WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes be-yond Pakistan's tribal region in an attempt to pressure the Islamic government to pursue Taliban leaders based in the sprawling city of Quetta.
The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war. Raising the prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in a major Pakistani city signals a new U.S. resolve to decapitate the Taliban, but also risks rupturing Washing-ton's relationship with Is-lamabad.
The concern has created tension among Obama ad-ministration officials over whether unmanned aircraft strikes in a city of 850,000 are a realistic option. Proponents, including some military lead-ers, argue attacking the Tali-ban in Quetta — or at least threatening to do so — is critical to the success of the revised war strategy President Obama unveiled last week.
"If we don't do this, at least have a real discussion of it, Pakistan might not think we are serious," said a senior U.S. official involved in war planning. "What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the Taliban that there is too much pressure from the U.S.; we can't allow you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore." But others, including high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials, have been more skeptical of employing drone attacks in a region Pakistanis see as part of their country's core. Indeed, senior Pakistani officials have warned that the fallout would be severe.
"We are not a banana re-public," said a senior Pakistani official involved in discussions with the Obama administration. If the United States were to follow through on the threat, the official said, "This might be the end of the road." Obama has endorsed an expansion of CIA operations in-side Pakistan, approving the deployment of more spies and resources in a clandestine counterpart to the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
But the push to expand drone strikes underscores the limits of the Obama offensive. The administration has given itself 18 months to show evidence of a turnaround in Afghanistan. But progress in Pakistan depends almost entirely on drone strikes and prodding a sometimes reluctant ally to do more.
U.S. and Pakistani officials stressed the United States has stopped short of issuing an ultimatum to Pakistan. "It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to use heavy-handed tactics when you've got this kind of relationship," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. Like others, he discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.