Culture, Politics Hinder U.S. Effort to Bolster Pakistani Border Forces

By Candace Rondeaux and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 30, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A project to send U.S. military advisers to train Pakistani border forces could begin as early as this summer. But the advisers, according to Western and Pakistani military officials, face serious challenges if they are to transform an ill-equipped paramilitary group into a front-line bulwark against terrorism.

Twenty-two American advisers are being tasked with training a cadre of officers in Pakistan's Frontier Corps in counterinsurgency and intelligence-gathering tactics, according to U.S. officials in Pakistan familiar with the plan. The goal is to bolster the force's operations along the country's porous 1,500-mile-long border with Afghanistan, an area that has become a hotbed for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as their sympathizers.

But military analysts say that cultural and political fault lines within the Frontier Corps and Pakistan itself could prove the undoing of the U.S. program. The bulk of the force's rank-and-file troops are ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom are wary of going into battle against a Pashtun-dominated insurgency. Commanders, meanwhile, are regular army officers who often have little in common with their subordinates.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Alam Khattak, the top commander of the Frontier Corps, said the move to train and equip his 80,000-strong force was long overdue. He expressed frustration with a slow-moving military bureaucracy that has left his troops to fight an insurgency with World War II-era rifles. In a recent interview at a newly opened Pakistani-Afghan border intelligence center, Khattak said his troops have been stymied by a doctrine of conventional warfare in an age of counterinsurgency.

"It's very difficult, but our force is an old force," Khattak said. "This is not the first eruption of an insurgency that we've seen. We are on a global geopolitical fault line."

About 30,000 Frontier Corps troops are deployed in the southeastern province of Baluchistan; about 50,000 are deployed in North-West Frontier Province, which has witnessed a fierce resurgence of Taliban activity since 2006.

Those units, poorly equipped and lacking support from the army, have suffered devastating defeats over the past six years. About 300 troops have been killed since 2001. Low salaries and inconsistent medical evacuation services for wounded troops have also dimmed morale, Khattak said. "Many of our casualties were not warranted. If we had been better equipped, we would not have seen so many casualties," he said.

In January, seven Frontier Corps troops were killed and 15 were missing after more than 200 Taliban fighters overran a fort in a nighttime assault in the remote tribal area of South Waziristan. The next day, another brutal assault on a nearby Frontier Corps post forced several more troops to flee.

Kidnappings of Frontier Corps members have also become common. Last August, pro-Taliban militants took 16 soldiers hostage in South Waziristan. One was beheaded, his killing later shown on a DVD distributed in the tribal areas. The remaining 15 troops were freed in a deal brokered by tribal leaders and local officials. But such incidents have fueled an increase in desertions and further hurt morale, according to troops, military officials and analysts.

"When you have a position that is only manned by five or six men and it's confronted by a contingent of dozens of Taliban militants, there's not a lot of incentive to stay and fight," a Western military official said. "As far as some of these Frontier Corps guys go, they think: 'What's the point in resisting these guys? If I don't fight, I live to see another day.' "

About 8,400 Frontier Corps troops are to receive training in a program that calls for U.S. advisers to remain in the country for up to two years. The $400 million program also calls for the paramilitary force to be equipped with more modern weaponry, body armor and better medevac services.

Many officials have expressed confidence that the program will improve the chances of survival for members of the paramilitary force. Yet almost all agreed that trainers will have to move fast to ready the troops for what could be a years-long conflict with rapidly growing militant forces inside Pakistan.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company