Last week, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Maples, acknowledged a simple truth about the presence of the Taliban senior leadership in Pakistan. "Sir, the Quetta Shura is operating openly, as you know, in Quetta," Maples told Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both Maples and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair assessed that the Pakistani government considered itself hamstrung to respond — "a combination of lack of capability, their overall approach in which they believe that there needs to be a compromise and cooperation with some groups in that area and their assessment of the threat to that group to Pakistan as opposed to Afghanistan," in Blair’s phrase.

The admission carries an obvious implication: what will the U.S. do about the Quetta Shura? Recall that on the campaign trail, President Obama said that he would consider using direct military force against "Al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, [if] Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act." Would the leadership of the al-Qaeda-aligned Taliban qualify?

According to the New York Times, expanding strikes into Quetta is a consideration for the White House’s Af-Pak strategy review team. Reviews led by Generals David Petraeus and Douglas Lute are said to favor "expanding American operations" beyond the Pakistani tribal areas if the Pakistanis don’t demonstrate greater capability in combatting the growing Taliban presence in places officially under its sovereignty. It’s unclear what sort of operations those would be, but the Obama administration appears inclined to continue the Bush administration’s authorization for covert and clandestine intelligence and military action in Pakistan:

“It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programs,” said one senior administration official. “One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we’ve got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens.”

There’s a lot of talk about reducing U.S. goals in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Disrupting the safe havens is often discussed as a minimal one — far less than the creation of a flourishing Afghan democracy. Indeed, Obama himself has set that goal, telling his first press conference, "what we haven’t seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful." But what we also haven’t seen is a concerted discussion of what it would take to disrupt those safe havens; what constitutes "disruption"; and whether it’s ultimately achievable at what cost should we have to do it ourselves.

Crossposted to The Streak.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman