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.

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.

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!"

The State Department has already been providing counternarcotics funding to the Frontier Corps for several years, primarily for vehicles and radios. But the latest defense budget taps the Pentagon's deep pockets for the first time. Last year, a U.S. military assessment team ventured to the FATA to determine how best to assist the Frontier Corps. The resulting budget allocation includes money for vehicles, helmets, flak jackets, night-vision goggles, and communications equipment—the sort of general military aid that can be provided with the fewest possible American fingerprints. "A high U.S. profile in the tribal areas, in the NWFP, is the kiss of death," said Robert Grenier, a former chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, speaking at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington. But Pakistan, he said, "may be willing to accept low-level support from the Americans, particularly in the form of training."

To that end, the military budget also provides for the establishment of two training centers—one in the NWFP, the other in Baluchistan—where U.S. Special Forces advisers working in conjunction with Pakistani army instructors will train Frontier Corps troops in small-unit tactics, counterinsurgency, and intelligence collection. The operation, still in its early stages, has largely escaped notice. "Everything I've heard indicates that this is a Special Forces project, and most of what they do is classified, so-called 'black ops,'" said Weinbaum. "You're going to hear very little about this. There won't be any stories written about it."

The idea of arming local tribesmen to fight Al Qaeda has been used to great effect in Iraq, but whether the same approach will work in Pakistan is an open question. "There's been some talk in FATA about imposing an Anbar-style model in the tribal areas," said Nicholas Schmidle, an American journalist expelled from Pakistan in January for his reporting on the Taliban, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations event. "The problem is the senior tribal leaders have all been killed, so if you're going to consider imposing this model, you really have to face the fact that you're going to take good Taliban to fight against bad Taliban." Seth Jones, a Middle East expert at the RAND Corporation, agreed. "Most of the tribes, especially in the tribal areas, have actually lost significant power" due to rising Taliban and Al Qaeda influence, he said. "You're already dealing with tribal groups that have been gutted." An added complication may be simply that the political dynamics at work in Pakistan are too different to fit the Iraq model. "On their face, they look similar—expel the foreigners, kill Al Qaeda," says Markey. "But in the Anbar model, there's a sense that the Americans will go when this is done…The Pakistani army and state are not going to go. In fact, the longer-term goal would be to have them stay, so it's a different end point. The tribes don't necessarily subscribe to that, not even close."

Alongside the question of whether Iraq's "Anbar Awakening" carries any relevance in the Pakistani context are nagging concerns of loyalty. The Frontier Corps—like the Taliban—is comprised largely of Pashtun tribesmen whose politics are likely closer to their would-be adversaries than to America's. "Look, they're no more sympathetic toward the United States and our agenda there than any of the other tribal people in that region," says Weinbaum. Indeed, the notion that the Frontier Corps will become a U.S. ally in the war on terror is thrown into doubt by recent incidents. Take the remarkably brief siege of Fort Sararogha. "We don't know that there were a great many casualties out of that," cautions Weinbaum. "And if there weren't a great many casualties, it suggests that there really wasn't a lot of heavy fighting. I mean, that probably speaks for itself." Combine this with "significant numbers of reports of the Frontier Corps providing direct fire support to Taliban offensive operations in the border area," says Jones, and you get the impression that we're preparing to provide significant military support "to an organization that is sometimes our friend and sometimes is not."

As much an obstacle as the question of allegiance is the issue of motivation. Put simply, members of the Frontier Corps (like most of their countrymen) do not necessarily view the battle against Islamic fundamentalism as a priority. "Right now, the Pakistani people see this as 'Busharraf'—Bush and Musharraf," said Karl Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. They think the battle against militants in the tribal areas "has not been a part of a Pakistan campaign in fighting for the nation of Pakistan as much as it has been doing favors for the United States." This sentiment was borne out in January by the results of a national opinion poll taken by the International Republican Institute, which found that although 73 percent of Pakistanis agree that religious extremism is a serious problem, only 33 percent support the Pakistani army's forays into the NWFP, and just 9 percent agree that Pakistan should cooperate in the U.S. war on terror.

How the Frontier Corps may perform in such an environment is uncertain, but it seems clear that simply equipping and training them will not be enough. "The United States can provide significant amounts of assistance, can provide training, but can it make the Frontier Corps take action that is more in line with what the United States wants in these areas?" asks Jones. "If not a lot is done trying to redefine the problem in such a way that the Pakistan government is under threat—that they're not doing America's bidding, that we both have common interests—if that side isn't sold well enough, then you end up building a more competent Frontier Corps that undermines U.S. interests."