U.S. debates acting on its own in Pakistan
The ongoing disarray among Pakistan’s new civilian leadership, including its refusal to accept a U.S. military training mission for the Pakistani army, has led to intense frustration within the Pentagon and reignited a debate over whether the U.S. should act on its own against extremists operating in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions.
Any Pentagon support for more direct action in Pakistan would be a significant shift for military brass, who for months have resisted a push from other parts of the U.S. government, primarily counter-terrorism officials within the CIA, who have favored large-scale covert operations to go after the Al Qaeda leadership.
The internal debates have taken on new urgency amid U.S. intelligence warnings that Al Qaeda and other militant groups are flourishing in northwestern Pakistan. At the same time, there is a growing belief within the U.S. government that the new leadership in Islamabad has proved to be ineffectual and is preoccupied with internal squabbling in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation.
Thursday’s bombing of a munitions plant in Pakistan that killed at least 78, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, has added fuel to U.S. concerns. Attacks by the Taliban and other militants have also been increasing in Afghanistan, and military commanders have said safe havens within Pakistan are responsible for the rising violence in both countries.
“Radical terrorist groups in the border regions have undermined and fought against the central government of Pakistan and carved out sanctuaries and training bases,” said a senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan.
“They have come back, and they are presenting a significant challenge.” Like others interviewed for this article, the officer spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity surrounding U.S.-Pakistan relations.
U.S. military leaders have resisted suggestions for direct intervention in Pakistan out of concern that it would alienate what is supposed to be a friendly government and might lead to an explosion of anti-U.S. sentiment, and possibly violence, among Pakistanis. In a less provocative step, the U.S. has proposed to send U.S. military trainers into the region.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more than two months ago that a team of as many as 30 trainers would be sent to Pakistan this summer to operate out of a base near the northwestern city of Peshawar, where a “significant number” of Pakistani military and Frontier Corps personnel would be put through a counterinsurgency training program.
A military official who has worked on the program said the training mission was to be the first step in a long-term plan by Mullen to broaden military ties with the Pakistani army and enable them to take on the radicals, which include not only Al Qaeda but militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and fighters loyal to insurgent leader Baitullah Mahsud.
But Pentagon officials said the training has been blocked by the Pakistani government for months, in part because of lingering anger over the June killing of 11 Frontier Corps members in a U.S. airstrike along the Afghan border.
Pakistani officials insist they have responded to recent U.S. demands for more aggressive action, demands issued in a series of visits by U.S. military and intelligence officials to Islamabad as well as in recent meetings with Pakistani officials in Washington.
In recent weeks, the Pakistani army’s XI Corps moved into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to counter militants and supplement the poorly trained Frontier Corps, the militia group that patrols the area.
And senior Pakistani officials said they were planning to send a U.S.-trained unit of its Special Service Group into the tribal regions as well.
But U.S. officials remain skeptical that the Pakistani military is committed or prepared to perform such a mission. One former top Pentagon official said that the new head of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has resisted additional training from U.S. special forces, and that Kayani’s intentions have been harder to read than those of his predecessor as head of the army, Musharraf.
“Kayani is very proud,” said the former Pentagon official. “He’s not likely to take gifts, if you would, with strings attached: Give me the tools, don’t give me the training.”
Complicating matters further, the U.S.'s leverage with the Pakistani military is extremely limited. Years of sanctions against Pakistan after nuclear tests in the 1990s have produced a generation of officers who have had little or no interaction with U.S. counterparts and -- unlike those of Kayani and Musharraf’s age -- are highly skeptical of U.S. intentions in the region.
“You hear it all the time: I don’t know that the Pakistanis completely trust us,” said the military official working on the training mission. “We’ve left the region before; are we using them just for the war on terror, and once Afghanistan becomes a stable environment we’re going to go away?”
U.S. officials said Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have exploited this assumption, spreading word that the U.S. will soon abandon Pashtun tribesmen in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, just as it did in 1989 after expelling Soviet forces from Afghanistan, said a senior State Department official involved in South Asia policy.
Several senior U.S. military officials believe Pakistan’s inability to disrupt Islamic extremists in its tribal regions has led to the recent increase in violence against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a view that has prompted a new round of discussions on the advisability of unilateral action.
“We are truly conflicted,” said a senior military official involved in the Pakistan policy discussions. “As a military guy, every bone in your body says, ‘Let’s go find them and kill them.’ You temper that, with the fragility of the current government in Islamabad, by asking, ‘Do you do more long-term harm if you act very, very aggressively militarily?’ That debate continues, and it’s very difficult.”
At the CIA, there is widespread skepticism toward the Pentagon’s hopes of a retrained Pakistani military handling the problem. The agency’s operatives have long argued that the Pakistani army has almost no counterinsurgency training and lacks equipment for the mission.
Henry A. Crumpton, a former top CIA operations officer who served as the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policy coordinator at the State Department until February 2007, said he had repeatedly pressed for more direct action in Pakistan, along the lines of the CIA’s successful 2001 campaign in Afghanistan, where dozens of agency operatives, with help from only a few hundred U.S. special operations soldiers, toppled the Taliban in less than three months.
Said another former CIA operative who worked in Pakistan: “I genuinely believe that if we are going to eliminate Al Qaeda and the senior leadership, we have to go where they are, and they are in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
But senior military officers who urge restraint are highly skeptical of the CIA’s claims, with some arguing that while Al Qaeda has been able to find safe havens within Pakistan, constant U.S. surveillance and shifting loyalties of tribal chieftains have forced Al Qaeda’s leadership to break up into small, remote groups in the tribal areas.
The distance between these cells, coupled with the knowledge that the U.S. can monitor most forms of electronic communications, has made it difficult for Al Qaeda to do any real coordinated planning for a large-scale attack on the U.S., these military officials believe.
“My opinion is there isn’t that clear and present danger,” said a senior military official who recently traveled to Pakistan. “I don’t see that as within their capabilities.”
The former senior Pentagon official, who was recently briefed on the CIA’s Pakistan plans, also said he found the agency’s information inadequate. “Every bit of intel they ever could gather was snippets,” said the former official. “Under every rock there’s an Al Qaeda? I don’t think so.”
Military and intelligence officials describe the differences of opinion as a long-running dispute between some elements in within the CIA and many in the Pentagon leadership. That makes the issue even more complicated and intractable, Crumpton said.
Fueling the urgency within the CIA, several current and former officials said, is the White House’s desire to see Osama bin Laden eliminated before the end of the administration, leading some within the White House to side with the CIA’s aggressive plans.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano strongly discounted that view: “The strategy and tactics of CIA’s global pursuit of Al Qaeda and its affiliates have everything to do with the situation on the ground and nothing -- zero -- to do with political schedules in our country. Sources peddling trash to the contrary are either ill-informed, ill-intentioned, or both.”
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.