WASHINGTON – The political turmoil in Pakistan is threatening to undermine a new long-term counterinsurgency plan by the U.S. military aimed at strengthening Pakistani forces fighting Islamic extremists in the country’s tribal areas, according to senior military officials. The officials said the initiative involves expanding the presence of U.S. Special Forces and other troops to train and advise the Pakistanis, who have been largely ineffective in battling the militants.
Even as the Bush administration reviews aid to Pakistan in light of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule last weekend, U.S. military officials are moving forward with the plan – ordering equipment, surveying training facilities outside Islamabad and preparing to send in dozens of additional military trainers, who are expected to begin arriving early next year.
“This train has already left the station,” said a senior military official familiar with the effort. “We on the ground are moving ahead under the ambassador’s guidance.”
But senior military officials have privately voiced concern that the unrest in Pakistan threatens to disrupt the plan’s momentum – both because of developments in Washington, where members of Congress seek to restrict aid, and in Islamabad, where the emergency rule has focused Pakistan’s military on curbing popular dissent.
“There is a segment of the population on the Hill that hate Musharraf and are looking for any opportunity to cash in on this thing,” said one senior military official. And during a visit to Pakistan last week, Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, warned Musharraf that Congress could move to cut aid if he declared a state of emergency, the official said.
Top military leaders from both countries have reviewed the counterinsurgency plan, developed over the past year in close cooperation between U.S. and Pakistani military officials.
The vice chief of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani – considered a possible successor to Musharraf as head of the armed forces when Musharraf relinquishes his military role – is supportive of the effort, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Fallon was briefed on the plan while in Pakistan, officials said.
And although the Pentagon postponed a high-level defense meeting scheduled for this Tuesday and Wednesday, senior U.S. and Pakistani military officials met quietly during the week to discuss the plan’s details, one official said.
The initiative is unprecedented in recognizing the challenge in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas as an entrenched and spreading insurgency, not solely a counterterrorism issue. The Pentagon considers the rugged, virtually impenetrable tribal region along the Afghan border one of the U.S. military’s top concerns – not only as a sanctuary for al-Qaida fighters and Taliban insurgents to stage cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and potentially plan strikes elsewhere, but also as harboring a growing threat to the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The initial program is to last five to seven years. It extends beyond security to include broad-reaching economic development, health care and literacy efforts by several U.S. and Pakistani agencies under a plan integrated by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. The plan, developed over the past year, recognizes that “there is a full-blown and complex insurgency in the FATA,” said one official. “It’s not just a bunch of foreign fighters running around conducting terrorist acts.”