WASHINGTON—Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, under attack from a rival who portrays him as naive on foreign policy, declared Wednesday he would use military force against Al Qaeda operatives hiding in tribal areas of Pakistan if that nation did not move more aggressively against them first.
The Illinois senator threatened he would take military action as president, if necessary, despite the risk of undercutting the country's leader, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, an important American ally.
Obama delivered the warning in a speech on counter-terrorism policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank in Washington.
Obama's stance provided a show of foreign-policy strength at a time when his chief rival in early presidential polling, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), has sought to depict him as naïve in international affairs after Obama indicated he would be willing to negotiate with foreign dictators that the U.S. has shunned.
His declaration also followed revelations last month that the Bush Administration made a last-minute decision in 2005 to abort a special forces raid to capture senior Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas amid fears the operation might jeopardize relations with Pakistan. The disclosure stirred criticism of the White House, and in his speech Obama called the decision to abort "a terrible mistake."
A national intelligence assessment recently made public concluded Al Qaeda is reconstituting itself in the remote region of Pakistan and gaining strength, including setting up training camps.
The Bush Administration has followed a delicate strategy in Pakistan. The White House has prodded Musharraf, a key ally in the struggle against the Taliban, to take stronger steps against terrorist havens while also taking care not to undermine a leader who maintains a tenuous hold on power and faces an internal challenge from Islamic fundamentalists.
Events this summer have underscored Musharraf's shaky position. An attempt by the Pakistani president to dismiss the Supreme Court chief justice stirred violent riots and moved the court's full membership to over-rule the president in a politically damaging rebuff. Islamic fundamentalists took control of the capital city's Red Mosque and had to be ousted through a bloody military raid. That raid in turn prompted a series of suicide bombings against the Pakistani government.
Obama said he would make continued military aid to Pakistan conditional on a more aggressive Pakistani Army offensive against the Al Qaeda followers who have retreated to a region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in which local tribes operate virtually free of central government authority.
"I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan," Obama said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow defended the Bush Administration's strategy in Pakistan. "We think that our approach to Pakistan is not only one that respects the sovereignty of Pakistan, but also is designed so that we are working in cooperation," Snow said.
"Gen. Musharraf, President Musharraf, is clearly somebody who has chips in the game here," added Snow, who noted that the Pakistani leader has been the target of multiple assassination attempts.
Still, in an action that many observers read as a tilt by the Bush Administration toward a military strike, White House Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend pointedly declined to rule the option out in a television interview in late July, stirring a chorus of protests in Pakistan.
Clinton said in a radio interview later in the day that she also would not hesitate to attack Al Qaeda targets on Pakistani territory.
"If we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured. And that will be my highest priority because they pose the highest threat to America," Clinton told American Urban Radio News Networks.
But two of Obama's other Democratic rivals expressed skepticism at his pronouncements Wednesday. It's understood that the U.S. might have to go into Pakistan under some circumstances, said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but that is not something one should discuss publicly for fear of undermining Musharraf.
"The way to deal with it is not to announce it, it's to do it," Biden said at the National Press Club, suggesting Obama's comments reflected inexperience. "It's not something you talk about; as president, it's something I would do."
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), also a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed the criticism.
"As commander in chief, I would take the steps necessary to defend the American people, beginning with hunting down Osama bin Laden and stopping terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. But I will not declare my intentions for specific military action to the media in the context of a political campaign," Dodd said in a written statement e-mailed to reporters.
Teresita Schaffer, a former State Department official with responsibility for the region and now director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that an overt U.S. military strike inside Pakistani territory would be a particular blow to Musharraf, who is a military leader, and could well lead to his ouster. It also would bolster leaders hostile to the United States in both the struggle for national leadership and local control of the tribal areas, she said.
"Once you have made that kind of operation, everything connected to the United States, even more than before, is believed to be the enemy," Schaffer said. "You've probably created a safe haven that works even better than before."
Tribune national correspondents Mark Silva and Naftali Bendavid contributed to this report.