WASHINGTON — In a grim assessment of the war on terror inside Pakistan, the Obama administration said Tuesday that Pakistan lacks a "clear path toward defeating" Islamic insurgents in the country's tribal region despite committing tens of thousands of troops to the effort.
The country has nearly 150,000 troops — up from about 80,000 in 2001-2003 — fighting al Qaida-allied insurgents who have killed thousands of Pakistanis in attacks and suicide bombings aimed at toppling the U.S.-backed government in Islamabad.
But Pakistani commanders have repeatedly failed to keep militants from returning to areas from which they have been driven or to win the cooperation of locals displaced by fighting with aid projects, the administration said in its latest quarterly report to Congress on the progress of its strategy to defeat militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These "hold" and "build" efforts are key components of counterinsurgency operations, a capacity that the Obama administration has been trying to help build in Pakistan through billions of dollars in military training, hardware and civilian aid programs.
Unless the military wrests control of the tribal region, it will remain a refuge not just for the Pakistani insurgents, but also for al Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and for Afghan Taliban and other militants fighting against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The bleak findings on Pakistan's counterinsurgency efforts were buried nearly halfway through the 38-page report, which also summarized what the White House called moderate progress in curbing the influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But the lack of progress in Pakistan's own battle against militants raises questions about the prospects of the administration's strategy for stabilizing both nuclear-armed Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan.
A major operation launched in January against militants in Mohmand, one of the seven autonomous agencies comprising Pakistan's tribal region, which borders Afghanistan, underscored serious shortfalls in the Pakistani army's counterinsurgency capability, the report said.
The operation marked "the third time in the past two years that the army has had to conduct major clearing operations in the same agency," the report said. That's "a clear indicator of the inability of the Pakistani military and government to render cleared areas resistant to insurgent return," it added.
The operation also showed that Pakistan's fleet of military helicopters "remains beset by low operational readiness rates exacerbated by Pakistani reluctance to accept U.S.-provided helicopter maintenance teams," it continued.
While the operation was to have been completed "in a few weeks," it has been extended into this month, the report said. "Adverse weather, underestimated militant resistance, resettlement of internally displaced persons . . . and the discovery of several large caches of improvised explosive devices have all hampered ongoing operations."
"But what remains vexing is the lack of any indication of 'hold' and 'build' planning or staging efforts to complement the ongoing clearing operations," the report said. "As such, there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the unprecedented and sustained deployment of over 147,000 forces."
Noting that eliminating extremist sanctuaries in the tribal region cannot be achieved by military means alone, the report called on Pakistan to develop "effective development strategies" and to deploy "adequate" numbers of police in areas taken over by the army.
The report also glossed over one of the worst crises in U.S.-Pakistani ties since Islamabad ended its patronage of the Afghan Taliban in 2001 and backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The crisis was triggered by the Jan. 27 arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis after he fatally shot two men as they allegedly tried to rob him in the city of Lahore. The U.S. said that Davis had diplomatic immunity and should be freed, but Pakistan refused and was going to try him for murder until the dead men's families pardoned him in exchange for money. He was released last month.
"In spite of the strains on the relationship stemming from the detention of U.S. official Raymond Davis in Lahore, bilateral military cooperation continues on a positive trajectory," the report said.
The report also said that U.S.-led forces have "arrested" the expansion of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and "reversed it in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible."
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