WASHINGTON — The disarray among Pakistan's new civilian leadership, including its refusal to accept a U.S. military training mission for the Pakistani army, has led to intense frustration within the Pentagon and reignited a debate over whether the United States should act on its own against extremists operating in Pakistan's western tribal regions.
Any Pentagon support for more direct action inside Pakistan would mark a significant shift for military brass, which for months has resisted a push from other parts of the U.S. government, primarily counterterrorism officials within the CIA, who have favored large-scale covert operations to go after the al-Qaida leadership.
The internal debates have taken on new urgency in recent weeks, amid U.S. intelligence warnings that al-Qaida and other militant groups are flourishing in western Pakistan. At the same time, there is a growing belief within the U.S. government that the new leadership in Islamabad, the capital, has proved to be ineffectual and preoccupied with internal squabbling in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation.
U.S. military leaders have resisted suggestions for direct intervention in Pakistan out of concern that it would alienate what is supposed to be a friendly government and might lead to an explosion of anti-U.S. sentiment, and possibly violence, among Pakistanis. In a less provocative step, the United States has proposed to send U.S. military trainers into the region.
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more than two months ago that a team of as many as 30 trainers would be sent to Pakistan this summer to operate out of a base near the western city of Peshawar, where a "significant number" of Pakistani military and Frontier Corps personnel would put through a counterinsurgency training program.
According to a military official who worked on the program, the training mission was to be the first step in a long-term plan by Mullen to broaden military ties with the Pakistani army and enable them to take on the polyglot of radical groups, which includes not only al-Qaida but also militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and fighters loyal to insurgent leader Baitullah Mehsud.
But Pentagon officials said the training package has been blocked by the Pakistani government for months, in part because of lingering anger over the June killing of 11 Frontier Corps personnel in a U.S. airstrike along the Afghan border.
One former top Pentagon official said the new head of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, has resisted additional training from U.S. Special Forces, and that Kiyani's intentions have been harder to read than those of Musharraf, his predecessor as head of the army.
"Kiyani is very proud," the former Pentagon official told the Los Angeles Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "He's not likely to take gifts, if you would, with strings attached: Give me the tools, don't give me the training."
Complicating matters further, U.S. leverage with the military is extremely limited. Years of sanctions against Pakistan following nuclear tests in the 1990s has produced a generation of officers who have had little or no interaction with U.S. counterparts and — unlike those of Musharraf and Kiyani's age — are highly skeptical of U.S. intentions in the region.