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Going Native: The Pentagon's New Pakistan Plan

Running out of options in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions, the Bush administration is backing local militiamen with unclear allegiances.

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 3:00 AM EST
Sararogha Fort is a small frontier outpost in the rugged mountains of South Waziristan, the southernmost province of Pakistan's semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It sits on a ridge high above the region's main artery, the Razmak-Jandola road, and enjoys a commanding view of the surrounding peaks and pine forests. The fort, an artifact of British colonialism, is a physical manifestation of numerous attempts by foreign powers to impose their will on a people that for centuries has refused to submit. On the evening of January 15, Sararogha shed its last illusion of authority when Islamist fighters, in the space of a few hours, transformed it into a burned-out, empty shell—giving testament to the growing power and confidence of the Taliban and to the failure of Pakistan's government, like so many before it, to exert control in this ferociously independent region.

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The attack came after nightfall. Several hundred militants under the command of Baitullah Mehsud—a rising leader of the Pakistani Taliban, accused of having orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto just weeks before—assembled outside the fort. Inside were several dozen tribal militiamen belonging to the South Waziristan Scouts, a border patrol unit of local Pashtun recruits at least nominally loyal to the government in Islamabad. They were joined by an assortment of orderlies, barbers, and cooks. The battle commenced around 9 p.m. According to official Pakistani accounts, the Taliban assaulted the isolated garrison with heavy weapons, including mortars, rockets, and machine guns. In the battle's aftermath, wildly different accounts have surfaced of how the fort's defenders performed—assurances that they fought bravely, accusations that they did not—but whatever occurred, says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence Research, "the fact is that they lost!"

Sararogha's capture was a relatively minor event in the larger violence of the tribal regions, let alone the U.S. war on terror, but the defeat holds special significance for Washington. The outpost's defenders belonged to Pakistan's Frontier Corps, an 85,000-member tribal militia that, according to the latest Pentagon budget, is set to receive up to $75 million in training and equipment this year, the first injection of what could be more than $400 million to be delivered over the next several years. Beyond this, little is known about the plan, the details of which remain classified. As reported by the New York Times, a 40-page secret document called "Plan for Training the Frontier Corps" is currently being circulated at the U.S. Central Command, awaiting final approval by its commander, Admiral William J. Fallon, and other senior defense officials. The use of the Frontier Corps in the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan augurs a new approach to dealing with rising Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan's tribal region. Like U.S. plans to fund it, the Frontier Corps has largely escaped scrutiny, but there are questions about its allegiances, competence, and suitability to the proposed mission. Support for tribal militias has become a centerpiece of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, one that carries with it inherent risks in terms of inadvertently backing potential enemies in the pursuit of short-term security goals. Supporting the Frontier Corps is similarly dicey.

An enduring remnant of the British colonial period, the Corps received its name in 1907 from Lord Curzon, the viceroy of British India, but in reality was an amalgam of various tribal militias, most of which had operated independently for decades. The force expanded under British control so that by 1947, when British India was partitioned, its zone of responsibility spanned 2,500 miles, from the Karakoram Mountains in the north to the southern Mekram coast. To better manage its far-flung outposts, the Frontier Corps split into two administrative units, one based in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the other in Baluchistan. Like the British before them, Pakistani army officers commanded the tribesmen, whose primary function, then as now, was to provide some modicum of control over the border with Afghanistan, to prevent smuggling, and to act as an auxiliary police force.

Hassan Abbas, a former police chief in the NWFP during the late 1990s, currently a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School, grew up next door to the Frontier Corp's Pakistani commander in Peshawar. He recalls the Corps members he encountered during his childhood as "smartly dressed" and "hospitable and courteous." But Abbas is quick to separate this earlier incarnation from the one that currently exists. Today, even among the Pakistani officers who command it, the Frontier Corps is considered a professional backwater, and morale among the rank and file is so low that hundreds of its foot soldiers—no doubt hastened by recent Taliban beheadings of their captured comrades—have deserted in the last several months. Despite almost $7 billion in U.S. military aid to Pakistan since 9/11, the Corps has so far proven incapable (or unwilling) to deal with Taliban and Al Qaeda militants crossing the border from Afghanistan. It's "just not equipped to do what we're asking it to do," says Weinbaum. "These are lightly armed guys carrying rifles over their shoulders. They may look fierce with all of the bullets hanging from their chests, but they were never intended to be anything more than an extended police force."

But building the Frontier Corps into something more is precisely what the United States aims to do. "The basic assumption in terms of dealing with the militancy in the FATA is that the Pakistani army is too blunt an instrument and too much of an occupying force to be effective," says Daniel Markey, a former member of the State Department's policy-planning staff for South and Central Asia and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The hope is that the Frontier Corps will "offer a local face and a greater connection to the local population…winning hearts and minds and doing things that are more constabulary in nature than full-scale military operations."

The idea to beef up the Frontier Corps appears to have originated on the Pakistani side, said Markey, as a sort of desperate response to the failure of both diplomacy and military invasion to rid the tribal areas of Al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens. "It was sort of the next thing on the list," he said. "First you try to get the tribes to work with you, cajoling them, paying them off. That doesn't work. Then you send in the troops and knock some heads, and that doesn't work. You pull out the troops and make another deal. That doesn't work. Then you say, 'What's wrong with the deal?' It needs an enforcement mechanism. It's better to have a local one than a foreign one, so maybe we'll try this!"

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