Senior US officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond Pakistan's tribal region and into Quetta to pressurise Islamabad to pursue Taliban leaders based there, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday.
The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war, the daily said, with some administration officials wondering whether unmanned aircraft strikes in a city of 850,000 was a realistic option.
Proponents, including some military leaders, argue that attacking the Taliban in Quetta - or at least threatening to do so - is critical to the success of the revised war strategy President Barack 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," the Times cited an unnamed senior US official involved in war planning as saying.
"What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the Taliban that there is too much pressure from the US; we can't allow you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore."
But others, including high-ranking US intelligence officials, have been more sceptical of employing drone attacks in a place that Pakistanis see as part of their country's core. Pakistani officials have warned that the fallout would be severe.
US and Pakistani officials cited by the Times stressed that the US 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 US counter-terrorism official.
Pakistan is not expected to hand over Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader and longtime ally of Osama bin Laden who fled Afghanistan when US forces invaded after the Sep 11, 2001 attacks. Omar is believed to have used Quetta as a base from which to orchestrate insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.
But US officials cited by the Times said they have presented Pakistan with a list of Taliban lieutenants and argued that, with a US pullout scheduled to begin in 18 months, the urgency of dismantling the so-called Quetta shura is greater than at any time in the eight-year-old war.