. terrorism experts told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the tribal region has become safer for al-Qaida leaders and for Taliban training camps and bases, according to U.S. officials familiar with the testimony.
The policy review outlined a "comprehensive" counter-insurgency plan that calls for stronger action to stem cross-border infiltration from Pakistan.
A senior State Department official said the United States hoped to implement the plan before the Taliban launched offensives this spring that were expected to target Afghanistan's second-largest city, Kandahar, and other key areas in the south and east.
"We want to be proactive, and start now, not wait until April when the Taliban attack," he said. "Our efforts in Afghanistan desperately need to be intensified."
The administration is expected to ask Congress early next month for more money for Iraq and Afghanistan for 2007, including more than $5 billion in additional Pentagon assistance for Karzai's security forces.
However, the White House's Office of Management and Budget halved a State Department request for just over $1 billion, which was to target Pakistan's secular educational system and aid programs in the tribal areas. Both efforts were intended to reduce the influence of Islamic militants, a U.S. official said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is examining requests for more U.S. troops, but he's unlikely to do more than extend the tours of units that are already in Afghanistan because of the demand for more forces for Iraq.
The United States is pressing NATO members and other allies to contribute more peacekeepers, helicopters, transport planes and other equipment to the 32,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan. The United States has some 12,000 troops in that force, and it maintains a separate counter-insurgency contingent of some 9,000 soldiers.
But key International Security Assistance Force members, including Germany and Italy, continue to resist U.S. demands to loosen restrictions—known as caveats—on the use of their troops in combat operations.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to press for relaxing the caveats and to ask U.S. allies for more troops and equipment at a special NATO foreign ministers conference on Afghanistan in Brussels, Belgium, on Friday. Representatives from Australia and Japan also will attend.
While the United States isn't likely to contribute more soldiers, it hopes to announce a major increase in assistance for Afghanistan, the senior State Department official said.
He also said the United States was pressing Pakistan to do more to stop cross-border infiltration.