By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009; A04
The Obama administration is lobbying Congress to give U.S. military commanders the same unfettered authority to back Pakistan's war against Taliban insurgents as commanders have in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seeking to inject the debate over military aid to Pakistan with a sense of wartime urgency, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged lawmakers yesterday to approve the Pentagon request for $400 million this year for the new Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, with an additional $700 million to be requested for 2010. Overall, the administration is seeking as much as $3 billion over the next five years in funding for Pakistan's military.
The new program would significantly expand and accelerate U.S. military training and equipping of Pakistan's security forces, reaching beyond the tribally recruited Frontier Corps and Pakistani Special Forces to include the regular Pakistan army's 11th Corps, which is stationed along the country's western border with Afghanistan.
The U.S. military's Central Command, led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, would control the funds, targeting them specifically for counterinsurgency training and equipment such as night-vision goggles, helicopters and intelligence capabilities.
The Pentagon seeks "this unique authority for the unique and urgent circumstances we face in Pakistan -- for dealing with a challenge that simultaneously requires wartime and peacetime capabilities," Gates said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have voiced concerns about creating the new Pakistan military funding stream through the Pentagon. Traditionally such military aid flows through the State Department and is subject to Foreign Assistance Act restrictions.
"We question the appropriateness of providing foreign assistance for Pakistan under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense," Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the committee chairman, said in an opening statement.
"The responsibility for training Pakistani police and military forces resides with the Department of State, which ensures it complies with our overall foreign policy," said Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who opposes the new Pentagon fund. The exception is when the United States is at war, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, but "in Pakistan that is not the case," he said.
But administration and military officials argue that U.S. commanders need wartime authorities because they are overly constrained by current funding programs. The solution, they say, is a program modeled after U.S. military programs to build and train security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, they say the funding should be as flexible as that provided to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan under the Commanders' Emergency Response Program, a discretionary fund started after the invasion of Iraq.
"We're walking a pretty fine line here. This is not a war zone for the U.S. military. But given the urgency of the situation, we need similar authorities in order to help Pakistan train and equip its troops for counterinsurgency operations ASAP," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
In a letter to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Petraeus said the fund would allow senior military representatives to act decisively. "In areas of armed conflict, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . we have achieved progress because these funds are immediately available and commanders have been able to rapidly adjust to changing conditions on the ground. [The Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund] would serve the same purpose in Pakistan, where a growing insurgency threatens the country's very existence and has a direct and deadly impact on U.S. and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan," Petraeus wrote.
In testimony yesterday, Gates said the Pentagon should manage the fund this year because the State Department lacks the capability to administer it with sufficient agility. Next year, he said, a possible solution would be to provide the funds to the State Department "but with the authority for an immediate pass-through to the Department of Defense to implement it."