Plan to Support Counterinsurgency in Pakistan Reveals Rift

Created: May 26, 2009 06:00 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix) Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

A program that the Obama administration calls crucial to Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban is being criticized at the State Department and on Capitol Hill for overly militarizing the problem.

The dispute represents an early rift with some progressive members of Congress over discrepancies between the administration’s broad foreign policy goals and its approach to immediate challenges. One of the central aspects of the administration’s approach to the crisis in Pakistan is a new creation called the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capabilities Fund, a $400 million annual program to give the Pakistani military equipment and training for counterinsurgency missions that it had shown little competency in waging. During April testimony, Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, called it “absolutely critical to the success” of the Obama administration’s strategy in Pakistan. Both the House and the Senate showed themselves receptive to the proposal, adding the so-called PCCF to the war supplemental that passed the House on May 14 and the Senate on May 21.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

At the administration’s behest, both versions of the supplemental placed the PCCF under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department, despite the State Department’s control over the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales program that typically governs aid to foreign militaries. That move has struck some on Capitol Hill — and in the State Department — as retrenchment on a core Obama administration priority: its pledge to rebalance a foreign-policy apparatus it sees as overly militarized. What’s more, an article of faith among counterinsurgency theorist/practitioners holds that its hybrid style of warfare is “80 percent political and only 20 percent military,” which further raises questions about the Obama administration’s decision to place the fund in the military’s hands.

There is no opposition to the creation of the PCCF, or the general concept that Pakistan’s military ought to receive U.S. assistance in combating a vicious insurgency that has expanded its reach over the country over the past year — a combustible mix that makes the nuclear-armed country “one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges we face,” as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it at a May 12 hearing. But members of the House Foreing Affairs Committee and the State Department’s legislative-affairs and private international law bureaus contend that the fund ought to be placed under the auspices of the State Department.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, added an additional $700 million for the PCCF in the House’s version of a sprawling Pakistan aid bill — which cleared the committee on May 20 — but changed the custody of the program. “This provision lays down an important marker that providing security assistance to other countries is a matter of foreign policy and should remain a core responsibility of the Secretary of State,” Berman said when the committee approved the bill, known as the PEACE Act.

Committee spokeswoman Lynne Weil explained, “Chairman Berman wants to see a greater involvement of civilian authority in foreign affairs because in recent years the balance between civilian and military involvement has been tipped away from development and diplomacy. He would like to ensure that diplomacy and development have a greater role in foreign affairs.”

The Obama administration came into office agreeing that such a broad reorientation of foreign policy was necessary. “The Pentagon would like to turn functionality over to civilian resources, but the resources are not there,” an Obama aide told The New York Times during the transition last year. “We’re looking to have a State Department that has what it needs.” Accordingly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) in March to lobby for an increase in the State Department’s foreign aid budget. “I have never before in my 22 years on the budget committee had the secretary of defense call me to support the budget for the State Department,” Conrad remarked at the time. On May 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The State Department will be taking back authorities and resources to do the work that we should be leading on” from the Defense Department.

But as Taliban militants have frustrated the Pakistani military over the past year, most in the Obama administration consider the PCCF to be a justified exception to the rule. The Defense Department’s policy office; the office of State Department special envoy Amb. Richard Holbrooke; and U.S. Central Command argue that in order to build a productive and durable relationship with the Pakistani military, the fund ought to be placed in the hands of Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, which has responsiblity for military activities in Pakistan.

U.S. Central Command spokespeople declined to comment on PCCF before its final approval by Congress and President Obama. But a Defense Department official who declined to speak for attribution explained, “We need the [Pakistani] military to have a COIN capability, and therefore, the only way to build a military COIN capability [is] through mil-to-mil stuff.” The State Department’s Foreign Military Sales program allows foreign militaries to purchase U.S. military equipment on an a la carte basis, but not as part of the broader package that administration officials believe is necessary for Petraeus to push the Pakistani military to wholeheartedly embrace counterinsurgency principles. Part of that package is additional U.S. training in counterinsurgency — which several Pakistani officers have resisted.

“Except for very specialised weapons and equipment, high technology, no generalized foreign training is required,” Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, was quoted as saying on May 17. But two days before Kiyani issued that quote, The Wall Street Journal reported that up to 50 U.S. Special Forces would deployed to Pakistan to train the Frontier Corps forces who fight the Taliban in the tribal areas, the first increase of the training mission above the 70 Special Forces currently in Pakistan training the Frontier Corps.

Administration officials view the PCCF as a way for Petraeus to propose more help to the Pakistani military while pressing for additional Pakistani acceptance of U.S. training. “So Petraeus says, ‘I can offer you this, what do you say,’” the Pentagon official summarized. “‘The package includes this kind of equipment, this kind of training, this kind of advising. That’s what I’m offering. If you don’t like it, we can revisit it later. But I’m not going to separate out this stuff, and this training’s included.’” Additionally, the State Department’s Foreign Military Sales Program does not include police forces, which Petraeus and other counterinsurgency experts believe must be supported with training and equipment if the Pakistani government is to keep territory out of the control of the Taliban.

The administration officials who support placing the PCCF in the Defense Department do not deny that expanded U.S. aid for Pakistani civilian governance and development is a necessary component of defeating the Taliban. They support the passage of a bill introduced May 4 by Sens. Kerry and Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.) that provides $7.5 billion in economic and governance aid to Pakistan, and believe that it supplements the PCCF’s narrower focus on bolstering the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency capabilities. “With Kerry-Lugar and PCCF, we’re in very good shape,” the Pentagon official said.

At least one compromise may be on the horizon. According to Kirsten Brost, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who chairs the panel, offered an amendment to the war supplemental that places the PCCF in the hands of the Secretary of Defense for the next fiscal year — after which it would transfer to the Secretary of State. The House, Senate and White House will have to work that out in this week’s conference committee.