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US, Pakistan build military ties, one officer at a time

Revived exchange program points up Pakistan's importance to US aims in Afghanistan.

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Naeem, accompanied by his wife and two children, is studying at Leavenworth for a year. He asked that his full name not be used, for security reasons.

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The US military is different from what Naeem had expected, in that it is extremely professional and more open to self-criticism. He suggests that military culture here is more religious than the typically more secular military institutions in Pakistan.

He says his country well understands the need to fight militants on its western border with Afghanistan. But concerns about its dispute with India over Kashmir are "genuine," he says, and it is difficult for Pakistan to move on from those hostilities. Meanwhile, fighting the insurgency on its Afghan border is complex and requires a deep understanding of the battle space. Too often, the American relationship with Pakistan is defined by a quid pro quo, he says, referring to popular perceptions among the Urdu media in Pakistan: That US gives Pakistan money, and Pakistan responds with dead militants.

"Killing doesn't solve the whole insurgency thing," he says. "We are working as hard as we can. The enemy are smart fighters."

Fellow student Major Tayyab, who also asked that his full name not be used, agrees: The US sees Pakistan too simplistically. The great majority of Pakistanis are law-abiding, secular, and moderate, he says. But the US view is far different. "If they are going to look at every man with a beard with suspicion, then there is a long way to go," says Tayyab.

Yet all agree that the officer exchanges are crucial. Students come from around the world to study at American military academies, the National Defense University in Washington, and other top schools.

"It's a cumulative thing; they live here among us for a year, and they see how our institutions work and maybe see how their own institutions don't always work," says Jim Fain, who oversees the Army Command and General Staff College and International Military Student Division at Leavenworth. "They are smart guys, and they can draw their own conclusions."

But as Naeem implies, the understanding must flow in both directions: The US must have a better grasp of Pakistan for the two countries to be truly allied. The officer exchange programs hosted by the US are typically one-sided, with the bulk of Pakistani officers coming to the US – not the other way around. Many suggest it may be more important for American military officers to learn about Pakistan.

"It's essential that we start spending more time in Pakistan," says Gen. John Abizaid, the former Central Command boss, in a rare phone interview. "The Pak military is the key to Pakistan, and Pakistan is the key to Afghanistan."

As the four-star general overseeing South Asia between 2003 and 2007, General Abizaid took counsel from a handful of aides who had studied in Pakistan. He found their advice "absolutely essential."

The US military hasn't been as quick to send officers to Pakistan. Many are not available, and the military's promotion and assignment system isn't designed to reward officers for overseas study. There are also obvious security concerns for US officers studying in Pakistan.

But it's a bigger risk not doing it, Abizaid says: "We have officers all over the world. I think Pakistan is where we really need them."•