WASHINGTON – The commander of U.S. forces in Central Asia has launched planning for more extensive use of U.S. troops to train Pakistani armed forces, a senior defense official said Wednesday.
Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, issued a planning order, an internal instruction to lower-level commanders, to propose ideas for a long-term approach to helping Pakistan combat what has become an expanding, homegrown insurgency that threatens the stability of the government.
Fallon's intent is to develop new approaches to help Pakistan, with a time horizon stretching to 2015, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the order has not been made public.
A central assumption in the planning is that no such U.S. training contribution would be made without the Pakistani government's prior approval, the official said.
Fallon was in Pakistan this week meeting with senior Pakistani military officials.
In an interview last week during a conference with Middle Eastern defense chiefs in Florida, Fallon said Pakistan is taking a more welcoming view of U.S. suggestions for using American troops to train and advise its own forces in the fight against anti-government extremists.
Fallon said he believes increased violence inside Pakistan in recent months has led Pakistani leaders to conclude that they must focus more intensively on extremist al-Qaida hideouts near the border with Afghanistan.
"They see they've got real problems internally," Fallon said. "My sense is there is an increased willingness to address these problems, and we're going to try to help them." He said U.S. assistance would be "more robust," but he offered few details. "There is more willingness to do that now" on Pakistan's part, he said.
The Bush administration's anxiety about Pakistan's stability has grown in recent months, not only because of its potential implications for U.S. stability efforts in neighboring Afghanistan but also because of worry about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, the highest-level meeting of U.S. and Pakistan officials since the assassination last month of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. While Rice praised Musharraf as a steadfast ally and promised continued U.S. support, she pressed him to keep his commitment to democracy and to free and fair elections in February.
At the Pentagon, one of Fallon's subordinate commanders, Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, said the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is unlikely to stage a spring offensive in the volatile eastern region bordering Pakistan.
Rodriguez, who commands U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, told a Pentagon news conference that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating from havens in the largely ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan appear to have shifted their focus toward targets inside Pakistan rather than across the border in Afghanistan.
"I don't think there'll be a big spring offensive this year," Rodriguez said.
That is partly due to ordinary Afghans' disillusionment with the Taliban movement, he said, and partly because the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters see new opportunities to accelerate instability inside Pakistan. He also said Afghan security forces are becoming more effective partners with U.S. forces.
The Taliban generally has staged stepped-up offensives each spring, when the weather is more favorable for ground movement, although an anticipated offensive last spring did not materialize.
U.S. officials have said in recent days that they do expect a spring offensive in the southern area of Afghanistan, a traditional Taliban stronghold where fighting is most intense. That is one reason Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week approved the deployment of an additional 2,200 Marines to the southern sector, where NATO forces are in command.
In all, there are about 28,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, of whom roughly half are under Rodriguez's command. Rodriguez said he needs no more U.S. troops in his area but looks forward to having two more Afghan National Army brigades, due to begin operating in his sector this spring.
Rodriguez also said he sees no sign that the United States is preparing to send forces into Pakistan without the Pakistan government's approval.
"We're not planning that," he said. "Pakistan is a sovereign government, and we have no plans that I'm involved in or have even heard of to do anything like that."
On Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee heard testimony from retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The committee chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., opened the session with an expression of concern about trends in Afghanistan.
"I believe that we currently risk a strategic failure in Afghanistan and that we must do what it takes to avoid this disastrous outcome," Skelton said in a prepared statement. "We must re-prioritize and shift needed resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. We must once again make Afghanistan the central focus in the war against terrorism — our national security and Afghanistan's future are at stake."