By Farah Stockman/Boston Globe
July 22, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is struggling to get congressional approval for millions of dollars in aid to a tribal paramilitary group in the semiautonomous region of Pakistan where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have gained such a foothold that they have been able to launch destabilizing attacks on both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The $300 million plan to transform Pakistan's colonial-era Frontier Corps into a modern fighting force is a crucial piece of a new, $2 billion US-Pakistani counterinsurgency effort designed to wrest the region from extremist militants.
But this new funding request has run into resistance, in part because of congressional restrictions on aid to nontraditional military groups, and also because questions have been raised about whether the tribesmen who make up the Corps are friends or foes of the United States, according to congressional sources and US officials.
State Department officials say the Corps, an 80,000-member law enforcement force traditionally used for border patrol and antismuggling activities, needs a massive training program, communication equipment, vehicles, and night-vision goggles to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Until now, the US government has given the Corps only modest assistance for counternarcotic efforts.
Hundreds of Frontier Corps members have been killed or wounded in battles with militants in recent years, but there also are disturbing signs of conflicting loyalties inside the Corps. The group is led by experienced officers from the Pakistani Army, but its rank and file come from the very Pashtun tribes that have given the militants safe haven.
US soldiers in Afghanistan have reported observing some Corps members allowing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to cross the border at will and even welcoming them to rest at Corps guard posts. The Corps has also fired occasionally on the US-assisted Afghan Army. In May, a lone Corps member abruptly opened fire at a meeting with US and Afghan soldiers, killing an American and a Pakistani, and wounding eight others. He was killed in the shoot-out that ensued.
Daniel Markey, a Pakistan specialist who was a member of the State Department's policy planning staff on Pakistan from 2003 until January 2007, said the shooting was an "indication of the challenge that Pakistan will face in training the Frontier Corps."
"Sometimes their loyalties are uncertain," he said.
But State Department officials say bolstering the Corps, in tandem with a plan to distribute nearly $2 billion in development aid over the next decade, is the best strategy to rid the impoverished region of extremists and win the support of the tribes.
"We think this has the greatest chance for success," said a State Department official who asked that his name not be disclosed because he is not a spokesman. "There are some real advantages with working with the Frontier Corps. They are local, [so] they can identify who else is local and who is an outsider. They have extensive networks that would take us decades to develop."
The debate over funding the Corps comes amid a wider debate about all aid to Pakistan. The Bush administration has pledged strong support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, but Musharraf's popularity has plummeted in recent months because of his dismissal of the country's chief justice and other actions that critics say are designed to keep him in power.
Musharraf, a general who came to power in a military coup, became a key US ally in the war on terror in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Before the attacks, Pakistan's government cultivated an alliance with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, who had ancestral ties to the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan's border region. But after the attacks, Musharraf took sides with the United States, directing his intelligence agencies to help arrest key Al Qaeda suspects inside Pakistan and ordering his army into the tribal areas for the first time in Pakistan's history to search out Al Qaeda fighters.
The military incursion angered the fiercely independent local population. Last fall, after hundreds of Pakistani military casualties in that region, Musharraf announced a series of "peace agreements" with the tribes, withdrawing his forces to their barracks in exchange for a pledge by tribal leaders not to allow cross-border attacks on Afghanistan and not to shelter foreign fighters.
Markey said Pakistan used the peace deals to send operatives into the tribal areas to try to co-opt the Taliban militants and the tribal leaders, but that the strategy has been only "marginally effective." The latest National Intelligence Estimate concludes that Al Qaeda has regained its full strength in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Marvin Weinbaum , a former State Department intelligence analyst now at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the Pakistani attempts to reach out to militants in the tribal areas raised eyebrows in Washington, sparking a continuing debate about whether elements of Pakistan's intelligence services were renewing their old alliance with the Taliban.
In recent weeks, Musharraf ordered the military to return to abandoned checkpoints in the region, and militants declared the peace deals dead.
Some Pentagon officials also are frustrated with Pakistan, seeing an increasing number of attacks on US and Afghan soldiers by militants who use Pakistan's tribal areas as a base.
Last September, President Bush questioned Musharraf about the situation in the tribal areas during a White House meeting. Musharraf responded that he needed time to develop a comprehensive plan to win popular support through development aid.
Since then, the Bush administration has embraced Musharraf's new plan, pledging $750 million in development aid over next five years to the tribal region, in addition to Pakistan's pledge of $1 billion over the next decade.
Richard Boucher , the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told reporters last week that Washington has also promised to help Pakistan fund its $300 million plan to reform the Frontier Corps, requesting $71.5 million from Congress this year for equipment such as communications devices, vehicles, and night vision goggles.
Congress has declined to fund the request because of insufficient details about how the money would be spent and worries about the Corps' loyalties, congressional aides said.
"There were concerns about who is the Frontier Corps -- what is this organization?' " said one adviser to Congress on South Asia who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak.
Administration officials have worked hard to allay these fears, arguing that while some Corps members might sympathize with militants among their fellow tribesmen, the main problem was that the Corps lacks the equipment and training to take them on, he said.
But a July 12 hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs showed that some members of Congress remain skeptical about the billions in military aid that is already going to Pakistan.
"How do we in Congress justify to the American people writing checks for billions of dollars to a regime that may not be the partner against terrorism that the United States needs it to be?" Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, asked at that hearing.
Another problem with the funding request for the Frontier Corps is that Congress limits the kind of assistance that the Defense Department can give to a force that is not a part of a foreign military. The Frontier Corps is organized under Pakistan's Ministry of the Interior. But administration officials said they were optimistic that an exception would be granted.
Even if funding is approved, modernizing the Corps will be a challenge. Founded under British colonial rule, the Corps' history is scattered with stories of divided loyalties.
Chris Mason, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, said the plan was an important attempt to counter the rise of extremists who have driven moderate tribal leaders out of the region. But he warned that it might not be enough.
"The radicals may have become so strong and so numerous . . . it may be beyond the ability of the Pakistani military to suppress them," he said.