By Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti and Carlotta Gall
New York Times, Nov. 19, 2007
Washington - A new and classified American military proposal outlines an intensified effort to enlist tribal leaders in the frontier areas of Pakistan in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as part of a broader effort to bolster Pakistani forces against an expanding militancy, American military officials said.
If adopted, the proposal would join elements of a shift in strategy that would also be likely to expand the presence of American military trainers in Pakistan, directly finance a separate tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective and pay militias that agreed to fight Al Qaeda and foreign extremists, officials said. The United States now has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, a Pentagon spokesman said, a force that could grow by dozens under the new approach.
The proposal is modeled in part on a similar effort by American forces in Anbar Province in Iraq that has been hailed as a great success in fighting foreign insurgents there. But it raises the question of whether such partnerships, to be forged in this case by Pakistani troops backed by the United States, can be made without a significant American military presence in Pakistan. And it is unclear whether enough support can be found among the tribes, some of which are working with Pakistan's intelligence agency.
Altogether, the broader strategic move toward more local support is being accelerated because of concern about instability in Pakistan and the weakness of the Pakistani government, as well as fears that extremists with havens in the tribal areas could escalate their attacks on allied troops in Afghanistan. Just in recent weeks, Islamic militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda and the Taliban have already extended their reach beyond the frontier areas into more settled areas, most notably the mountainous region of Swat.
[The Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, recommended late Sunday that the Election Commission call for parliamentary elections on Jan. 8, but he did not say whether emergency rule would be revoked beforehand, Reuters reported early Monday.
"Inshallah, the general elections in the country would be held on Jan. 8," the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency quoted Musharraf as saying late Sunday.]
The tribal proposal, a strategy paper prepared by staff members of the United States Special Operations Command, has been circulated to counterterrorism experts but has not yet been formally approved by the command's headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Some other elements of the campaign have been approved in principle by the Americans and Pakistanis and await financing, like $350 million over several years to help train and equip the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that has about 85,000 members and is recruited from border tribes.
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has used billions of dollars of aid and heavy political pressure to encourage Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, to carry out more aggressive military operations against militants in the tribal areas. But the sporadic military campaigns Pakistan has conducted there have had little success, resulting instead in heavy losses among Pakistani Army units and anger among local residents who have for decades been mostly independent from Islamabad's control.
American officials acknowledge those failures, but say that the renewed emphasis on recruiting allies among the tribal militias and investing more heavily in the Frontier Corps reflect the depth of American concern about the need to address Islamic extremism in Pakistan. The new counterinsurgency campaign is also a vivid example of the American military's asserting a bigger role in a part of Pakistan that the Central Intelligence Agency has overseen almost exclusively since Sept. 11.
Small numbers of United States military personnel have served as advisers to the Pakistani Army in the tribal areas, giving planning advice and helping to integrate American intelligence, said one senior American officer with long service in the region.
Historically, American Special Forces have gone into foreign countries to work with local militaries to improve the security of those countries in ways that help American interests. Under this new approach, the number of advisers would increase, officials said.
American officials said these security improvements complemented a package of assistance from the Agency for International Development and the State Department for the seven districts of the tribal areas that amounted to $750 million over five years, and would involve work in education, health and other sectors. The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs is also assisting the Frontier Corps with financing for counternarcotics work.
Some details of the security improvements have been reported by The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. But the classified proposal to enlist tribal leaders is new.
"The D.O.D. is about to start funding the Frontier Corps," one military official said, referring to the Department of Defense. "We have only got a portion of that requested but it is enough to start."
Until now, the Frontier Corps has not received American military financing because the corps technically falls under the Pakistani Interior Ministry, a nonmilitary agency that the Pentagon ordinarily does not deal with. But American officials say the Frontier Corps is in the long term the most suitable force to combat an insurgency. The force, which since 2001 has increasingly been under the day-to-day command of Pakistani Army units, is now being expanded and trained by American advisers, diplomats said.
The training of the Frontier Corps remains a concern for some. NATO and American soldiers in Afghanistan have often blamed the Frontier Corps for aiding and abetting Taliban insurgents mounting cross-border attacks. "It's going to take years to turn them into a professional force," said one Western military official. "Is it worth it now?"
At the same time, military officials fear the assistance to develop a counterinsurgency force is too little, too late. "The advantage is already in the enemy hands," one Western military official said. Local Taliban and foreign fighters in Waziristan have managed to regroup since negotiating peace deals with the government in 2005 and 2006, and last year they were able to fight all through the winter, he said. Militants have now emerged in force in the Swat area, a scenic tourist region that is a considerable distance inland from the tribal areas on the border.
The planning at the Special Operations Command intensified after Adm. Eric T. Olson, a member of the Navy Seals who is the new head of the command, met with General Musharraf and Pakistani military leaders in August to discuss how the military could increase cooperation in Pakistan's fight against the extremists.
A spokesman for the command, Kenneth McGraw, would not comment on any briefing paper that had been circulated for review. He said Friday that after Admiral Olson returned from his trip, he "energized the staff to look for ways to develop opportunities for future cooperation."
A senior Defense Department official said that Admiral Olson had prepared a memorandum on how Special Operations forces could assist the Pakistani military in the counterinsurgency, and shared that document with several senior Pentagon officials.
Four senior defense or counterterrorism officials confirmed that planning was under way at the command headquarters.
One person who was briefed on the proposal prepared by the Special Operations Command staff members, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing had not yet been approved, said it was in the form of about two dozen slides. The slides described a strategy using both military and nonmilitary measures to fight the militants.
One slide included a chart that categorized one to two dozen tribes by location - North Waziristan and South Waziristan, for example - and then gave a brief description of their location, their known or suspected links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and their size and military abilities.
The briefing said United States forces would not be involved in any conventional combat in Pakistan. But several senior military and Pentagon officials said elements of the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite counterterrorism unit, might be involved in strikes against senior militant leaders under specific conditions.
Two people briefed on elements of the approach said it was modeled in part on efforts in Iraq, where American commanders have worked with Sunni sheiks in Anbar Province to turn locals against the militant group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is led by foreigners.
The success of these efforts, together with the consensus in military and intelligence circles that the grip of the original Al Qaeda in the tribal areas continues to tighten at a time when the Pakistani government is in crisis, led planners at the Special Operations Command to develop the strategy for the tribal areas.
A group of Pakistan experts convened in March by the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that empowering tribal leaders could be an effective strategy to counter the rising influence of Islamic religious leaders and to weaken Al Qaeda. But a report on the session found that such successes "would be difficult to achieve, particularly in the north (Bajaur) and south (North and South Waziristan)."
One person who had been brief on the proposal cautioned that whether a significant number of tribal leaders would join an American-backed effort carried out by Pakistani forces was "the $64,000 question."
Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Carlotta Gall from Islamabad, Pakistan.