Pakistan - U.S. Relations: Problems Reemerging?
By JANE PERLEZ, New York Times, June 18, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani military is so angry over the American airstrikes here last week that it is threatening to postpone or cancel an American program to train a paramilitary force in counterinsurgency for combating Islamist militants, two Pakistani government officials said.
Some Pakistani officials are convinced that the Americans deliberately fired on their military, killing 11 men from the very paramilitary force the Americans want to train, an accusation the Americans deny.
The uncertainty over the program reflects how deeply scarred the United States’ alliance with Pakistan, already strained, has been since the June 10 airstrikes, Pakistani officials and Western diplomats said.
The $400 million training program is intended to combat militancy by fielding a paramilitary force, called the Frontier Corps, from among the tribes that live in the border areas. It was a compromise between American and Pakistani officials looking for the least intrusive way to fortify security in an area where the Pakistani government has rejected the idea of American soldiers and where even the regular Pakistani Army is often not welcome.
Ending or delaying the program, which is already under way, would deny the United States what little leverage it has in the tribal areas to combat a rising number of cross-border attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan against American and NATO forces this year.
The United States military said the airstrikes had been carried out in self-defense against militants who had attacked American forces in Afghanistan and then fled into Pakistan. But the Pakistanis continue to dispute important parts of the American account.
“This is the first time the United States has deliberately targeted cooperating Pakistani forces,” said Jehangir Karamat, a former chief of the Pakistani Army and a former ambassador to the United States. “There has been no statement by the United States that this was ‘friendly fire’ and that the intention was not to target Pakistani forces.”
The recriminations have exposed the underlying mistrust in the alliance, which has been held together in large part by the personal relationship between President Pervez Musharraf and President Bush, the Pakistani officials and diplomats said.
As the two men fade from power, the alliance is finding it difficult to quell the threat to the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan from a growing array of Taliban and Qaeda cells that are dug into Pakistan’s tribal areas, the officials and diplomats said.
A senior Pakistani government official with long experience in military affairs, one of the two Pakistani officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, summed up the feeling of many in the Pakistani military, saying the strikes appeared deliberate — despite American denials — and intended to “punish” Pakistan for not preventing Islamist militants from crossing into Afghanistan.
“Such types of incidents may affect the training program by the United States for the Frontier Corps,” the spokesman for the Pakistani Army, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said Monday.
In Washington, the Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, expressed regret but did not acknowledge any American culpability pending an investigation by senior Pakistani, Afghan and American officers. "As we said last week, every indication we have still is that this was a legitimate attack by U.S. forces acting in self-defense, that all procedures and regulation and coordination had been followed," Mr. Morrell told reporters.
The American, Afghan and Pakistani militaries have agreed to hold a joint investigation into the strikes. That inquiry will now have to sort out the conflicting accounts in an extremely charged atmosphere.
American military spokesmen said a Pakistani liaison officer had been informed of the American intention to strike over the highly disputed border between Kunar Province in Afghanistan and the Mohmand agency, one of seven agencies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, after American forces were attacked.
The Pakistanis vehemently deny the claim. They say the American bombs were not used in self-defense, but were aimed at a Frontier Corps post at Gora Parai, about 100 miles northwest of the town of Ghalanai.
A stone hut and seven of nine bunkers in which the soldiers were seeking cover were destroyed, the Pakistanis say. The coordinates of the post were clearly marked and were known to NATO and American forces, they say.
The senior Pakistani government official with military experience said the strikes were “too accurate and too intense” to have been an accident.
A senior American officer in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation, rejected the Pakistani allegations that American aircraft had deliberately attacked Pakistani soldiers.
“Undoubtedly the lack of recognized border markings, porous terrain where bad guys travel back and forth, known weaknesses of Frontier Corps to control border area and intermingled people, and tight terrain all are variables,” the officer said. “Deliberate retaliation was not a cause.”
Whatever the case, the fury over the airstrikes was such that Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the new military chief, who the Americans hoped would be a dependable successor to Mr. Musharraf, personally approved an unusually strong statement last week from the Pakistani military, which called the strikes “cowardly and unprovoked,” the Pakistani officials said.
General Kayani has refused every suggestion of letting American forces operate in the tribal areas, even on an advisory basis, American officials have said. A plan for American trainers to accompany Pakistani troops on missions to root out insurgents in the tribal areas was ruled out completely, a senior Pakistani military official said.
The plan for American military advisers to instruct Pakistani trainers, who would in turn train Frontier Corps units in counterinsurgency tactics, was accepted by General Kayani as a light-footed alternative, American officials have said.
Even so, there is considerable skepticism in Washington and among United States military commanders about the value of the training, and the strains caused by the airstrikes have now brought into the open blunt expressions of dissatisfaction with the Pakistanis that officials had kept mostly private.
Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the American commander who stepped down as the leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan this month, said Friday that the Frontier Corps was not up to the job of fighting Pakistan’s Islamist militants. “My experience is it takes well-trained, well-equipped forces — disciplined — to take this thing on,” he said.
He described the corps as “pretty much tribals themselves,” a reference to the fact that the Frontier Corps men are recruited from the Pashtuns, the dominant tribe, which lives in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well as across the border in southern Afghanistan.
The American grievance about the Frontier Corps, which is under the overall command of the Pakistani Army, is largely based on the conviction that the corps allows Islamic militants to cross the porous border from Pakistan into Afghanistan with impunity to fight NATO forces.
There were 50 percent more cross-border attacks in April compared with a year before. The increase was “directly attributable to the lack of pressure on the other side of the border,” General McNeill said, referring to the fact that the Pakistani Army is now observing a cease-fire with the militants, and leaving the prime responsibilities to the Frontier Corps.
One of the Pakistani government officials acknowledged that the area around the Frontier Corps post that was hit by the Americans has been under the control of the Pakistani Taliban since 2006.
After a visit to Pakistan in late May, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, questioned whether the Frontier Corps was reliable enough for the United States to bother training, given what he called its poor record in defending the 1,600-mile border and the apparent affinity of some in the corps with the extremists.
In a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Mr. Levin said he wanted financing for the Frontier Corps to be made dependent on an “explicit commitment” by the Pakistanis to “halt cross-border attacks by Taliban militants and Al Qaeda terrorists into Afghanistan.”
Pakistani officials said Sunday that such a commitment had now been included in a peace deal with the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud. But Mr. Levin said “it remains to be seen if this is more than words, especially in light of previous unkept commitments along this line.”
After The New York Times sought an interview with Anne W. Patterson, the American ambassador in Islamabad, an embassy spokeswoman asked that it first get permission from the State Department. Sean McCormack, the department spokesman, gave the go-ahead, but Ms. Patterson declined.
One of the senior Pakistani government officials said the alliance forged between Washington and Islamabad immediately after 9/11 had been imbued with mutual suspicion “since Day 1.”
A major reason for the distrust of the Americans among the Pakistani military came from the belief that Pakistan was unfairly blamed by Washington for the American and NATO difficulties in the war in Afghanistan.
The struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan was faltering not only because Taliban forces from Pakistan were crossing the border into Afghanistan, the Pakistani government official said. “Pakistan thinks you have screwed up in Afghanistan and made Pakistan the fall guy,” the official said.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.