U.S. and Pakistan: A Frayed Alliance?
Five years ago, elite Pakistani troops stationed near the border with Afghanistan began receiving hundreds of pairs of U.S.-made night-vision goggles that would enable them to see and fight al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in the dark. The sophisticated goggles, supplied by the Bush administration at a cost of up to $9,000 a pair, came with an implicit message: Step up the attacks.
But every three months, the troops had to turn in their goggles for two weeks to be inventoried, because the U.S. military wanted to make sure none were stolen or given away, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. Militants perceived a pattern and scurried into the open without fear during the two-week counts.
"They knew exactly when we didn't have the goggles, and they took full advantage," said a senior Pakistani government official who closely tracks military operations on the border.
The goggles are but a fragment of the huge military aid Washington sends to Pakistan, but the frustrations expressed by Pakistani officials are emblematic of a widening gulf between two military powers that express a common interest in defeating terrorism.
The Bush administration has provided nearly $11 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, most of it in military hardware and cash support for the country's operating budget. But frustrations are rising among military officers on both sides because the aid has produced neither battlefield success nor great trust, said government officials and independent experts who study relations between the two countries.
U.S. officials say part of the problem is that the Pakistani government has lacked sufficient commitment to engage the enemy, a task that may be further undermined by the country's growing political instability as its leadership is challenged by an invigorated opposition.
U.S. equipment is not being used "in a sustained way," said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. researcher who recently visited the region. "The army is not very effective, and there have been elements of the government that have worked with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the past," making them ambivalent about the current fight against those forces, he said.
Independent Western experts also wonder whether Pakistan is devoting too much of U.S. aid to large weapons systems, while shortchanging its own counterinsurgency forces; they say it also is not spending enough on social problems that might address the root causes of terrorism. Of $1.6 billion in U.S. aid dedicated to security assistance in Pakistan since 2002, for example, more than half went for purchases of major weapons systems sought by Pakistan's army, including F-16 fighters, according to U.S. officials.
The officials and experts also say U.S. aid has typically lacked sufficient oversight, or any means of measuring its effectiveness.
The aid spigot -- now pegged at more than $150 million a month -- has remained open even during periods when Pakistan's leadership ordered its counterterrorism forces confined to barracks under a cease-fire agreement with the insurgents, the officials note.
Pakistani officials, for their part, say that strict U.S. controls over equipment and a failure to provide other equipment, such as spare parts, have impeded their ability to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers. In addition to complaining about the goggles, they cite U.S.-made attack helicopters that are grounded for weeks because of parts shortages.
Pakistani officials acknowledge slow progress in driving terrorists out of the frontier provinces, but they chafe at suggestions that U.S. military aid is being squandered. Pakistan needs still more help, including persistent access to night-vision goggles, helicopters and other gear that is particularly useful in fighting an insurgency, said Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States.
"Is our military effort going as well as we hoped? No. But is Iraq going as well as hoped?" Durrani asked. "We will fight terrorism because it is for our own good. But it is a very big job."
By most measures, the country's security problems are worsening. Hundreds of government troops have died in clashes with militants since August, including at least 17 killed last Thursday in an attack on an army convoy. A total of seven people died in a suicide bombing yesterday near the president's army residence. U.S. intelligence officials said two months ago that al-Qaeda has managed to build an operating base inside autonomous tribal areas ostensibly controlled by Pakistan.
"The billions of American taxpayer dollars to Pakistan since September 11 have clearly failed to prevent our number one enemy from setting up shop in that country," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a frequent critic of Bush administration policies in Pakistan. "It's hard to argue that this aid has been an overall success when that's the bottom-line result."
Advanced night-vision equipment of the type provided to Pakistan -- which amplifies tiny amounts of infrared light to spot people, equipment and other heat sources -- has been used by American GIs for more than a decade. But when President Pervez Musharraf's government requested them in 2002 and 2003 for use against insurgents fleeing across the border from Afghanistan, U.S. officials initially voiced serious reservations.
Eventually, after the accounting procedures were put in place, Washington provided more than 1,600 to Pakistani forces, according to figures compiled by Alan Kronstadt, a South Asia specialist with the Congressional Research Service. Pakistan was allowed to purchase about 300 from a U.S. contractor, and the rest -- about 1,300 pairs of goggles valued at $6.4 million -- were provided without charge by the Defense and State departments, Kronstadt said. A small number were also provided to Pakistan by U.S. intelligence agencies, said U.S. officials and independent experts.
The Pentagon's monitoring is conducted under a special program -- EUM, or Enhanced End-Use Monitoring -- that allows U.S. officials in Pakistan to check all the serial numbers every three months.
To Pakistani soldiers, giving up the goggles meant that, for up to eight weeks each year, they had to fight blind against an adversary who quickly caught on to the troops' vulnerability and exploited it, said two Pakistani government officials familiar with the issue. The policy was also considered insulting.
"It says, 'We don't trust you,' " said Durrani, the Pakistani ambassador. "We need more night-vision equipment, but every three months you withdraw what we have. This is what happens when bureaucrats dictate policy."
A Pentagon official acknowledged the complaints and said the department plans to conduct less-frequent checks. "We are working closely with Pakistani authorities to ensure a proper balance of security and accountability requirements with their operational needs," said Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Defense Department spokesman.
But U.S.-Pakistan frictions extend to other parts of the U.S. aid program. No other country receives more assistance from Washington for military training, and since 2001, Pakistan has received more than $6 billion from the Coalition Support Fund, government documents show. That's 10 times as much as Poland, the No. 2 recipient, according to Pentagon documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington nonprofit group. The fund reimburses U.S. allies for costs incurred in fighting global terrorism.
The aid has not bought much goodwill: A poll in August conducted for the Washington-based nonprofit group Terror Free Tomorrow found that 19 percent of Pakistanis held a favorable view of the United States, down from 26 percent the previous year. Osama bin Laden had a far higher approval rating, at 46 percent, than either Musharraf (38 percent) or President Bush (9 percent).
Shuja Nawaz, a longtime Pakistani journalist in Washington who recently published a book on Pakistan's military, said the country's army leaders frequently complain about the type as well as amount of support they get from the United States.
"The United States asked Pakistan to move its troops into areas where they aren't supposed to be, and then it failed to provide them with what they need most: operational training and support for converting from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency," Nawaz said. "The United States was very efficient in giving out money quickly, but the concern is whether it was the right kind of help."
The large weapons systems Washington has funded have little relevance to terrorism and counterinsurgency, said Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official who is now a research fellow at Harvard University. "The money is mostly to make Musharraf happy and to engage the Pakistani army as an institution," he said. Meanwhile, civilian law enforcement agencies scramble for adequate training and weapons.
The U.S. government could do more to improve security by helping Pakistan address rampant poverty and shore up schools and health care -- attacking the root causes of militancy and terrorism, according to an August study of the U.S. aid program by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Less than a tenth of overall U.S. aid to Pakistan since 2001 has gone to support the country's economy and social infrastructure, including about $64 million for schools -- a sum smaller than the funding level for education in a typical small U.S. city, said the CSIS report, written by Craig Cohen and directed by Frederick Barton and Karin von Hippel.
"We just haven't put very much into securing hearts and minds," Barton said. "It is possible to generate goodwill. If the United States were the champion of teachers in Pakistan, we'd probably all be okay."