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Pakistan helps U.S. find captured soldier as ties improve between the nations

Islamabad has shared intelligence on Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

July 27, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

PUL-E-CHARKHI, AFGHANISTAN — Intelligence sharing and military cooperation have begun to increase between Pakistan and the United States, according to American officials, who say their efforts to cultivate key leaders in Islamabad may be beginning to pay dividends.

Pakistan, they say, has stepped up its cooperation along its border with Afghanistan for the first time in recent years, informing Afghanistan and the U.S. about operations it is conducting and seeking a coordinated response to trap Islamist militants.

Pakistani officials have also been providing intelligence help in the search for a U.S. soldier captured by Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan. The United States, meanwhile, has been sharing information with Pakistani officials on the results of American military drone flights aimed at collecting intelligence over insurgent-heavy areas of their country.

"The cooperation is the best I have ever seen it, and I have seen a lot," said a high-ranking U.S. government official.

The moves come at a time when the Pakistani military has increased its efforts against local insurgents, and gained confidence with a series of successful operations.

Islamabad had long been reluctant to turn its attention from rival India to deal with the threat of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in districts near the border with Afghanistan. But this year, the army began a three-month counterinsurgency campaign in the Swat Valley, less than 100 miles from the Pakistani capital, aimed at driving out Taliban militants who had taken over the area.

"The Pakistanis have, for the last three months, been fighting hard," a senior American defense official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing sensitive intelligence-sharing matters.

Across the border, Army Col. Kevin Fagedes, who oversees training of Afghan security forces, has said cooperation is increasing in the three eastern border provinces where he works. Previously, Fagedes said, the Pakistanis would make contact with Afghan forces or American trainers only after an incident had occurred, to discuss the aftermath. But three times in recent weeks, they have discussed and coordinated operations in advance, he said, asking Afghan forces to prevent militants from escaping.

"I see great progress coming in the next six months," Fagedes said. "The spirit of cooperation is out there. The Pakistanis have had very good success at what they are doing. . . . Everyone is starting to consider what is occurring on the other side of the border when they do operations."

Much of the increased cooperation may be due to a much broader acceptance among the Pakistani public that militants represent a serious threat to the country. The military's recent success in Swat has also helped.

Still, the relationship between Washington and Islamabad remains tricky. U.S. officials are continuing to gently press Pakistan to accept more American trainers to improve their counterinsurgency operations.

And though intelligence sharing between Islamabad and Washington may be improving, political relations remain complex and fragile. Pakistani leaders continue to publicly denounce U.S. unmanned drone attacks on militant targets in the country's tribal areas, in part because the attacks remain extremely unpopular with the Pakistani public. The attacks have killed suspected militants, but they have also caused civilian casualties, angering those who already view the missions as violations of their country's sovereignty.

Moreover, some Pakistani leaders have expressed concerns about the latest U.S. offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Islamabad believes the American push into Helmand will force Taliban militants into Pakistan, particularly Baluchistan province, where Pakistani authorities are struggling to suppress a separatist movement.

U.S. officials have also pushed for the Pakistani army to take on Baitullah Mahsud, a militant commander believed responsible for suicide attacks across Pakistan.

Although the Pakistani army has not begun a large-scale assault against Taliban militants in the South Waziristan region, a senior U.S. defense official said he was pleased with the preliminary "shaping" operations against Mahsud.

Mahsud is the leader of a Taliban-affiliated group and is described as one of the "odious and dangerous people" in the region by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

American officials differ on the value of the intelligence Pakistan has shared on Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, who was captured June 30.

One senior defense official who acknowledged that Islamabad had provided intelligence cautioned against overstating its value.

Another said the information had been important to American forces searching for Bergdahl. "They have been helpful," the U.S. government official said. "They have been very, very helpful."

Neither official would describe the nature of the assistance because the search for the soldier is continuing.

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