U.S., Pakistan bolster joint efforts, treading delicately

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

The scheduled arrival of 50 additional U.S. military personnel to Pakistan in June, accompanying four new F-16 fighter jets, will increase the official number of American boots on the ground there by 25 percent. It is enough to make the Pakistani government shudder with trepidation.

Exaggerated tales of U.S. soldiers and spies flooding the country are regular front-page fare in Pakistan, and cause for strident political criticism of Western intervention that sometimes erupts into violence. Pakistan's military and intelligence services remain highly suspicious about the motives and methods of their U.S. counterparts, a wariness mirrored in American attitudes toward Pakistan.

But a strategic decision by both sides to improve counterterrorism cooperation, along with the personnel requirements of increased U.S. aid, have led in recent months to a small but significant expansion in the U.S. presence in Pakistan.

There are currently about 200 U.S. military involved in security assistance in Pakistan, including a Special Operations training and advisory contingent, initially set at 80 troops, that has twice been enlarged since last year and now totals up to 140 troops in two Pakistani locations, according to senior U.S. military officials. The Pakistani government prohibits U.S. combat forces.

The CIA has sent additional intelligence-gathering operatives and technicians in recent months. Plans are underway to establish a joint military intelligence processing center. After an initial period of tension, Pakistani officers are using cross-border intelligence compiled at two joint coordination centers on the Afghan side of the frontier.

Although news media and the public continue to criticize the CIA's drone-fired missile attacks targeting insurgent figures in western Pakistan, intelligence cooperation in directing the missiles has improved, according to Pakistani officials who say U.S. operatives have gotten better on coordinating such activities to prevent conflicts with Pakistan's own air operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, along the Afghan border.

Under agreements connected to Pakistan's purchase of 18 F-16s scheduled for staggered delivery this year, a U.S. military team must be on hand to ensure that sophisticated, top-of-the-line avionics, weapons and data systems aboard the aircraft remain secure. The planes, which for the first time will allow Pakistan to conduct nighttime air operations, are far more advanced than the 30-year-old U.S. aircraft that are the current air force mainstay.

They will be housed at Shahbaz air base in south-central Pakistan, one of three bases where Pakistan allowed limited U.S. use for several years after the 2001 beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Far from advertising the arrival of a new contingent of Americans at Shahbaz, the Pakistani military is building a cloistered facility to house them amid some 5,000 of its own troops that will occupy the newly expanded base. Pakistani and U.S. military and intelligence officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so on the record.

"Certainly, this is a delicate area," a Pakistani military official said of the American presence. Both Pakistani and U.S. officials expressed concern about how the previously unpublished news of the team's deployment would be played in the Pakistani press, and emphasized that the U.S. personnel would have no operational role.

"For someone against the United States, it is not all that easy to make him like the U.S. overnight," Nawabzada Malik Ahmad Khan, Pakistan's minister of state for foreign affairs, said in an interview.

Progress in bilateral relations culminated with last month's meeting between senior Pakistani cabinet and military officials in Washington. Although it did not eliminate problems and mistrust, it does appear to have achieved a new degree of mutual candor and tolerance.

During a recent PowerPoint briefing in Islamabad, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, ISI, provided a comprehensive list of U.S. complaints about them.

The Obama administration, a senior ISI official said, remains "suspicious of ISI linkages with the Afghan Taliban," thinks that the ISI is indifferent to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and that it promotes anti-American diatribes in the Pakistani media. The United States, the official said, sees Pakistan as incapable of guaranteeing the security of its nuclear arsenal, irrationally obsessed with the threat from India and generally not serious about either democracy or fighting terrorists, he said.

The Pakistanis plead guilty as charged to some of the U.S. concerns. Al-Qaeda -- whose presence in its territory is officially disputed by Pakistan -- is not seen as a domestic threat. Links with the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are long-standing and considered a strategic necessity to protect Pakistan's western flank. Should the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan or allow Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reconcile with insurgent leaders without input from Islamabad, Pakistan believes it would need allies among the Pashtun tribes there to maintain its influence and protect its western flank from Indian inroads.

"They don't believe we don't know what Karzai is doing," a State Department official involved in Pakistan policy said. "They're afraid that we're going to cut a peace deal without them. We've told them that as soon as we know, they'll know."

A separate ISI PowerPoint slide listed Pakistan's complaints with the United States: unfounded nuclear concerns, not enough assistance, unrealistic accounting and audit demands on aid funding, and "insisting on actions that Pakistan views as inconsistent with its own concerns."

The Obama administration has additional complaints. The slow issuance of visas for additional U.S. personnel remains a sore point, along with harassment of U.S. military and civilian officials at military and police checkpoints.

But it has quieted its public criticism of Pakistan, hailing military successes against the Pakistani Taliban and easing up on pressure to do more. "We can be taken to task for giving too much advice" in the past, a senior U.S. military official said.

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