Pakistan's army, paramilitary forces "may be aiding Taliban fighters"

U.S. questions Pakistan force's allegiance, funding

WASHINGTON (Reuters) 

A U.S.-backed paramilitary force in Pakistan's lawless border area may be aiding Taliban fighters, according to American officials who say the support may cause Congress to freeze some security funds for Islamabad.

Signs that Pakistan's Frontier Corps is helping Taliban and al Qaeda-linked groups cross into Afghanistan only exacerbates U.S. frustration over Pakistan's plans to secure peace deals with fighters in that region, where Osama bin Laden is thought to hide.

"We cannot rely on Pakistan to stop the traffic of terrorists crossing that border despite the strong statements of its leaders," said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate's committee on armed forces.

Levin and some U.S. defense officials said Taliban fighters may also be getting assistance from Pakistan's army.

"If that's our intelligence assessment, then there's a real question as to whether or not we should be putting money into strengthening the Frontier Corps on the Pakistan side because if anything there's some evidence that the Pakistan army is providing support to the Taliban," Levin told reporters after visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan this week.

The United States set up a program last year to train and equip the paramilitary Frontier Corps, which is recruited from the tribal areas to counter Islamist militants.

Under the program, Washington planned to supply equipment like helmets and flak vests to the Frontier Corps, but would not provide weapons or ammunition, the Pentagon said last year.

U.S. Army trainers would instruct the paramilitary force and Washington allocated $52.6 million for the program last year.

A defense spending authorization bill for the 2009 fiscal year, which starts October 1, includes $75 million for Frontier Corps training, but Levin said questions about the force could lead him to reconsider those funds.

'STRATEGIC CHALLENGE'

Uncertainty about the Frontier Corps' allegiances and the security impact of peace deals Pakistan strikes with al Qaeda-linked groups in its tribal areas is raising worry among U.S. commanders and defense officials.

They say a permissive environment in that region, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, has a direct effect on the number of attacks against Afghan, NATO and U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Several Taliban fighters have been killed in recent weeks in a string of apparent airstrikes on safe-houses in Pakistan conducted, according to Taliban and Pakistani officials, by unmanned U.S. aircraft.

Publicly, however, Pakistan has refused to allow the U.S. military to conduct operations inside its territory.

Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. forces responsible for counterterrorism, would not say how Pakistan's refusal has affected his troops' ability to fight al Qaeda. But another general indicated Pakistan should realize it cannot fight the group alone.

"If I was chief of staff of the Pakistani army, I'd realize I had a pretty heavy rucksack to carry," said Maj. Gen. John Mulholland, commander of U.S. special forces in the region.

"The FATA is an area of sanctuary, it is an area of lethal aid. It is a challenge for us strategically," he said.

Despite concerns about stability in that area and the allegiances of Frontier Corps members, the Pentagon has moved forward with its training program for the force.

It has chosen two sites for training, one in the Peshawar area and one farther south, according to Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for special operations.

"Training is expected to commence this summer, so site preparation is under way," Vickers told reporters at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida.


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