The White House is looking at expanding counterterror operations in Pakistan as an alternative to a major military escalation in Afghanistan.
Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against al Qaeda could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
The armed drones could contain al Qaeda in a smaller, if more remote, area and keep its leaders from retreating back into Afghanistan, the officials said.
The prospect of a White House alternative to a deepening involvement in Afghanistan comes as administration officials debate whether to send more troops - as urged in aby the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The president thus far has not endorsed the McChrystal approach, saying in television interviews over the weekend that he needs to be convinced that sending more troops would make Americans safer from al Qaeda.
Tellingly, Mr. Obama reiterated in those interviews that his core goal is to destroy al Qaeda, which is not present in significant numbers in Afghanistan. He did not focus on saving Afghanistan.
"I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face," Mr. Obama told NBC television's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Top aides to the president said he still has questions and wants more time to decide whether more troops would help defeat the Taliban.
"I'm not considering it at this point because I haven't received the request," Mr. Obama told Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer on Sunday.
"The first question is, 'Are we doing the right thing?"' Mr. Obama said. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?"
Schieffer asked the president whether it would be difficult for him to deny a request for more troops from McChrystal.
"The only reason I send a single young man or woman in uniform anywhere in the world is because I think it is necessary to keep us safe," Mr. Obama replied.
"Didn't you say on March 27th that you have announced a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan?" Schieffer asked. "I thought you already had a strategy."
"We did," the president explained, "but what I also said was that we were going to review that review that every six months."
The officials said the administration aims to push ahead with the ground mission in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, still leaving the door open for sending more U.S. troops. But Mr. Obama's top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, have indicated they are reluctant to send many more troops - if any at all - in the immediate future.
The proposed shift would bolster U.S. action on Mr. Obama's long-stated goal of dismantling terrorist havens, but it could also complicate American relations with Pakistan, long wary of the growing use of aerial drones to target militants along the porous border with Afghanistan.
Most U.S. military officials have preferred a classic counterinsurgency mission to keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban and securing the local population.
However, one senior White House official said it's not clear that the Taliban would welcome al Qaeda back into Afghanistan. The official noted that it was only after the 9/11 attacks that the United States invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban in pursuit of al Qaeda.
Somethat adding more American troops to the battleground in their country would have any positive effect, warning that a larger troop presence would merely increase the perception of a foreign military occupation.
Pakistan will not allow the United States to deploy a large-scale military troop buildup on its soil. However, its military and intelligence services are believed to have assisted the U.S. with airstrikes, even while the government has publicly condemned them.
Speaking exclusively Monday to CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, Pakistani Foreign Minister Mahkdoom Qureshi said there are two reasons his nation's populace is so violently opposed to the drone strikes; "One is the issue of sovereignty, and the other is collateral damage."
Striking a familiar tone, Mr. Qureshi sought to cast the blame for Islamic militant violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border across the fence to his neighbors. "The problem is that there is a constant flow of weapons into Pakistan. Where are they coming from? They're coming from across the border."
Mr. Qureshi claimed that his nation's police and military forces "have the terrorists on the run," and he urged the U.S. government to entrust them with the technology to wage pinpointed drone missile strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban operatives on their own.
"We have been your allies for a very, very long time. And this relationship can only be built on trust and confidence. So if you lack trust and confidence, where are we going?" asked Qureshi.
Wider use of missile strikes and less reliance on ground troops would mark Obama's second shift in strategy and tactics since taking office last January.
But stepping up attacks on the remnants of al Qaeda also would dovetail with Obama's presidential campaign promise of directly going after the terrorist network that spawned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Over the past few weeks, White House and Pentagon officials have debated the best way to defeat al Qaeda - and whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to battle the extremist Taliban elements that hosted Osama bin Laden and his operatives in the 1990s and have continued to aid the terrorist group.
McChrystal has argued that without more troops the United States could lose the war against the Taliban and allied insurgents.
"Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it," McChrystal wrote in a five-page Commander's Summary that was unveiled late Sunday by The Washington Post. His 66-page report, which was also made public by the Post in a partly classified version after appeals from Pentagon officials, was sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Aug. 30 and is now under review at the White House.
In an interview Monday with CNN, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, "Where General McChrystal is asking for more resources, in all aspects, to boost the effort against terrorism, he has our support there."
But Karzai added that the U.S. and its allies also need to "concentrate on the sanctuaries for terrorists outside of Afghanistan."
White House officials have made clear that Pakistan, where the U.S. cannot send troops, should be the top concern since that is where top al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden himself, are believed to be hiding. Very few al Qaeda extremists are believed to still be in Afghanistan, according to military and White House officials.
There have been more than 50 missile strikes against Pakistan targets since August 2008, according to an Associated Press count. Two weeks ago, a U.S. drone killed a key suspected al Qaeda recruiter and trainer, Pakistani national Ilyas Kashmiri.