Why the Pentagon Needs to Rebuild Its Relationship With Pakistan's Military

To win Afghan war, the U.S. military needs better relations with the Pakistani armed forces.

By + More

The Obama administration has made it clear that its new way forward for Afghanistan is intimately linked to its neighbor to the east. Without cleaning out insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, President Obama has stressed, U.S. troops have little hope of gaining traction in Afghanistan.

And so the president appointed a high-powered envoy, Richard Holbrooke, who visited Pakistan last week to bring his diplomatic weight to bear on the growing insurgency there and in neighboring Afghanistan. He brought along Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama's top military adviser. An economic aid package worth billions of dollars is on the way, too, to address the poverty that drives many young men in Pakistan to take up foot-soldiering in the first place. There are some sticks as well. The Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly stepped up Predator drone attacks in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan in an effort to kill more of the al Qaeda operatives who have taken sanctuary there.

Despite these efforts, however, the Pentagon is well aware that its options in Pakistan are frustratingly limited. Senior U.S. military officials have done what they can to launch a charm offensive to convince their Pakistani partners that their chief military concern should be the terrorist havens on their eastern border. But the Pakistani military remains largely focused on its border with a longtime enemy and fellow nuclear power, India.

The suspicion that many Pakistani officers feel toward their U.S. counterparts has restricted relations even further. The United States suspended military cooperation with Pakistan in 1990 over concerns about Islamabad's nuclear weapons program. It was only in the wake of 9/11 that America resumed those contacts. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of America's two wars, referred to this trust gap in recent testimony on Capitol Hill . He pointed to a "lost generation" of Pakistani soldiers who have little knowledge of or confidence in their American counterparts. That gap is even worse when it comes to Pakistan's intelligence service, known as the ISI.

During his increasingly frequent trips to the region, Mullen has tried to encourage his counterparts to cooperate more closely with the United States. On his visit with Holbrooke last week, the word trust cropped up frequently in the remarks of both men, as well as those of Pakistan's foreign minister. But trust remains in short supply. Many Pakistani officers are still suspicious of the U.S. military, and vice versa. The idea of having U.S. troops on Pakistani soil, even for training purposes, is met with reactions that range from deep reluctance to adamant refusal. Pakistan's public is even more hostile to the notion.

But behind the scenes, senior U.S. military officials continue to quietly woo their Pakistani counterparts. Earlier this year, with little fanfare, the U.S. military launched a new program to bring Pakistani officers into its Counterinsurgency Training Center outside Kabul to take part in seminars on irregular warfare. The aim is to improve Afghan, Pakistani, and U.S. military relations and to break down suspicions, senior military officials say. The sessions, they add, could be a thin wedge to encourage expanded coordination between the three countries.

The seminars at the training center, in the shadow of the former Afghan queen's palace, usually inspire frank discussions between the Pakistani officers and their Afghan counterparts who come to the center to train with them. "What the Pakistani officers bring to the table is to answer a lot of the unknowns that we have," says Capt. Michael Barry, who teaches at the center. Some of the biggest of those include concerns, particularly among Afghan National Army officers, that the Pakistanis are doing little to tackle the insurgency raging on their side of the border. Lt. Col. Scott Tatnell, an Australian and the training center's deputy director, says he has witnessed conversations that tend to go something like this: "The Afghans will say, 'Why are you allowing safe haven?' And the Pakistani officers come back and say, 'We've taken more casualties than you have fighting the insurgency.'" Tatnell says the conversation just takes off from there.

Updated on 4/14/09: An earlier version of this story was published before Pentagon officials released information about senior U.S. officials' private meeting with Pakistan's intelligence chief.