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U.S. debates acting on its own in Pakistan

August 23, 2008|Peter Spiegel and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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.

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