The CIA secretly trained and equipped Pakistan commandos to locate and either capture or kill Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan under the Clinton administration.
When the current leader of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, came to power two years ago he ordered it to be stopped, The Washington Post reported yesterday.
The plan was launched with the authority of President Clinton after the attacks in 1998 on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and after the missile strikes launched by America in response to those bombings failed to kill Mr bin Laden.
The operation was planned with the backing and support of the serving Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. In exchange, the US promised to lift the sanctions that were in place against Pakistan.
"It was an enterprise. It was proceeding," a former US official knowledgeable of the operation told The Washington Post. By the autumn of 1999 the operation, involving 60 Pakistan commandos, was ready to go. But on 12 October of that year it was suddenly halted when Mr Sharif was ousted in a coup led by General Musharraf. Despite concerted efforts by the Clinton administration, he refused to permit the operation to proceed.
Observers of the current diplomatic negotiations with Pakistan say the aborted operation was not just a missed opportunity to get the man believed to have been behind the terror attacks of 11 September, but is also indicative of the sensitivity involved in trying to include Pakistan in an operation against its neighbour.
Details of the plan remain scant but it seems clear it was launched amid the frustration of the Clinton administration in failing to kill Mr bin Laden in the missile strikes launched in August 1998 in response to the embassy bombings.
The strikes were aimed at a training camp complex near the city of Khost in south-east Afghanistan, where intelligence reports said Mr bin Laden would be. It is believed that Mr bin Laden – possibly tipped off – left just hours before the missiles struck. Between 20 and 30 of his men were killed.
Although the strikes were not a success, they were deemed to have a psychological value.
"He thought he was safe in Afghanistan, in the mountains, inside the landlocked airspace," said retired Marine General Anthony Zinni. "So at least we could send a message that we could reach him."
Officials with the current regime in Pakistan say any covert operation would have been organised at the highest level. A spokesman for the Pakistani embassy in Washington said: "I have seen the reports – they are interesting, intriguing. We have no comment but they would make a good story for a Tom Clancy plot."Reuse content