The United States, on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is augmenting counterterror operations in Pakistan with scores of former special-operations warriors who work for the CIA and other agencies under contract.
Thousands of U.S. troops are openly fighting in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. The stated U.S. policy, however, is that no American troops are inside Pakistan pursuing bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists or advising local troops.
The reality is there are “a load of contracts” with U.S. agencies attracting veterans of Special Forces and other elite units to Pakistan, one source told The Washington Times.
The official ban is in deference to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose solid alliance with the United States in the war on terror stops short of allowing American ground troops in his country.
Asked at a March press conference whether U.S. troops were inside Pakistan hunting for Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld responded, “The U.S. Department of Defense people? I doubt it. Not that I know of.”
But Washington is getting around the ban by signing up former Delta Force commandos, SEALs and Green Berets and assigning them to special duties in Pakistan, according to two sources close to the special-operations community.
“There are a load of contracts going on for ex-SF [Special Forces] types there for every alphabet agency there is,” one of the sources said.
The source said the former covert warriors joined CIA operations in Pakistan and train local soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques.
The de facto deployment of U.S. troops is an example of how far Pakistan — an acknowledged nuclear power — has come in its global alliances. Once a backer of the al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Islamabad has become one of Washington’s most essential allies.
There was a time when such cooperation seemed impossible.
In the early days of President Bush’s term, Dan Gallington, then a senior adviser to Mr. Rumsfeld, received a courtesy call from a former top Pakistani defense official who told him that the Taliban was sure to finally defeat the Northern Alliance and conquer all of Afghanistan. More alarmingly, this person predicted that his country also would fall to Islamic militants — making it the first theocracy to own the world’s most powerful weapon.
Three years later, Pakistan is the setting for the third hot war in the global war on terrorism, joining Afghanistan and Iraq as places where the military hunts and battles al Qaeda and other terrorists.
Bush administration officials say, in an odd twist, bin Laden’s September 11 attacks might have saved Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, saw his hold threatened by Islamic militants who were infiltrating more organs of government, especially the powerful intelligence service.
“Musharraf has clawed his way back, aggressively supported by the United States,” said Mr. Gallington, an analyst at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “We saved Musharraf in the nick of time. Pakistan is the focal point in that part of the world, and Musharraf understands that.”
September 11 forced Gen. Musharraf to pick sides under pressure from Mr. Bush. He chose the United States.
During the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001, the Pakistani president allowed his soil to be used by U.S. special-operations forces and the Predator spy drone to begin missions across the border.
During the subsequent counterinsurgency that continues today, he took an even bigger step. For the first time in memory, a president of Pakistan sent government troops into the vast tribal lands bordering Afghanistan. They are hunting for bin Laden and, in the process, confronting and killing bands of al Qaeda terrorists.
Pakistan’s close working relationship with the CIA and FBI produced the arrests this summer of key al Qaeda members who use the country as a base from which to plan attacks and conduct worldwide communications. One key capture was Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was indicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
On the ideological front, Gen. Musharraf’s government has begun dismantling the network of harsh schools or madrassas that teach the young to hate. They are being replaced by public schools funded by the United States.
Pakistan served as sanctuary for bin Laden and his network for more than a decade. The teeming neighborhoods of cities such as Karachi and Islamabad serve as perfect hiding places.
Now, Gen. Musharraf is allowing CIA and FBI personnel to infiltrate those haunts, as his troops mount incursions into no man’s land. It is all part of a risky attempt to methodically weed deadly militants from his country, while keeping the larger population in check.
Mr. Rumsfeld, in an Aug. 3 interview with Atlanta-based radio talk-show host Neil Boortz, described the alliance.
“We have thousands of troops in Afghanistan that are working along that Afghan-Pakistan border in close cooperation with the Pakistan government,” the defense secretary said. “And the belief continues to be that Osama bin Laden and some of his senior operatives are possibly in Pakistan or in parts of Afghanistan from time to time.”