In response to intelligence reports that Al-Qaeda and Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilise the Pakistan government, the US is considering conducting aggressive covert operations in the country's tribal areas.
Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W Bush's senior national security advisers met on Friday at the White House to debate expanding the authority of the CIA and the military for the purpose, The New York Times reported.
Many of the specific options under discussion are unclear and highly classified and would probably involve the CIA working with the military's Special Operations forces to strike selected targets in Pakistan, in some cases using intelligence provided by Pakistani sources, US administration officials told the newspaper.
Many participants in the meeting, convened to discuss US strategy post-Benazir Bhutto assassination, argued that the threat to the government of President Pervez Musharraf was now so grave that both him and Pakistan's new military leadership were likely to give the US more latitude, the Times said in its report on Sunday.
"After years of focusing on Afghanistan, we think the extremists now see a chance for the big prize - creating chaos in Pakistan itself," one senior official said.
The US currently has about 50 soldiers in Pakistan. Any expanded operations using CIA operatives or Special Operations forces, like the Navy Seals, would be small and tailored to specific missions, military officials told the Times.
In the past, the US has stayed out of the tribal areas, in part for fear that exposure of any American-led operations there would so embarrass the Musharraf government that it could further empower his critics, who consider him too close to Washington.
Even now, officials told the newspaper, some in the State Department argue that American-led military operations on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan could result in a tremendous backlash and ultimately do more harm than good.
In part, the White House discussions may be driven by a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
Currently, CIA operatives and Special Operations forces have limited authority to conduct counter-terrorism missions in Pakistan based on specific intelligence about the whereabouts of those two men, who have eluded the Bush administration for more than six years.
The meeting on Friday, which was not publicly announced, was attended by Stephen J Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top intelligence officials, the Times reported.
Although some officials and experts have criticised Musharraf and questioned his ability to take on extremists, Bush has remained steadfast in his support, and it is unlikely any new measures, including direct American military action inside Pakistan, will be approved without Musharraf's consent, the newspaper said.
The Pakistan government has identified a militant leader with links to Al-Qaeda, Baitullah Mehsud, who holds sway in tribal areas near the Afghanistan border, as the chief suspect behind the attack on Bhutto. US officials are not certain about Mehsud's complicity but say the threat he, an "Al-Qaeda associate", and other militants pose is a new focus.
In an interview with foreign journalists on Thursday, Musharraf warned of the risk any counter-terrorism forces - American or Pakistani - faced in confronting Mehsud in his native tribal areas.
The weeks before parliamentary elections - which were originally scheduled for Tuesday - are seen as critical because of threats by extremists to disrupt the vote. But it seemed unlikely that any additional American effort would be approved and put in place in that time frame, the Times report concluded.