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Uncertain Times for U.S.-Pakistan Military Ties

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
March 6, 2008

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The U.S. military appears to be redoubling its efforts to cooperate with Pakistani troops and crack down on terrorist groups in the country’s tribal areas. Reports of suspected U.S. missile strikes (AFP) and newly revealed plans to send American military trainers to work with Pakistani paramilitary forces highlight the new push. The New York Times reports that, in the week before Pakistan’s February 18 parliamentary elections, American officials struck a new deal with President Pervez Musharraf and the new head of Pakistan’s military, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, which grants American forces a freer hand to carry out secret air strikes. The United States believes such a strike killed a senior al-Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al-Libi, in northwest Pakistan last month. Experts say the killing may have helped convince Pakistani authorities to move ahead with further covert operations, while still refusing to allow any overt U.S. involvement or presence of U.S. combat troops in Pakistan.

But now Washington is worried the change of guard in Islamabad may curtail its efforts to act more aggressively against suspected terrorists. Pakistan’s recent election winners have said they want to pursue peace talks with militants (IHT). Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party forms a part of the new parliamentary coalition, asked the United States to clearly define its war on terror (Dawn). U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Islamabad that talks with the militants have not worked in the past (BBC). Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, said in a recent CFR meeting that when it came to things like the operation of Predator drone aircraft, a democratically elected government “will be more zealous in guarding Pakistani sovereignty, or being seen to be guarding Pakistani sovereignty.” Grenier added, however, that the army will “resist micromanagement from any government.”

Pakistan has a long history as a buyer of U.S. military weaponry in its efforts to keep pace with arch-rival India. But since September 2001, the United States has given Pakistan almost $10 billion in aid (PDF) to help fight the “war on terror.” The bulk of that money forms what is called the Coalition Support Funding, a Pentagon program to reimburse Pakistan for its support of U.S.military operations. Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), speaking at CFR after a recent visit to the region, called for greater accountability by Islamabad regarding the aid money. Others fear the money reinforces the Pakistani military’s tendency to act independently of the nation’s constitution, as Boston University’s Husain Haqqani noted in this testimony (PDF) to the House Armed Services Committee. Both want to see a more serious opening to the new civilian leaders of Pakistan and less reliance on the generals.

In fact, analysts have long questioned both the will and the ability of the Pakistani army and intelligence networks to hunt down the militants. Ashley Tellis, senior associate at Carnegie, argued before Congress in January (PDF) that Pakistan’s army is unlikely to see eye-to-eye with the United States on these issues. For one, Tellis says, the Afghan Taliban remains Pakistan’s best hope for influence across its northern border. “It will be beyond the power of a new civilian government to compel the military to pursue this war if the military believes that it is not in Pakistan’s national interest to do so,” he says. Far better, writes Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, would be to deal with the new civilian government, which will inherit the problems of militancy. Says Zakaria: “What democracy could do is make Pakistanis understand that this is their war.”

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