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Pakistan to crack down on rebels

Times Staff Writer

Meeting a key Pentagon demand, Pakistan’s military is planning to move a major unit of its regular army into the tribal areas on its western border, a largely lawless area used as a haven by Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgents, Pakistani commanders have told U.S. military officials.

The army unit would supplement the country’s Frontier Corps, an ill-trained force frequently routed by insurgents, a senior U.S. military officer said. A fully trained and equipped army unit would represent a change, long sought by U.S. officials, in Islamabad’s stance toward the troubled region.

However, U.S. officials also question how effective or long-lasting the Pakistani push is likely to be.

“I think they are sincere in addressing what we have identified as the problem, but I am not sure they have wrapped their minds or their enthusiasm over what it will actually take,” the officer said. “They are answering our request, but not in a way that will produce an enduring solution.”

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The disclosure came as President Bush and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani met Monday at the White House to try to smooth a relationship that has been increasingly strained by differences over how to handle the militant threat from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Defusing fears of a rocky meeting, the two leaders stressed the positive in their Rose Garden comments. Bush called Pakistan an ally and said it had made a “strong commitment” to securing the border region. Gillani said Pakistan “is committed to fight” against those who he said are waging war against Pakistan.

The two also discussed a Monday missile attack in a border village in which a senior Al Qaeda official was reported killed. However, neither leader mentioned the Pakistani army plans to move troops into the area.

But Pakistani officials have told U.S. military officials they are planning to use the country’s XI Corps, which is based in Waziristan, in the southern end of the tribal region, to counter militants. The Pakistanis have told U.S. officials they have identified key border crossing routes where they plan to station army units.

U.S. military officials have identified the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, or FATA, as a refuge for Al Qaeda and a base from which militants mount attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.

Nine U.S. soldiers were killed July 13 in an attack in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, a northeastern area that U.S. officials say is subject to frequent cross-border strikes. A month earlier, U.S.-led forces responding to an insurgent attack in the same area fired across the border; Pakistan said the Americans killed 11 of its troops.

U.S. officials have stationed CIA agents in Pakistan, launched special-forces missions and flown unmanned planes equipped with missiles, but have been frustrated by the hunt for militants in the tribal area. Pakistani opposition precludes an expanded U.S. presence, and Washington has been unsatisfied with Pakistan’s response.

The XI Corps, stationed in Peshawar, was formed in 1975 and was assigned to defend Pakistan against the Soviet Union after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It also helped train anti-Soviet Afghan insurgents. The Corps has also frequently been sent to the Kashmir area when tensions with India have flared.

Military officials would not discuss how many troops the Pakistanis are sending. But U.S. officials said a key shortcoming of the plan is that Pakistan’s military, including the XI Corps, has been trained for conventional warfare rather than counterinsurgency.

U.S. military officials would prefer that the Pakistani military begin a broad counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operation, which would include economic projects, reaching out to tribes, targeted raids and a long-term troop presence.

Many of the U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Pakistanis have not announced the operation.

The tribal areas have long resisted direct control by Islamabad. Largely autonomous, the border is protected by the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force. Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has moved to reinforce the Frontier Corps with well-trained army officers. But the force remains poorly organized and equipped and, being drawn from those living in the region, often has little incentive to fight.

U.S. military and administration officials are wondering how far Kayani and his civilian bosses will go to deal with the tribal areas.

“Can we get the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military to come to grips with the threat?” asked a senior administration official. “What is their wake-up call?”

U.S. military officials are skeptical of Pakistan’s ability to undertake even basic military operations, much less the more complex tasks a counterinsurgency requires. Previous pushes into the tribal areas by the regular army have been cut short after it took casualties.

“It is a very impotent force,” a senior military official said of the Pakistani army.

There are about 800 border-crossing points between Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to U.S. defense officials. Most U.S. officials blame the tribal regions for the growing number of attacks.

“You have basically got ungoverned space in Pakistan that is providing sanctuary to different groups of insurgents,” said the senior administration official. “They are using the area as staging bases, recruiting bases, training areas for attacks into Afghanistan.”

In an effort to reduce violence, the Pakistani military has been signing agreements with many of the tribes. But a U.S. congressional official with expertise in the region said the agreements amount to little but a temporary truce.

U.S. military officials maintain that even though the Pakistani army is poorly prepared, negotiations must be backed by an active military presence in the tribal region.

According to administration officials, U.S. military and intelligence officials have been working on a sophisticated tribal map to identify tribal subgroups and their allegiances.

Military officials believe Al Qaeda has overplayed its hand in areas, betraying or killing tribal leaders. Those tribes may be willing to work with the Pakistani military.

“There are growing indications that many of the tribes in the FATA are eager for the government to do something and are putting pressure on provincial leaders,” the senior officer said.

The Pakistani army, according to military and administration officials, still needs to build allies in the tribal groups.

“We can’t see they have, in a strategic way, decided which of these groups are reconcilable and which are irreconcilable,” the senior officer said.

U.S. officials would like to send special operations forces to train the Pakistani army in counterinsurgency. But the Pakistani public distrusts the United States, leaving little likelihood that many U.S. trainers will be allowed in.

Still, senior U.S. defense officials say they are scouring for new ways to get Pakistan to step up its efforts in the tribal areas.

“There is a sense of urgency,” said a senior defense official. “There is this consensus from the intelligence community that Al Qaeda is reconstituting and the primary threat to NATO forces and Afghanistan forces is coming across the border from Pakistan.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writers Paul Richter, Josh Meyer, Peter Spiegel and Greg Miller contributed to this report.


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