U.S. and Pakistan: A Frayed Alliance

Night-vision goggles that the United States provides to elite troops fighting terrorism along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are collected every three months for inventory.
Night-vision goggles that the United States provides to elite troops fighting terrorism along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are collected every three months for inventory. (By Douglas C. Pizac -- Associated Press)
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Five years ago, elite Pakistani troops stationed near the border with Afghanistan began receiving hundreds of pairs of U.S.-made night-vision goggles that would enable them to see and fight al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in the dark. The sophisticated goggles, supplied by the Bush administration at a cost of up to $9,000 a pair, came with an implicit message: Step up the attacks.

But every three months, the troops had to turn in their goggles for two weeks to be inventoried, because the U.S. military wanted to make sure none were stolen or given away, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. Militants perceived a pattern and scurried into the open without fear during the two-week counts.

"They knew exactly when we didn't have the goggles, and they took full advantage," said a senior Pakistani government official who closely tracks military operations on the border.

The goggles are but a fragment of the huge military aid Washington sends to Pakistan, but the frustrations expressed by Pakistani officials are emblematic of a widening gulf between two military powers that express a common interest in defeating terrorism.

The Bush administration has provided nearly $11 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, most of it in military hardware and cash support for the country's operating budget. But frustrations are rising among military officers on both sides because the aid has produced neither battlefield success nor great trust, said government officials and independent experts who study relations between the two countries.

U.S. officials say part of the problem is that the Pakistani government has lacked sufficient commitment to engage the enemy, a task that may be further undermined by the country's growing political instability as its leadership is challenged by an invigorated opposition.

U.S. equipment is not being used "in a sustained way," said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. researcher who recently visited the region. "The army is not very effective, and there have been elements of the government that have worked with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the past," making them ambivalent about the current fight against those forces, he said.

Independent Western experts also wonder whether Pakistan is devoting too much of U.S. aid to large weapons systems, while shortchanging its own counterinsurgency forces; they say it also is not spending enough on social problems that might address the root causes of terrorism. Of $1.6 billion in U.S. aid dedicated to security assistance in Pakistan since 2002, for example, more than half went for purchases of major weapons systems sought by Pakistan's army, including F-16 fighters, according to U.S. officials.

The officials and experts also say U.S. aid has typically lacked sufficient oversight, or any means of measuring its effectiveness.

The aid spigot -- now pegged at more than $150 million a month -- has remained open even during periods when Pakistan's leadership ordered its counterterrorism forces confined to barracks under a cease-fire agreement with the insurgents, the officials note.

Pakistani officials, for their part, say that strict U.S. controls over equipment and a failure to provide other equipment, such as spare parts, have impeded their ability to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers. In addition to complaining about the goggles, they cite U.S.-made attack helicopters that are grounded for weeks because of parts shortages.

Pakistani officials acknowledge slow progress in driving terrorists out of the frontier provinces, but they chafe at suggestions that U.S. military aid is being squandered. Pakistan needs still more help, including persistent access to night-vision goggles, helicopters and other gear that is particularly useful in fighting an insurgency, said Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States.

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