WASHINGTON — A new generation of "very battle-hardened" young Islamic militants is destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, and the country's U.S.-backed military is nowhere near ready to conduct major operations against it, senior American intelligence officials said Friday.
The militants have expanded their violent campaign from Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas to "Pakistan proper" and they killed more people last year than they did in all the years from 2001 to 2006 combined, said the officials, speaking in testimony to Congress and in interviews.
The officials also acknowledged that al Qaida, which cooperates with the homegrown Pakistani militants and with the Taliban, who're battling Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government, is planning more attacks on the West in the haven it's re-established along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The assessments raise new questions about the wisdom of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq before American-led forces had defeated al Qaida in Afghanistan. Speaking Friday in Germany, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also conceded that European nations critical of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq are reluctant to support its efforts to secure Afghanistan.
Pakistan's government is newly aware of the threats, but despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid, its army remains unable to conduct the sophisticated counter-insurgency campaign that Washington wants, the officials said.
"Pakistan's capacity to do some of the things we both would like to see happen in the tribal area is limited," CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began a two-day visit to Pakistan on Friday, and was expected to discuss additional American assistance to Pakistan.
The Bush administration is expected to offer the Pakistani military more counter-insurgency training. Islamabad rejects overt U.S. military involvement for fear that it would trigger a massive backlash against the government from a population that's already brimming with anti-American sentiment.
Pakistan's rulers long have tried to tame the remote tribal areas by cutting deals with local chieftains, but the new generation of Islamic militants is "not beholden" to traditional tribal or religious authorities, one senior U.S. official said in a telephone interview Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity under government-imposed ground rules.
That lack of leverage, combined with the need to avoid civilian casualties — which increase sympathy for the militants — and the fact that they're fighting on their home ground, "makes it a very, very difficult situation," the official said.
However, he said that the Pakistani military, structured primarily to fight a large-scale war with archrival India, now realizes the urgent need for counter-insurgency capabilities.
He also said that Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, who took over as the army chief of staff late last year, was restoring the military's professionalism and political neutrality.
Talat Masood, a Pakistani political commentator and former army general, said the army was concerned about growing ethnic tensions. Majority Punjabis dominate the army, while the militants are almost exclusively Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the rugged mountainous region along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
The army realizes that "they might turn the whole thing into a Pashtun nationalist movement," Masood said.
There also are fears of more violence after parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18. The elections were rescheduled after the December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which the government has blamed on a top Islamic militant, Baitullah Mehsud.
(Landay reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.)