U.S. military advisers are helping Pakistan double the size of its elite commando force to blunt the rising threat of terrorism groups and anti-government militants operating in unruly tribal areas, a senior Defense Department official said.
The American military presence is fewer than 100 personnel, said Mike Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and is focused on what he called "targeted training." That includes assisting Pakistan's Special Service Group and teaching specialized fighting techniques, such as helicopter assaults.
"It's been ongoing for a while," Vickers said during a meeting with reporters Wednesday. "They're expanding their capability substantially; they're essentially doubling their force. So we're helping them with that expansion and trying to improve their capabilities at the same time. There's also some aviation training. It's been ongoing for several years."
The size of U.S. forces in Pakistan is a sensitive issue. Many Pakistanis openly support or sympathize with al-Qaida, the Taliban or other militant groups and would view a sizable American presence in their country as an unwelcome intrusion.
That means the U.S. military will not conduct ground operations on its own inside Pakistan unless President Pervez Musharraf's government requests such direct support.
"We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that's a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support," Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterror chief, said last month. "The blowback would be pretty serious."
Havens for Al-Qaida?
U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is in the tribal area, a swath of rugged land that runs along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
Defense officials told Congress on Wednesday that al-Qaida is operating from havens in "under-governed regions" of Pakistan, which they said poses direct threats to Europe, the United States and the Pakistan government itself. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted in written testimony that the next attack on the United States probably would be launched by terrorists in that region.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believes that Pakistan understands the threat al-Qaida poses to its government, but is sensitive to an American military presence. Gates has said the United States remains ready, willing and able to provide military support and conduct joint operations with the Pakistanis.
Until Pakistan "sort of gets on top of the whole situation and what their needs are, I think we're kind of in a standby mode at this point," he said.
The top American commander in the region, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, was in Pakistan in January meeting with senior Pakistani officials, including the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. After the meeting, Fallon told reporters that Pakistani officials were more willing to seek U.S. help.
Mullen is to travel to Pakistan this week, Vickers said.
‘Getting worse in Pakistan’
Echoing testimony delivered to Congress on Tuesday by McConnell, Vickers said the unsettled tribal region "remains a source of sanctuary for the al-Qaida senior leadership."
Vickers gave the Pakistani military high marks for keeping al-Qaida in check in Pakistan's cities and other "settled" locations.
"They have been less effective in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, and that's the problem we face right now," Vickers said. "It's getting worse in Pakistan, I think, it's fair to say."
If U.S. forces teamed up with the Pakistanis, their support would be "by, with and through" the Pakistani troops, Vickers said. The phrase refers to a key tenet of unconventional warfare and underscores the disguised approach the United States would take.
"We have certain capabilities that we can do in a low-visibility manner that can enhance the operations of Pakistani forces," Vickers said. Those capabilities could include night vision devices, air transport, and sophisticated gear for gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance.