Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, June 13, 2008
With recruits drawn from local Pashtun tribes and serving under regular Army officers, the Frontier Corps (FC) is meant to provide security along the restive border, although analysts believe some Corps members sympathize with Taliban militants and may even be colluding with them.
FC members made up the 11 reported Pakistan military casualties in Tuesday's incident, the details of which remain in dispute and under investigation.
The U.S. said coalition forces retaliated after coming under fire several hundred yards inside Afghanistan's Kunar province, and they launched air strikes to eliminate the threat. It said the Pakistan military was alerted that the coalition forces were under attack from an area near a border checkpoint manned by FC troops.
Pakistan's account was that Afghan troops set up a position in a contested area, came under fire from insurgents who were on Afghan soil, and called in air strikes.
A Pakistan military spokesman said the FC checkpost was destroyed in a "completely unprovoked and cowardly act," and the Foreign Office urged a high-level investigation into what it called a violation of Pakistani territory.
In yet another version, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), Pakistan's umbrella Taliban movement, claimed it attacked coalition forces that were establishing a presence inside Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It said eight Taliban members had been killed in the subsequent bombing.
The U.S. believes that the lawless FATA and neighboring North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) have become a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorists, supported by local Taliban.
The border incident, one of the most serious of its kind since Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf signed up to the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign after 9/11, has come at a particularly sensitive time.
A mass "long march" protest by opponents of the U.S.-backed president is due to arrive in Islamabad on Friday and culminate in a sit-in outside parliament, adding to growing pressure on Musharraf to resign.
Envisaged originally as a demonstration by lawyers to demand the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf last year, it has been joined by politicians, senior retired military officers, students and others.
Several leading participants, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, a famous cricketer turned populist politician, have used the opportunity to condemn the border air strike, raising the possibility that the protest could adopt a more strident anti-U.S. tone.
'Regional security in jeopardy'
The pressure on Musharraf has been building since a civilian government was established following February elections.
The political transition has benefited militants in the FATA and NWFP who have found the new government keen to negotiate local peace deals.
Under these agreements, militants have pledged to stop attacks against Pakistan forces in return for the withdrawal of troops from some areas. Prisoners have been released, and the authorities have agreed to institute Islamic law (shari'a) in some parts.
The U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have voiced concern about the agreements and their implications for security across the border. TTF leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in the FATA, vowed recently that the "jihad" in Afghanistan would continue irrespective of negotiated peace accords with the Pakistan government.
Tuesday's border clash occurred shortly after a new report by the Rand Corporation raised questions about the reliability of the Frontier Corps as well as Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in the campaign against terrorism.
The report said not only had the FC and ISI failed to root out insurgent groups based in Pakistan, but some officials also provided direct help to Taliban militants
"Right now, the Taliban and other groups are getting help from individuals within Pakistan's government, and until that ends, the region's long-term security is in jeopardy," said Rand political scientist and report author Seth Jones.
A Pakistan military spokesman denounced the report as part of a "smear campaign."
"No government official from Frontier Corps or any intelligence agency is rendering any kind of material or financial support to Talibans fighting in Afghanistan," he said, adding that Pakistan's armed forces had suffered heavy casualties in efforts to bring peace to the area.
According to regional security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, Taliban cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan often takes place through areas manned by the FC.
Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, India, said FC members were almost exclusively recruited from local Pashtun tribes, and some were suspected of sympathizing with fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban.
He noted that, in negotiating peace deals with the Pakistani authorities, local Taliban leaders' demands have included removal of Pakistani Army troops from border areas and their replacement by members of the FC.
That demand, Raman said, "reflects their confidence that the FC personnel will be more friendly to the Taliban."
On the other hand, he noted that with their considerable local knowledge, FC recruits could be assets in operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda.
A Pakistan government initiative aims to improve the professionalism of the FC through better training and equipping, and to expand the force size to 100,000. Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen last week viewed an FC training camp near the NWFP capital, Peshawar. He said U.S. trainers will this summer likely begin training counter-insurgency tactics to Pakistan Army trainers who will in turn train FC members.
In a recent backgrounder on Afghanistan, Heritage Foundation scholars James Phillips and Lisa Curtis recommended that the U.S. expedite the training plans.
"Given the Frontier Corps' lack of success in confronting terrorists in the FATA and Swat Valley [of the NWFP] and their ethnic links to the region, many argue that investing in training programs for these troops will be a waste of U.S. resources," they said.
"Others argue that the Frontier Corps' Pashtun composition is an asset because the nature of counterinsurgency operations requires troops who are welcomed by the local population, not seen as a foreign occupying force," Phillips and Curtis said.
"While training the Fron\-tier Corps may not seem like the optimal solution, it probably offers the best chance for bolstering Pakistani forces against the extremists and provides an opportunity for the U.S. to build ties to troops that have close links to the region."
Border Air Strike Prompts Calls for Pakistan to Revise Anti-Terror Policies (Jun. 13, 2008)
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