The Expanding US War in Pakistan

Published on
by
The Nation

The Expanding US War in Pakistan

by
Jeremy Scahill

Three US special forces soldiers were killed in northwest Pakistan this
week, confirming that the US military is more deeply engaged on the
ground in Pakistan than previously acknowledged by the White House and
Pentagon (see " The Secret US War
in Pakistan
," November 23, 2009). The soldiers died Wednesday in
Lower Dir when their convoy was hit by a car bomber in what appeared to
be a targeted strike against the Americans. According to CENTCOM, the US
soldiers were in the country on a mission to train the Pakistani
Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force run by Pakistan's Interior
Ministry that patrols the country's volatile border with Afghanistan. A
Pakistani journalist who witnessed the attack said that some of the US
soldiers were dressed in civilian clothes and had been identified by
their Pakistani handlers as journalists. The New York Times
estimates that there are sixty to a hundred such US special forces
"trainers" in Pakistan. Capt. Jack Hanzlik, a spokesman for the United
States Central Command said there are about 200 US military personnel in
Pakistan.

While the deaths of the soldiers has sparked impassioned discussion in
Pakistan about the extent of the US military presence, the Pentagon has
emphasized that the US soldiers were in Pakistan on a training mission
at the invitation of the Pakistani government, saying they were not
engaged in direct combat.

But the geography of Wednesday's attack--in the northwest of the
country in an area where the US has no on-the-ground aid presence and
where Pakistani forces have struggled against the Taliban and other
insurgents--reveals just how close to the epicenter of the action in
Pakistan the US military is. According to CENTCOM, the soldiers were not
members of Delta Force or the Green Berets, instead classifying them as
"civil affairs" trainers. Officially, CENTCOM describes this mission as
part of an expanding "partnership with the Pakistani military and
Frontier Corps," providing "increased US military assistance for
helicopters to provide air mobility, night vision equipment, and training
and equipment--specifically for Pakistani Special Operations Forces and
their Frontier Corps to make them a more effective counter-insurgency
force."

In military parlance, these above-board US "training" forces
operating under an unclassified mandate are "white" forces, while
operatives working for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) would
be classified as working on "black" operations, sometimes referred to as
Special Mission Units. Since 2006, JSOC teams have operated in Pakistan
in pursuit of "high-value" targets.

"What we're seeing is the expansion of 'white' Special Operations
Forces into Pakistan," says a former member of CENTCOM and US Special
Forces with extensive experience in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.
"As Vietnam, Somalia and the Balkans taught us, that is almost always a
precursor to expanded military operations." The former CENTCOM employee
spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the Pakistan operations. He characterized the US
military's role with the Pakistani Frontier Corps as "training in
offensive operations," but rejected the idea that at this stage these US
trainers would cross the line to engage in direct combat against Taliban
forces. That does not mean, he says, that US military forces are not
fighting in Pakistan. "Any firefights in Pakistan would be between JSOC
forces versus whoever they were chasing," he said. "I would bet my life
on that."

What has gone largely unmentioned in the media coverage of the
deaths of the three US soldiers in Pakistan is the role private
contractors are playing. While the New York Times reported that
"The Americans' involvement in training Frontier Corps recruits in
development assistance was little known until Wednesday's attack,"
The Nation first reported on that program--and the US involvement
in training the Frontier Corps--last December. A former Blackwater
executive told The Nation that Blackwater was training and
advising the Frontier Corps, working on a subcontract with Kestral
Logistics, a Pakistani firm. The presence of the Blackwater personnel in
Pakistan was shrouded from the public, the former executive said,
because they worked on a subcontract with Kestral for the Pakistani
government. At times, he said, Blackwater forces cross the line from
trainers or advisers and actually participated in raids. "That gives the
Pakistani government the cover to say, 'Hey, no, we don't have any
Westerners doing this. It's all local and our people are doing it,' "
said the former executive. "But it gets them the expertise that
Westerners provide for [counterterrorism]-related work." After the US
soldiers were killed on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Pakistani
Taliban claimed responsibility and said the dead men worked for
Blackwater. "We know the movement of US Marines and Blackwater guys,"
said Taliban spokesperson Azim Tariq. "And we have prepared suicide
bombers to go after them." The United States dismissed the claim about
Blackwater as "propaganda and disinformation."

While the former CENTCOM employee said the US military's training
mission in Pakistan (he is against using contractors for such missions)
is in the "US interest," he cautioned that there is growing concern
within the military about what is perceived as the disproportionate and
growing influence of JSOC's lethal "direct action" mentality on the
broader Special Forces operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As The Nation
reported in November, JSOC operates a parallel drone bombing campaign in
Pakistan, carrying out targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and
Al Qaeda operatives, "snatch and grabs" of high-value targets and other
sensitive action. JSOC, a military intelligence source told The
Nation
, also operates several secret bases inside Pakistan. These
actions are deeply classified and not subjected to any form of
comprehensive oversight by Congress.

With General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded JSOC from 2003-2008,
running the war, forces--and commanders--accustomed to operating in an
unaccountable atmosphere now have unprecedented influence on overall US
military operations, opening the door for an expansion of secretive,
black operations done with little to no oversight. "The main thing to
take away here is a recognition and acceptance of the paradigm shift
that has occurred," says the former CENTCOM employee. "Everything is one
echelon removed from before: where CIA was the darkest of the dark, now
it is JSOC. Therefore, military forces have more leeway to do anything
in support of future military objectives. The CIA used to have the
ultimate freedom--now that freedom is in JSOC's hands, and the other
elements of the military have been ordered to adapt."

The former CENTCOM member said that what is unfolding in Pakistan is
part of the Bush-era philosophy, continued by the Obama administration,
of "preparing the battlefield." He sketches out a pattern wherein
"black" operations are followed by "white" operations and then
conventional US forces. That "preparing the battlefield" justification
was often used by the Bush administration to circumvent Congressional
oversight of clandestine military operations, particularly when
McChrystal was running JSOC. The CIA is legally required to brief the
Intelligence committees on covert operations, while JSOC has
traditionally operated outside the purview of Congressional oversight.
"This allows the JSOC/Special Mission Units more freedom to expand or
absorb traditionally CIA missions," he says. Former Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Stephen Cambone "embraced this model--so
have Obama and [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates--and it persists to this
day." He added that "there is a deep, deep resentment" of the influence
of JSOC within "the Special Forces community" under Admiral Eric Olson,
commander of the Special Operations Command and Vice Admiral William
McRaven, the current head of JSOC.

What is clear from Wednesday's attack on US soldiers in Pakistan is
that the US military is becoming increasingly entrenched in the country.
In late January in Washington DC, US and Pakistani military officials
gathered under the umbrella of the "U.S.-Pakistan Land Forces Military
Consultative Committee." According to notes from the meeting, they
discussed CENTCOM's operations in Pakistan aiming to "enhance both U.S.
and Pakistan Army COIN [counterinsurgency] capabilities" and "potential
US COIN Center/Pakistan Army interactions." Among the participants were
representatives of the Special Operations Command, the Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs--Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, the Office of
Defense Representative--Pakistan and a Pakistan delegation led by
Brigadier General Muhammad Azam Agha, Pakistan's Director of Military
Training.

The United States does not publicly acknowledge US military operations
in Pakistan. On CENTCOM's website, they are described in vague terms.
"We will of course continue to target, disrupt, and pursue the
leadership, bases,and support networks of Al Qaeda and other
transnational extremist groups operating in the region," declares
CENTCOM's Pakistan page. "We will do this aggressively and
relentlessly."

Since President Obama's inauguration, the administration has
downplayed the role of US military forces in Pakistan. In July,
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said bluntly, "People think that the US
has troops in Pakistan, well, we don't." On Wednesday, after the US
soldiers' deaths, his tune changed dramatically: "There's nothing secret
about their presence," he said. One thing is certain: as the situation
in Pakistan becomes more volatile and the US military presence in the
country expands, it will become increasingly difficult for the Obama
administration to downplay or deny the reality that a US war in Pakistan
is already underway.

Share This Article

More in: