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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

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."

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