By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008; A01
Pakistan plans to arm tens of thousands of anti-Taliban tribal fighters in its western border region in hopes — shared by the U.S. military — that the nascent militias can replicate the tribal “Awakening” movement that proved decisive in the battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The militias, called lashkars, will receive Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms, a purchase arranged during a visit to Beijing this month by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistani officials said.
Many Bush administration officials remain skeptical of Pakistan’s long-term commitment to fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups ensconced in the mountains near the border with Afghanistan. But the decision to arm the lashkars, which emerged as organized fighting forces only in the past few months, is one of several recent actions that have led the Pentagon to believe that the Pakistani effort has become more aggressive.
Since early August, the Pakistani army has launched several offensives in Bajaur, one of seven regions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and in the nearby Swat Valley. According to Pakistani military assessments, more than 800 insurgents died during fighting in Bajaur in August and September, along with nearly 195 government soldiers and 344 civilians.
Last week, after months of Pakistani delays, about 30 U.S. military trainers were permitted to set up operations north of the region, a U.S. official said. The trainers will provide counterinsurgency instruction to Pakistani army soldiers, who in turn will train members of the Frontier Corps, the government’s paramilitary force in the FATA.
“We are very encouraged by what we’re seeing from the Pakistani military in the tribal regions,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Pakistani offensives in the FATA over the past two months are “making a difference on the other side of the border,” where U.S. forces are fighting in Afghanistan, he said.
Pakistani officials insisted that arming the lashkars was their own idea and that they are paying for it, although the United States has provided more than $10 billion in relatively unrestrained counterterrorism funds to Pakistan’s military over the past seven years. “The Americans are not giving us a bloody cent” for the program, one Pakistani official said. “This is us, doing it ourselves.”
Zardari and the government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani have been at pains to balance their support of U.S. objectives with a recognition of widespread Pakistani distrust of the United States — among the population as well as the political class. In the wake of Gillani’s visit to Washington in July, and a meeting in New York last month between Zardari and President Bush, the Pakistani Parliament yesterday passed a resolution calling for the immediate development of an “independent foreign policy” and a new attempt at dialogue with Islamist insurgents.
Much distrust also remains on the U.S. side, particularly within intelligence agencies that have long been suspicious of ties between the Pakistani intelligence service and the Taliban. The CIA has increased its operations against resurgent extremist forces in the FATA, with at least 11 missile attacks launched by Predator unmanned aircraft against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in August and September, compared with six in the previous eight months, according to knowledgeable officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
In its talks with the Bush administration, Gillani’s government maintains that its counterterrorism cooperation surpasses that of retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was ousted from the presidency in August. Last month, Gillani and army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani replaced the head of the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency with an army general considered more responsive to civilian leaders and more palatable to the Americans.
New ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha will arrive in Washington this weekend for meetings with CIA head Michael V. Hayden.
A number of U.S. officials cautioned that Pakistan has made little progress in other aspects of a wider counterinsurgency strategy needed to make long-term gains against the extremists. “There is a significant, but not a comprehensive, bump up in the security element,” one official said. While there are more soldiers on the ground, he said, the military strategy is not sustainable because Pakistan “is still doing virtually nothing about extending the government’s political authority into the tribal areas, and virtually nothing about economic development” in the region.
“The secret to success in this kind of operation is tea,” the official said, referring to the need to establish a positive presence in local villages, sit down with tribal leaders over tea and ask them what it would take to make their lives better. Unlike Pakistan’s four provinces, the FATA are only nominally controlled by the central government and are largely ruled by tribal elders.
U.S. military officials warn, however, that expanding the movement will be more difficult than it proved in Iraq, where the Awakening began in 2006 among Sunni tribes in Anbar province. Unlike the Iraqi tribes, the FATA Pakistanis are poorly armed with aging rifles and little else — although the provision of new, Chinese-made AK-47s and other small arms will increase their firepower.
Extremist groups are widespread throughout the poverty-stricken region and are entrenched in social and economic structures; many of the tribes receive regular financial support from al-Qaeda in exchange for providing sanctuary, a senior U.S. military official said.
Most important, the extent to which the program is perceived to be coordinated with U.S. aims in western Pakistan is likely to help determine its effectiveness. In Iraq, tribal security forces readily accepted an alliance with the U.S. military as well as direct U.S. payment for their services. U.S. officials see neither as likely in the FATA.
Despite the newly aggressive U.S. military posture — reflected in the Predator attacks as well as Bush’s authorization last summer of ground commando raids on extremist targets inside Pakistani territory — U.S. officials say they are acutely aware of the need to tread carefully with Pakistan.
Early this month, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Adm. Michael LeFever, the senior U.S. military officer in Pakistan, sent a joint cable to Washington criticizing the overall U.S. effort in Pakistan as disjointed and uncoordinated. It recommended a comprehensive new strategy that would better meld the same three counterinsurgency “legs” — military, political and economic — that the United States has pushed the Pakistani government to adopt.
The proposal, one U.S. official said, offered examples of current U.S. aid programs that have little relationship to political aims, and political objectives that dismiss military concerns. “It said things like, ‘If you really want to understand Pakistan, you’ve got to understand food security as something a lot of people are worried about,’ ” especially in the tribal areas, the official said. “Where is the initiative on agriculture?”
The cable quickly circulated through the administration and caught the attention of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who next week will become head of the U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South and Central Asia. Petraeus, who plans to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan two days after he takes over Centcom on Oct. 31, hopes to replicate in both countries elements of the strategies employed in his previous command in Iraq. Among them, officials said, is the close coordination he enjoyed with Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, and the development of local security units akin to the Awakening movement.
The emergence in Pakistan of the lashkars, headed by tribal elders who are said to resent the intrusion of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, began in earnest over the summer. So far, three lashkar militias, totaling as many as 14,000 men, have been established in Bajaur, according to Pakistani military estimates. In the FATA region of Orakzai, tribal leaders have amassed an estimated 4,000 indigenous fighters; an additional 7,000 are said to have enlisted in Dir, a tribal region just outside the FATA boundary.
The fighters have skirmished with extremists, at times in coordination with the Pakistani military. They have already begun to pay a price, with at least eight beheadings this month and a suicide bombing in Bajaur two weeks ago that killed more than 50 tribesmen gathered to enlist in a militia.