WASHINGTON — Despite billions of dollars in U.S. military payments to Pakistan over the last six years, the paramilitary force leading the pursuit of Al Qaeda militants remains underfunded, poorly trained and overwhelmingly outgunned, U.S. military and intelligence officials said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cited the rising militant threat in declaring a state of emergency on Saturday and suspending the constitution.
But rather than use the more than $7 billion in U.S. military aid to bolster its counter-terrorism capabilities, Pakistan has spent the bulk of it on heavy arms, aircraft and equipment that U.S. officials say are far more suited for conventional warfare with India, its regional rival.
That has left fighters with the paramilitary force, known as the Frontier Corps, equipped often with little more than "sandals and bolt-action rifles," said a senior Western military official in Islamabad, even as they face Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters equipped with assault rifles and grenade launchers.
The arms imbalance has contributed to Al Qaeda's ability to regroup in the border region, and reflects the competing priorities that were evident even before this weekend between two countries that are self-described allies in the "war on terrorism" but have sharply divergent national security interests.
The situation also has emerged as a significant obstacle as the United States and Pakistan seek new approaches after a series of failed strategies in the frontier region, where Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.
U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to move more aggressively against militants and bolster the capabilities of the Frontier Corps, an indigenously recruited force of about 80,000 troops, half of them based in the tribal areas, that was formed under British rule and is traditionally used to guard the border and curb smuggling.
Even front-line units with upgraded weapons are woefully unschooled in counterinsurgency tactics, other officials said. Late last month, Islamic militants captured dozens of fighters and paraded them before Western journalists, the latest in a series of embarrassing encounters.
Pakistan has recently indicated that it will enlarge the corps and expand its role in pursuing Al Qaeda. But because the Frontier Corps has been all but shut off from U.S. military aid and payments to Pakistan, U.S. officials said the new strategy amounts in some ways to starting from scratch more than six years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The view in Washington is that the Frontier Corps is the best way forward because they are locally recruited, speak the language, and understand the culture, terrain and local politics," said a senior Pentagon official, discussing internal deliberations on Pakistan policy on condition of anonymity.
But transforming the corps into a force that can contend with militants in the tribal area "will take years to bring to fruition," he said.
Partly because of that timetable, the goal of dismantling Al Qaeda and its hub of operations in the border region has given way to expectations among U.S. intelligence and military officials that the United States and Pakistan face a years-long struggle simply to contain the terrorist network and keep it from expanding.
"I think it's worse than starting from scratch," said Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia expert at the CIA and the White House now with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
"The most optimistic of scenarios we're looking at is a very long-term effort to try to stabilize the badlands of northwestern Pakistan," Riedel said. "The alternative is . . . a more or less permanent Taliban state within a state in northwest Pakistan."
Plans to build up the Frontier Corps are not universally supported by U.S. military officials. Loyalties within the corps are thought by many observers to be divided. Members are recruited mainly from Pashtun tribes with long-standing mistrust of outsiders. Most reject militant ideology, and have suffered hundreds of casualties in the fighting. But many also are devoutly religious and feel some degree of sympathy for the Islamists' cause.
"There is a push-back among some that the Frontier Corps is not a reliable ally of the United States," said Seth Jones, a military expert at Rand Corp. "The concern is that you give them additional training and equipment, and they could end up helping militants rather than taking action against them."
Perhaps as a hedge against those concerns, the U.S. Special Operations Command has recently begun exploring efforts to pay off tribal militias in the region that are not affiliated with the Pakistani government, and arm them to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, a source familiar with the discussions said.
"You can't buy them, but you can rent them," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. "There is a very serious effort to look at this."