Washington: American officials say that Pakistan’s pledge to fight Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the restive tribal areas is being weakened by disagreements in the Pakistani military and security forces over what their priority should be.
The divisions have emerged as a source of growing frustration to the Bush administration, with officials saying the main disagreement in Pakistan is over whether to gear up a counter-terrorism campaign against Islamic extremists or to try to shore up a conventional force focused on potential threats from India.
Senior Bush administration officials and American military commanders universally praise Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s new army chief, for making the counterterrorism campaign his immediate priority. But American officials in the Pentagon and state department say other senior Pakistani officers and security officials are not yet willing to reduce a traditional commitment to fight a conventional land war with India, despite greatly reduced tensions between the long-time adversaries.
Breeding ground? Afghan refugees near the country’s border in Peshawar, Pakistan. American forces fear refugee camps on the border, where a million Afghans live, will be used to recruit and train terrorists.
American officials can offer specific examples to illustrate the disconnect between Pakistan’s military requests and efforts by the US to enlist Islamabad to combat terrorists and insurgents in the tribal areas.
An American officer said the Pentagon was surprised when, in negotiations on the counterterrorism effort, Pakistan requested an advanced air defence radar—even though Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters have no air forces.
“They want this kind of hardware, while we are suggesting training and different procedures,” an American officer said. When American officials offered help in surveillance and reconnaissance, the Pakistanis requested Predators, the state-of-the-art remotely controlled aircraft that is in short supply even in the American military.
“We are suggesting radios and surveillance equipment—but not the kinds of hardware with long training timelines and lots of maintenance needs,” the officer said. “We want them to want counter-insurgency stuff. They want to fight India.”
It is not yet clear what policies will be embraced by the leaders of Pakistan’s two main opposition parties that won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last month.
“Doctrines are hard to change, and there’s a lot of bureaucratic resistance to this approach,” a senior state department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic concerns, as some others interviewed for this article did. “There are still many Pakistani officers who are worried about where they stand with the Indians.”
The official said that top state department officials in Washington and at the US embassy in Islamabad did not view the divisions as an insurmountable obstacle; at the same time, these officials acknowledged the slow progress towards developing a comprehensive approach to fighting the militants.
Bush administration and military officials have expressed concerns that some of the $5 billion (Rs20,250 crore) the US has reimbursed to Pakistan since 2001 for conducting military operations to fight terrorism has been diverted to help finance weapons systems better suited to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
In 2006, the US signed arms transfer agreements with Pakistan for more than $3.5 billion in equipment, including 36 F-16 fighters and their bombs and missiles, as well as 155mm self-propelled howitzers, Richard F. Grimmett of the Congressional Research Service said.
A parade of senior American military and intelligence officials has visited Pakistan in the past two months to offer help in fighting the militants.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has made an extraordinary effort to build a stronger relationship with Pakistan’s military leadership, going to Islamabad twice in just over three weeks this year to meet with his counterparts.
In an interview after his most recent meetings in early March with Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Kayani, Mullen said the two had discussed the counter-terrorism effort “at a very high level,” the level of strategy and policy. The two officers did not discuss specific programmes for training assistance or equipment, but Mullen left the clear impression that he believed Kayani and his top advisers were committed to the counter-terrorism effort in the tribal areas.
One American military officer noted the irony of the US criticizing Pakistan for not pivoting rapidly enough from preparing for war with India to responding to the threat of terrorists and insurgents.
After all, the officer said, the army and Marine Corps were slow to recognize the changing adversary in Iraq, and even the army’s new field manual on counter-insurgency has not been universally accepted by a service still lobbying to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a high-tech Future Combat System designed to fight a major state rival.
Within its own borders, Pakistan faces many of the challenges bedevilling the American-led security efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, American military officers said.
The Pakistani army is viewed as an occupier in the tribal areas, an officer said, and therefore has moved to shift to Frontier Corps and Frontier Constabulary forces drawn from the local population.
But those forces are woefully under-trained and under-equipped and need, in particular, helicopters for rapid movement in the mountains, night-vision gear and broad training in standard military techniques.
A senior Pakistani official complained that his nation’s request for this very type of equipment had been caught in Pentagon red tape. “We need to move much faster than the routine bureaucratic cycle for supply of equipment,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid offending American officials.
American officials said one of the greatest challenges is preventing the huge refugee camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border from being used as havens for recruiting and training terrorist fighters. A million Afghans are estimated to live in several camps in Pakistan on the border.
They have become a primary training ground for Taliban and Al Qaeda, American officials said, particularly as places to build explosive-laden suicide vests—and to recruit young men with little education and no prospects for other employment to wear them in attacks.
Speaking of the tribal areas, Mullen said in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS (a media enterprise that serves 355 public non-commercial television stations) last week, “We know this is a place from which, if I were going to pick the next attack to hit the United States, it would come out of the FATA,” or Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES