WASHINGTON — Although the "war on terrorism" remains a consuming focus of the U.S. government, the Bush administration appears poised to leave behind a situation not unlike the one it inherited nearly eight years ago: a resurgent Al Qaeda ensconced in South Asia, training new recruits, plotting attacks against the West, and seemingly beyond the United States' reach.
In dozens of interviews, senior U.S. national security, intelligence and military officials described a counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan that has lost momentum and is beset by frustration.
CIA officers pursuing Al Qaeda fighters are confined largely to a collection of crumbling bases in northwestern Pakistan. Most are on remote Pakistani military outposts, where they are kept on a short leash under an awkward arrangement with their hosts -- rarely allowed to leave and often left with little to do but plead with their Pakistani counterparts to act.
"Everyone who serves in Pakistan comes back frustrated," a former CIA case officer said. The case officer, like many other officials, spoke on condition of anonymity when describing U.S. counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan because the efforts are highly sensitive and the officials in many cases are not authorized to speak publicly.
Two troubled options define the U.S. approach. One is the present policy of counting on a politically evolving Pakistan to address the problem, which could allow Al Qaeda to operate relatively unmolested for years. The other, unilateral U.S. military action, even counter-terrorism hard-liners acknowledge, might only compound the militant threat.
Asked what might cause the United States to recalculate its present course, one high-ranking U.S. counter-terrorism analyst said, "Obviously, another attack on the homeland."
"Had the plot in Britain in 2006 succeeded, we would not be having this conversation," the official said, referring to an alleged scheme in which suspects were to detonate liquid explosives on transatlantic flights. "I suspect that in the spectrum of Pakistan as ally and Pakistan as territory that needs to be cleansed, we would have moved toward the latter."
To some, such comments underscore a shift in mind-set since the Sept. 11 attacks, a step back from policies of preemptive action despite warnings from the CIA director in March that Al Qaeda’s base in Pakistan represents a “clear and present danger” to the West.
The co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, said, "The similarities between Afghanistan before Sept. 11 and Pakistan today are striking and deeply worrisome.
"At what point do you say we cannot tolerate this anymore?"
Despite the apparent parallels, there are key differences. Before Sept. 11 Afghanistan was diplomatically isolated and ruled by the harshly fundamentalist Taliban movement, but Pakistan has a democratically elected government generally friendly to the West.
Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani, who will meet with President Bush at the White House on Monday, and other senior officials say Pakistan already has made great sacrifices in confronting the militants, who use the country's tribal areas as a springboard for attacks in Pakistan and on Western troops in Afghanistan.
Gillani, who took office in March, has pledged more action against Islamic militants, but also has warned that his government would not tolerate foreign troops. As a matter of policy, the Pakistani government does not publicly acknowledge the presence of U.S. covert operatives.
For now, U.S. strategy centers on two components. Over the long term, the administration has committed billions of dollars to aiding Pakistan and improving its military's capabilities.
In the short term, the pursuit of Al Qaeda is centered on pressuring Pakistan to be more aggressive, using U.S. Special Forces teams and Predator unmanned aircraft to carry out airstrikes, and hoping that the few dozen CIA operatives working the region can eventually close in on Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the area.
CIA operatives stationed in spartan compounds across the tribal region provide U.S. funding, equipment and intelligence to their Pakistani counterparts. But officials say it is a struggle to persuade the Pakistanis to act.
On some CIA bases, "it's just well known that nothing is going to be done," said the former CIA case officer who served in the region.
"We'd be like, 'What about this guy? What about that guy? Can we get surveillance? How about targeting him?' " the former officer said. "We'd propose things and [Pakistani officials] would never get back to us."
In other locations, kernels of cooperation have led to occasional arrests or missile strikes on suspected Al Qaeda compounds. But the successes have been fleeting, and the mission unfulfilled.