U.S. military questions payments to Pakistan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The United States is continuing to make large payments of roughly $1 billion a year to Pakistan for what it calls reimbursements to the country's military for conducting counterterrorism efforts along the border with Afghanistan, even though Pakistan's president decided eight months ago to slash patrols through the area where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are most active.

The monthly payments, called coalition support funds, are not widely advertised. Buried in public budget numbers, the payments are intended to reimburse Pakistan's military for the cost of the operations. So far, Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion under the program in five years, more than half of the total aid the United States has sent to the country since the Sept. 11 attacks, not counting covert funds.

Some American military officers in the region have recommended that the money be tied to Pakistan's performance in pursuing al-Qaida and keeping the Taliban from gaining a haven from which to attack the government of Afghanistan. American officials have been surprised by the speed at which both organizations have gained strength in the past year.

But Bush administration officials say no such plan is being considered, despite new evidence that the Pakistani military is often looking the other way when Taliban fighters retreat across the border into Pakistan, ignoring calls from American spotters to intercept them. There is also at least one American report that Pakistani security forces have fired in support of Taliban fighters attacking Afghan posts.

The administration, according to some current and former officials, is fearful of cutting off the cash or linking it to performance for fear of further destabilizing Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is facing the biggest challenges to his rule since he took office in a bloodless coup in 1999.

The White House would not directly answer the question of why Pakistan is being paid the same very large amount now that it has publicly declared that it is significantly cutting back on its patrols in the most important border area. But a spokesman for Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, emphasized Pakistan's strategic importance in the region.

"Pakistan's cooperation is very important in the global war on terror and for our operations in Afghanistan," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "Our investments in that partnership have paid off over time, from increased information sharing to kills and captures of key terrorist operatives. There is more work to be done, the Pakistanis know that, and we are engaged with the Musharraf government to ramp up the fight."

The Pentagon, in response to inquiries, said Friday that the payments to Pakistan since October 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, had averaged $80 million a month. The Congressional Research Service estimated late last year that the payments accounted for about a fifth of Pakistan's total military expenditures.

The administration told Congress in January that the Pakistanis performed operations that "would be difficult for U.S. Armed Forces to attain," and the Pentagon said those included carrying out joint operations, commanding observation posts and conducting land and maritime interdictions.

But Musharraf announced in September that under a peace agreement with local militants his regular army troops in North Waziristan, the center of al-Qaida's operations, would no longer operate checkpoints and that they would stay within garrisons, a decision that came after Pakistani forces suffered heavy casualties in the lawless tribal areas.

Soon after, appearing with President Bush, Musharraf promised that tribal leaders and local militia would handle al-Qaida and the Taliban in the tribal areas. American officials say they believe that Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida members fled there in 2001.

After the fall of the Taliban, Pakistan dispatched regular army troops to the tribal areas for the first time in its history, and heavy fighting erupted in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, the Pakistani military scaled back broad military operations in favor of negotiated peace deals with the militants.

Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in an interview that the agreements were working and his country's military activities on the border itself were increasing. "There are multiple small and big operations going on; we have deployed troops along the border," he said. "There is a lot of coordination."

American officials tell a different story, saying that Pakistani cooperation was mixed at best in 2005 and 2006, though they acknowledge that the Pakistanis have been more responsive to NATO and American requests in recent months.

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