WASHINGTON: The US is pushing to expand a secret CIA effort to help Pakistan target militants near the Afghan border, according to senior officials, as the White House seeks new ways to prod Islamabad into more aggressive action against groups allied with al Qaeda, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The push comes as relations between Washington and Islamabad have soured over US impatience with the slow pace of Pakistani strikes against militants who routinely attack US-led troops in Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama has said he will begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July, increasing the urgency to show progress in the nine-year war against the Taliban.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Washington asked Islamabad in recent weeks to allow additional Central Intelligence Agency officers and special operations military trainers to enter the country as part of Washington’s efforts to intensify pressure on militants.
The requests have so far been rebuffed by Islamabad, which remains extremely wary of allowing a larger US ground presence in the country, illustrating the precarious nature of relations between Washington and its wartime ally.
The number of CIA personnel in the country has grown substantially in recent years. The exact number is highly classified. The push for more forces reflects, in part, the increased need for intelligence to support the CIA drone programme that has killed hundreds of militants with missile strikes. The additional officers could help Pakistani forces reach targets drones cannot.
There are currently about 900 US military personnel in Pakistan, 600 of which are providing flood relief and 150 of which are assigned to the training mission.
A senior Pakistani official said relations with the CIA remain strong but Islamabad continues to oppose a large increase in the number of American personnel on the ground.
The Obama administration has been putting pressure on Islamabad in recent weeks to attack militants after months of publicly praising Pakistani efforts. The CIA has intensified drone strikes in the country, and the military in Afghanistan has carried out cross-border helicopter raids, underlining US doubts Islamabad can be relied upon to be more aggressive. Officials have even said they were going to stop asking for Pakistani help with the US’s most difficult adversary in the region, the north Waziristan-based Haqqani network, because it was unproductive.
When senior officials visited Washington this week, Obama administration officials signaled they are willing to push for a long-term military aid package. But they have also made it clear to Pakistani officials they expect tangible results, threatening that current cash payments to the country could be reduced if things don’t improve in tribal areas such as north Waziristan.
The current efforts to expand CIA presence are meant to expand intelligence collection and facilitate more aggressive Pakistani-led actions on the ground. Some US officials, however, remain hopeful that Islamabad will allow a greater covert presence that could include CIA paramilitary forces.
Given Pakistan’s objections to US ground troops, using more CIA paramilitary forces could be a “viable option”, said a government official. “That gives them (Pakistanis) a little bit of cover,” the official added.
US officials said a stronger US-Pakistan intelligence partnership would not be a substitute for closer working relationship with the military’s special operations forces.
Much of the on-ground intelligence in Pakistan is gathered by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Some US officials believe the country wants the US to remain dependent on the ISI for that intelligence.
US military forces on the ground remain a red line for Islamabad. A senior government official said if the public became aware of US military forces conducting combat operations on their territory, it would wipe out popular support for fighting the militants in the tribal areas.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2010.