WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is looking at plans to significantly accelerate and expand the training of Pakistan's military in a key move to improve their ability to confront insurgents along the Afghanistan border, The Associated Press has learned.
U.S. officials are in early talks with Pakistani leaders to develop a program that could increase the number of U.S. special operations trainers in that country, with a goal to slash the training time by as much as half for more than 9,000 members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, said a senior defense official.
Training the 14 battalion-size units of the Frontier Corps is expected to take at least four years, but officials would like to both speed up their counterinsurgency training and expand the schooling to the Pakistani Army, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are preliminary and no decisions have been made.
Among the issues yet to be resolved are how many U.S. trainers will be needed, and whether all the courses will be given at the single existing training camp or broadened to several more camps. Officials also have not settled on a timetable, because it will depend on how U.S. and Pakistan officials ultimately decide they want the new program structured, how much funding is available, and what the security situation is in the border region.
The U.S. believes that escalating the training of Pakistan's Frontier Corps is critical as commanders struggle to beat back gains made by the Taliban and al-Qaida in the region. Controlling the border, officials insist, is key to stabilizing Pakistan and winning the war in Afghanistan.
In addition, the Pentagon would like to further broaden the training to include the Pakistan Army. U.S. special operations forces have been training the Pakistani special forces for some time, and the program was expanded to the Frontier Corps last October.
On Thursday, Marine Commandant James T. Conway told members of Congress that it will be difficult to make real progress in Afghanistan if forces in Pakistan "aren't having parallel success."
And in a blunt exchange with senators last week, Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said it is imperative that the U.S. help Pakistan beef up the training of its Frontier Corps, and enable them to move more troops into the western border region.
He added that the Pakistanis do not have enough counterinsurgency training. "We think the Frontier Corps deserves much more attention," he said.
The rugged mountains slicing across the ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Area along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan provide safe havens for extremists, and many believe those include Osama bin Laden.
There are 80 to 100 U.S. special operations forces and support staff now in Pakistan, including roughly 35 trainers. The ongoing discussions are looking at how the program could be revamped and what number of additional trainers would be needed.
Another critical aspect of the proposed changes is how to pay for them — and that decision is now in the hands of a skeptical Congress.
Pentagon officials have proposed spending $400 million in the next year to create a new Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capabilities Fund, which would be used to pay for the expanded training and any additional facilities, as well as helicopters and weapons ranging from night-vision goggles to high-tech communications equipment. The fund could total as much as $3 billion over five years.
The aim, according to Gen. David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, is to strengthen America's military relationship with Islamabad, build the Pakistanis' ability to fight extremists within their own borders, and stem the flow of fighters and weapons into Afghanistan. Under the proposal, Petraeus would largely direct the funding.
Some lawmakers have balked at the idea, saying that the money should be controlled by the State Department, not the military. Defense officials are insisting that, at least for now, Petraeus has greater flexibility to target the money where it is most needed.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the military could maintain control of the funding this year, and gradually transfer it to the State Department by 2011. Lawmakers, however, have suggested it be moved to the State Department in 2010.
Lawmakers have also complained that Islamabad continues to view India as its main threat, and has directed funding toward that effort in the past, rather that at bolstering the fight against Taliban along the Afghanistan border. Members of Congress said the Pentagon must put benchmarks in place to measure the effectiveness of the funding.