WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. military advisers are helping the Pakistanis double the size of their elite commando force in an ongoing effort to blunt the rising threat of terrorist groups and anti-government militants operating in the country’s unruly tribal areas, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday.
The American military presence is fewer than 100 personnel, said Mike Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and is focused on what he called “targeted training.” That includes assisting Pakistan’s Special Service Group and teaching specialized fighting techniques, such as helicopter assaults.
“It’s been ongoing for a while,” Vickers said during a meeting with reporters. “They’re expanding their capability substantially — they’re essentially doubling their force. So we’re helping them with that expansion, and trying to improve their capabilities at the same time. There’s also some aviation training. It’s been ongoing for several years.”
The number of U.S. forces in Pakistan is a sensitive issue. Many Pakistanis openly support or sympathize with al-Qaida, the Taliban or militant groups and would view a sizable American presence in their country as an unwelcome intrusion.
That means the United States won’t conduct military operations on its own inside Pakistan unless President Pervez Musharraf’s government requests such direct support.
“We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that’s a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support,” Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, said last month. “The blowback would be pretty serious.”
U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is in the tribal area, a large swath of rugged land that runs along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Defense officials told Congress on Wednesday that al-Qaida is operating in safe havens in “under-governed regions” of Pakistan — posing a direct threat to Europe, the United States and the Pakistan government itself. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted in written testimony that the next attack on the U.S. would likely be launched by terrorists in that region.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believes that Pakistan understands the threat al-Qaida poses to its government, but is sensitive to an American military presence. Gates has said the U.S. remains ready, willing and able to provide military support and conduct joint operations with the Pakistanis.
Until Pakistan “sort of gets on top of the whole situation and what their needs are, I think we’re kind of in a standby mode at this point,” he said.
The top American commander in the region, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, was in Pakistan in January meeting with senior Pakistani officials, including the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Following the meeting, Fallon told reporters that Pakistani officials were more willing to seek U.S. assistance.
Mullen is scheduled to travel to Pakistan later this week, Vickers said.
Echoing testimony delivered to Congress on Tuesday by U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell, Vickers said the unsettled tribal region “remains a source of sanctuary for the al-Qaida senior leadership.”
Vickers gave the Pakistani military high marks for keeping al-Qaida in check in Pakistan’s cities and other “settled” locations.
“They have been less effective in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, and that’s the problem we face right now,” Vickers said. “It’s getting worse in Pakistan, I think, it’s fair to say.”
If U.S. forces teamed up with the Pakistanis, their support would be “by, with and through” the Pakistani troops, Vickers said. The phrase refers to a key tenet of unconventional warfare and underscores the disguised approach the United States would take.
“We have certain capabilities that we can do in a low-visibility manner that can enhance the operations of Pakistani forces,” Vickers said. Those capabilities could include night vision devices, air transport, and sophisticated gear for gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance.
Vickers, a former Green Beret and ex-CIA agent, took over last year as the Pentagon’s top special operations official. He has substantial experience in Afghanistan. In 1984, at age 31, he engineered the clandestine arming of the Afghan rebels who drove the Soviet Union out of their country nearly a quarter century ago in what was the largest covert action in CIA history.
Then, as now, Vickers maintains that success depends not on a large U.S. military presence, but on the right mix of military backing, economic support, and political will.
“Surges of forces create important but temporary effects,” Vickers said. “I don’t think we’re going to defeat the insurgency (in Afghanistan) over the long haul with a large foreign presence. I think substantial foreign assistance and continued engagement is critical. But in the long run it will be the Afghans that do it with our support.”
Army Gen. Dan McNeill, the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, on Wednesday challenged the widely held view that the insurgency there is worsening.
Vickers had a different view.
“The insurgency has certainly picked up in Afghanistan in the past couple of years, and the link with narcotics has made for a challenge,” he said, referring to the country’s escalating production of opium, the main ingredient in heroin.
Afghanistan cultivated a record 477,000 acres of opium in 2007, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. Total production, spurred by unusually high rainfall, increased even further, by 34 percent, according to a new report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Defeating insurgencies takes a period of time,” Vickers said. “I am still very optimistic about the long haul in Afghanistan.”