By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 6, 2008 - Pakistan is a key ally in the war on terror, and its cooperation with NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan is crucial to progress in that country, according to senior U.S. embassy officials here, speaking on background. Since 2001, the Pakistani government has provided crucial access, intelligence and aid against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet until the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December, the majority of Pakistanis believed the war on terror was not their fight, an official said.
Pakistan held elections last month, and the party of President Pervez Musharraf lost. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party won most of the seats in the Feb. 18 election, but will have to join with other parties to build a government. Musharraf remains president, but there are calls for him to step down, and some legislators are calling for the president's impeachment.
U.S. officials said they will work with all parties to ensure a smooth civilian transition. A senior U.S. diplomatic official speaking on background said the United States is anxious to see the government succeed.
U.S. officials "hope and think" that any Pakistani government that comes to power will support the war on terror. But many of those who might form a new government have been out of power for a long time, and U.S. officials said an extensive education program will be necessary. Embassy officials have offered to brief all the parties on U.S.-Pakistani military programs.
Military cooperation between the United States and Pakistan is a sensitive issue here,embassy officials said. The Pakistani people generally do not want U.S. Special Forces embedded with their troops, nor do they want unilateral U.S. anti-terrorist operations going on in their country.
But training is another matter, and the United States has extensive training programs for the Pakistani military, including training for aircraft maintainers, senior officers and even veterinary specialists. The United States also has a training program for Pakistan's paramilitary frontier corps, a group that polices the federally administered tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. The program has been in place for more than a year, officials said.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, chief of staff of Pakistan's army, understands the challenge that Taliban and al Qaeda extremists based in the tribal areas pose to his country. The challenge means the Pakistani military must embrace counterinsurgency doctrine. His talks with U.S. officials – including March 4 talks with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – center on that training.
The Pakistani military – most notably the army – is designed to fight India, the world's second-most-populous nation and Pakistan's neighbor to the east. But large formations of conventionally trained troops are not going to help in the tribal areas, a senior U.S. military official here said. Rather, he said, the Pakistani army has learned the hard way that the tribal areas require a classic counterinsurgency campaign.
In 2002, Pakistan moved regular forces into the tribal areas for the first time. Meanwhile, U.S. and coalition forces were driving the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies out of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis tried to stop the flow of Taliban fighters and also to prevent the displacement of al Qaeda elements from Afghanistan into Pakistan. They were not able to do that, officials here said.
The Pakistani army was regarded as an occupying force in the tribal areas, the senior U.S. military official said. The effort to maintain order and keep militants out of the tribal areas backfired, and the army became a factor in the increasing violence in the region.
Officials said it is important to understand the nature of the tribal areas. The region is nominally under Pakistani control, but it's administered under the Frontier Criminal Regulation originally put in place by the British. Overall literacy in the region is about 18 percent, with the female literacy rate at 3 percent. With the exception of some countries in Africa, the region has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world.
A counterinsurgency strategy in the region would focus on improving these social indicators and getting jobs to the young men for whom an extremist ideology is attractive, the senior U.S. embassy official said. As it is now, the area is the hideout of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Senior U.S. military officials said it is important to understand that several types of Taliban are in the tribal region. There are Afghan Taliban, who are trying to drive the United States and NATO forces out of Afghanistan and are using Pakistan as a base of operations to do that.
There are local Taliban, who want to control the political situation there through an Islamic government. Pashtun-based militant organizations have various agendas that are nominally Taliban but are more driven by greed and illegal activities than any religious motive, the officials explained.
Around this is al Qaeda, used here as a general term that applies to foreign fighters in the region – Chechen, Turk, Uzbek and others – who are loosely affiliated within financial support networks that allow them to operate or feed on each other. The result is a complex security situation that is not easy to define, the military official said.
The Pakistani military has taken as many casualties in the past eight months as it did from January 2002 to July 2007, the military official said. In some ways, though, this plays into the Taliban's hands; the Taliban have always had a recruiting machine, and the problem with fighting a counterinsurgency war is that no nation can win by killing people.
There is no limit to the number of people the Taliban can put on the ground in the region, the senior U.S. military official said. Religious schools preach an extremist ideology. Young people have no jobs, and they are prone to religious fervor, and militant leaders push these young men to attack. If they're killed, it actually helps recruiting. For every Pashtun boy who is killed, another will step up to avenge his death, the official said.
Large numbers of troops are not the answer, the official said, and Pakistani military leaders understand this. The Pakistanis do not want U.S. troops, he said, but they do want more intelligence sharing. They need more aviation assets and the capability to sustain those assets. And they need more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. The military needs to become more flexible and agile, with a greater emphasis on the counterinsurgency mission.
Talks between U.S. and Pakistani military leaders are addressing these needs. The military capabilities and programs are not secret and mirror programs the United States has with allies around the world, the senior U.S. embassy official said.