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Pakistan, the U.S., and the Talibs

January 25, 2011

The following commentary is reprinted with permission from International Relations & Security Network (ISN), Center for Security Studies, Zurich.

Pakistan, the U.S., and the Talibs
©  Natalya Zamaraeva
Source:  ISN Insights
January 24, 2011

When U.S. President B. Obama declared that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was on the horizon, it immediately became clear that Washington decided to give Pakistan the key role in containing Taliban and other Afghan-based Muslim militant groups. The question arising in the context is to what extent the Pakistani army and security forces are prepared to confront the increasingly active Islamists. In any case, whenever the U.S. attempts to launch offensives in the Pakistani territory, Islamabad’s reaction is markedly negative. “Pakistani forces are capable of handling the militant threat within our borders and no foreign forces are allowed or required to operate inside our sovereign territory”, says Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani.

Expressing opposition to the involvement of the U.S. or any other country in counter-insurgency operations in its territory, Pakistan automatically takes responsibility for wider regional rather than just its own national security, and, no doubt, the U.S. and other Western coalition members currently locked in the Afghan campaign will be permanently gauging Pakistan’s performance. In November, 2010, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake credited Pakistan with serious success in fighting terrorism but went on to say that the country should make greater efforts to reign in Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and other extremist groups based in its territory.

Do Pakistan’s armed forces really have the potential to independently prevent the penetration of the country by the Talibs?

As of today, Pakistan has trained over 1,000 scouts from the rank of its Frontier Corps, whose task is to boost the combat-readiness of the 58,000-strong military group patrolling the tribal zone adjacent to the Pakistani-Afghan border. A new military training center was established with U.S. financial support in Varsak, South Waziristan, at the distance of 20 km from the Afghan border. Large enough to accommodate 2,000 soldiers, it provides a 10-week training course for snipers and platoon commanders which is taught by U.S. instructors. The center’s first 250 trainees completed the course in July, 2010. The center cost Washington a handsome $23m, and Islamabad requests that the U.S. additionally pours $30m into Pakistan’s military training and arms-buying programs.

The U.S. is actively assisting in Pakistan’s rearmament. For example, Washington supplies to Pakistan F-16 fighters equipped for night-time missions for which the Pakistani pilots are also trained by a group of the U.S. instructors.

It took Washington hard work to convince Islamabad to regard the Taliban, whose influence is on the rise in the regions adjacent to the Pakistani-Afghan border, rather than India as the main security threat. In 2001, the U.S. gave Pakistan over $10b to deploy the Pakistani armed forces in the border zone and to build the corresponding infrastructures. By now, a 100,000-strong group is guarding Pakistan’s western frontier, two divisions are deployed in Swat, and several divisions are stationed in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani political and military circles’ growing discontent over the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan factors visibly into Islmabad’s Afghan policies. Anti-Americanism is also bred among the Pakistani population, especially in North Waziristan, by indiscriminate U.S. drone attacks. As a result, Islamabad has to limit the number of U.S. instructors admitted to its territory to avoid being accused of excessively close links to its unpopular ally. At the moment, at most 120 U.S. instructors from the Special Operations Personnel are working in Pakistan, though the country’s army could benefit from a broader U.S. involvement. Even the $1b annual U.S. infusions into Pakistan’s military operations in the border zone cannot change the situation.

U.S. instructors routinely complain about being treated with suspicion by their Pakistani colleagues. The attitude can in part be traced back to the downscaling of the 1990ies, an epoch when the U.S.-Pakistani military cooperation was downscaled following Islamabad’s ascension to the nuclear status, but is to a greater extent explained by the spread of conservative Muslim views among the Pakistani soldiers and officers whom Washington nevertheless expects to fight the Talibs.


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Categories: AFG, PAK, USA