WASHINGTON: The US military is planning to set up new training centers inside Pakistan where American special operations trainers would work with Pakistani forces close to the Afghan border battle zone, a senior defense official said.
The new centers would supplement two already operating in Pakistan, and they would be used to accelerate and expand the training of Pakistani forces considered key to rooting out al-Qaida leaders hiding along the mountainous border, the official said.
The plan would put US forces closer to al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents, a carefully calibrated expansion of the military role inside Pakistan, where the terrorists are believed planning the next attacks against the United States.
Staffing the new centers will require an increase in the more than 100 US special operations forces in Pakistan for the training effort, but Pentagon officials do not yet know how much of a boost will be needed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about internal discussions.
US officials see their effort to train Pakistan’s forces, which includes the country’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, its Special Service Group commandos and its Army, as a growing success.
Welcomed by Islamabad, the training has helped repair America’s fragile relationship with the Pakistanis, while also giving elite US special operations forces better access to the rugged border region dominated by al-Qaida and its militant allies.
At the same time, the small but growing numbers of American troops inside Pakistan have also become targets. Last week, three US special operations soldiers participating in that low-profile program were killed and two others wounded by a roadside bomb.
They were the first known US military fatalities in nearly three years in Pakistan’s Afghan border region.
Al-Qaida’s senior leaders are believed to operate from the mountainous border, and Taliban insurgents also in that area have been directing operations against the US and its allies.
Military aid to Pakistan, which could grow to $1.2 billion under the Obama administration’s 2011 budget plan, is considered key to winning the Afghan war and the ongoing fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The planned expansion comes as the Pentagon also prepares to approve millions of dollars in new aid to its coalition partners battling in Afghanistan.
After more than a year of applying pressure on Islamabad, US officials are expressing increased satisfaction with Pakistan’s expanded operations against militants along the border, the defense official said.
As the Pakistani forces have expanded their combat operations toward the border, it has made it more difficult for their troops to trek to existing training centers _ one in the Northwest Frontier Province and a new one in Balochistan.
The plan now is to build a number of smaller training centers in the Northwest Frontier Province, closer to the Pakistani forces.
The official said the creation of new centers will depend on when and where they can be constructed in the difficult mountain region. Combat operations are expected to escalate as the weather improves.
The Pakistan military has more than doubled its presence along the border, the official said, so trying to pull units off the front lines for the training would mean fewer forces on the watch.
US officials have said they hope to train more than 9,000 members of the Frontier Corps and slash their previous four-year training time by half.
The plan to add more trainers may also depend on whether the US can get visas from the Pakistani government _ a diplomatic problem in recent months.
Pakistan has held up visas for US diplomats, military service members and others, apparently because of hostility within the country toward the expansion of US operations there.—AP