Can Frontier Corps Deliver in Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Areas
United Press International; Also in Middle East Times, Dec. 7, 2007
By SHAUN WATERMAN (UPI Homeland and National Security Editor)
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. plan to arm Pakistani tribal forces on the border with Afghanistan to help in the fight against Islamic extremists is fraught with difficulty and freighted by history, but some experts believe it could work if the United States carefully monitors what is done with the aid it provides.
Ahmed Rashid, one of the world's foremost experts on the Taliban, this week ridiculed the plan as an exemplar of the problems with U.S. policy in the region.
He called it: "A prime example of utter stupidity and a complete blindness to what's going on on the ground."
But not all observers were so dismissive. "It could be helpful, if the correct conditions are imposed," said author and academic Hassan Abbas,
Abbas, a former senior Pakistani police official who worked with the Frontier Corps -- a putative beneficiary of U.S. assistance under the plan -- believes it has "a much better chance than the Pakistani army" of being able to secure the border with Afghanistan in the tribal belt, which stretches across some of the most mountainous and inhospitable terrain in the world, and is home to fiercely independent Pashtun clans.
Securing this area is vital, because it is not simply a matter of preventing cross-border incursions by the Pakistani Taliban into Afghanistan. The tribal belt has become the base for a reconstituted al-Qaida leadership under Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, both believed to be hiding there, and plotting large-scale terrorist attacks like the London transit bombings.
Officials say the U.S. plan to secure the tribal belt has three elements: a significant increase in current military assistance to the Frontier Corps; a proposal by U.S. Special Operations Command to train and arms tribal militias; and a $750 million aid package for the border area, which is divided into seven semi-autonomous areas, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.
Rashid poured scorn on the idea that the Frontier Corps could be an effective force to interdict cross-border activity by Taliban or secure the area against al-Qaida militants. The corps had been "on the side of the Taliban since the 1980s," he said, and had been used by the Pakistani intelligence services in their covert support for the Taliban against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance before Sept. 11.
"They were been trained for the last 25 years to do covert jihadi work" by Pakistani military intelligence, he said, adding recent efforts by the military to use them against the local Taliban was giving the corps an "identity crisis."
Abbas acknowledged the corps' role in the support for the Taliban, but said the institution had a much longer history than that, being 150 years old. He said the 13 units that made up the corps each drew its membership from a different tribe, with posts handed down from one generation to the next.
"If your father was in FC, you will be in FC," he said.
The key to the success of any aid program for the corps was the close involvement of the U.S. military donors, he said. "If the Americans are there in the room … it has a chance," he said.
Several Pentagon public affairs officials did not respond to telephone or detailed e-mail requests for comment about the program, but have previously said that the aid will take non-lethal forms, including a training center in the region.
The corps' senior officers are drawn from Pakistan's regular military, but the tribal units have their own non- and junior-commissioned officers, and it is these that any training program should focus on, said Abbas.
But one veteran observer of the region was skeptical about any "boots on the ground" involvement by the United States.
"I have trouble imagining that," former state department intelligence official Marvin Weinbaum told UPI. "U.S. personnel in the tribal areas would be very exposed," he said, as would any U.S.-associated infrastructure, like a training center. "We are not well liked there."
He also said that increasing the corps' capacity with night vision equipment or training was not the solution.
"Clearly the bottom line is they are not motivated," he said of the corps, many of whom had volunteered to help the Taliban against the United States even after Sept. 11. "Training in and of itself doesn't motivate people," he said.
"It is misguided to think that this is the way to do it."
Weinbaum also said that the more control the United States tried to exert over the aid, the harder the Pakistani military was likely to push back.
"I don't believe the Pakistanis will let them do that," he said, of the strict conditionality and close involvement of U.S. personnel that Abbas and others see as a prerequisite for success.
First of two parts. In part two, next week: Development aid and tribal militias.
© United Press International