The Pentagon is expanding counterterrorism assistance to unlikely corners of the globe as part of a strategy to deploy elite Special Operations forces as advisers to countries far from al-Qaeda’s strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa.

Much of the new assistance is being directed toward countries in Asia and has been fueled by the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to the region. In Cambodia, for example, the Defense Department is training a counterterrorism battalion even though the nation has not faced a serious militant threat in nearly a decade.

The training has persisted despite concerns about the human rights record of Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler, former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, who in the past has relied on his military to execute and intimidate political opponents.

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are scheduled to make rare visits to Cambodia this week and next to attend a regional summit.

Panetta arrived Friday for meetings in the city of Siem Reap and met one-on-one with Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister.

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Afterward, Panetta told reporters that he emphasized the Obama administration’s support “for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for the rule of law, for the right of full and fair participation in the political process, here in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.”

His comments on human rights and democracy were apparently a late addition; they were not included in his prepared remarks.

The decision to embrace Cambodia has prompted criticism from human rights groups and several U.S. lawmakers, who accuse the Obama administration of pursuing closer military and diplomatic ties with countries in China’s back yard at the expense of democratic reforms.

“We’ve been yelling at the White House for a month and a half that [Obama] shouldn’t go because the human rights situation in Cambodia is so bad,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. This week, the group issued a report documenting a long list of unsolved political killings in Cambodia.

The White House is also hearing complaints about Obama’s decision to become the first U.S. president to visit Burma, an isolated country controlled for decades by a repressive military. In recent months, Burmese rulers have allowed limited free elections and released political prisoners, but their commitment to democratic reform remains uncertain.

U.S. military leaders said they are eager to bolster relationships with countries across Asia, even those with checkered human rights records, but are careful to do so in a way that encourages reforms and does not ignore abuses.

Last month, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, the commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, became the first American military officer in a quarter-century to visit Burma. He later said in an interview that the Pentagon would like to gradually build a relationship with the Burmese military, but only if it meets strict human rights criteria established by Congress, the White House and the State Department.

“They set the tone for what we can do and when we can do it,” Wiercinski said. “I follow the law.”

The assistance to Cambodia comes as the Pentagon, with little public notice, has deployed
teams of Special Operations forces to train counterterrorism and special-warfare forces in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia, despite concerns about human rights abuses in those countries. The U.S. military resumed relations in 2010 with Indonesia’s special forces, a group accused of atrocities during the country’s years of authoritarianism.

Invested in relationship

Cambodia is a special case because of its brutal history. It is scarred by the 1970s genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, a communist movement that killed one-fifth of the population.

In recent years, the U.S. government has kept a careful diplomatic distance from Hun Sen, the prime minister who consolidated political control after a bloody 1997 coup and has forced opponents into exile.

The Pentagon and the State Department, however, have embraced his three sons, all of whom hold influential posts in the Cambodian government and military.

U.S. officials have invested in their relationship with Hun Manet, the eldest son, in particular, giving him a free ride to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1999. He earned a master’s degree in economics from New York University.

Today, the 35-year-old, widely seen as the heir apparent to his father, is a major general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, in which he serves as deputy commander of the army.

“I’m sure that’s why he was sent to West Point in the first place,” said a government official from neighboring Thailand, which has closely monitored Hun Manet’s emergence. “Hun Sen would like to build up his credibility and career because he’s so young.”

The U.S. military also paid for the prime minister’s youngest son, Hun Many, 29, to earn a master’s degree in strategic studies at the National Defense University in Washington last year.

The U.S. military arranged for the middle son, Hun Manith, a senior intelligence official, to
attend a counterterrorism course in Germany, according to an American diplomatic cable obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

In 2008, the U.S. government agreed to help Cambodia create a special unit to combat terrorism, saying it was worried that the country could become a refuge for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Five years earlier, the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Indonesia had spent several months hiding in Cambodia. About the same time, four other members of the group were charged with plotting to bomb the U.S. and British embassies in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Other than that, the threat from al-Qaeda affiliates has been virtually nonexistent in Cambodia. In its annual report this year highlighting terrorist activity around the world, the State Department listed no problems in the country.

But the U.S. counterterrorism training has continued. In August, American advisers led Vector Balance Canoe, an annual joint exercise with Cambodia.

At the closing ceremony, U.S. Ambassador William E. Todd singled out Hun Manet for his leadership and praised the performance of his troops.

“Your commitment to training, your dedication to perfection, and your willingness to sacrifice for your country clearly demonstrates this unit’s unspoken pledge to be the best counter-terrorism force in Southeast Asia,” Todd said, according to an account posted on the U.S. Embassy’s Web site.

Potential benefits

Although terrorism may not be high on the list of Cambodia’s problems, the Pentagon has other reasons to continue the training, said Carlyle A. Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asian militaries and a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

“This is a hook,” he said. “It’s something you don’t want to give up. It gives you access, it gives you influence.”

Thayer said the counterterrorism unit also benefits the Cambodian prime minister. With his eldest son in charge, he can count on the force’s loyalty in the event of a coup attempt or other challenge to his rule.

“Hun Sen is fearful that he’s got to control the guns and not have independent operators in the military that could threaten him,” Thayer said.

The training is overseen by a small U.S. Special Forces group, known as an augmentation team, based at the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. military officials declined to answer questions about the size of the Cambodian counterterrorism force, how many people the United States has trained or how much it has spent on the program.

“Cambodia decided to develop its own counter-terrorism unit,” Lt. Col. Brad Doboszenski, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, Pacific, said in a statement. “We support Cambodia in its development as a responsible regional partner.”

Doboszenski discounted the fact that the Cambodian counterterrorism force is commanded by the prime minister’s son. He said that the augmentation team “is guided by U.S. policy objectives, not personal relationships.”

Maj. Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the U.S. government vets the background of foreign military personnel who receive training. She said a closer relationship with Cambodia “helps to prevent these problems from reemerging.”

“We have to make sure we’re not working with people who commit gross human rights violations, but we can’t turn our backs and not provide training,” she said.

Wilkinson said the U.S. military also provides Cambodia with trainers for peacekeeping, maritime security and officer development.

Brig. Gen. Navuth Koeut, the defense attache at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, declined to say how many soldiers are assigned to the counterterrorism unit. But he said it was “battalion-sized,” which would suggest at least a few hundred troops.

He said that Cambodia values its growing relationship with the Pentagon and that the U.S. training has raised military standards and reinforced human rights.

“They are very helpful for Cambodian soldiers to realize how to respect the rights of people,” he said.

Officials with Human Rights Watch said they have warned the Pentagon for years that its vetting procedures for Cambodian military personnel are too weak. They also said the Defense Department has been naive about the unintended consequence of its training programs.

“There’s almost this childlike faith that if these people are exposed to the U.S. military, it will invariably lead to a more professional military,” said Sophie Richardson, a Human Rights Watch researcher and Asia specialist. “There was almost no acknowledgment about how the U.S. could be helping to consolidate the power of highly abusive actors.”