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

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

In Classroom 2318 here, Major Naeem is studying the American Civil War, but the lessons being learned are less about Jeb Stuart's Ride or the Confederate advance than about building trust.

Naeem is one of dozens of Pakistanis attending US military schools this year, part of a long tradition in which senior foreign officers visit the United States not only to learn military culture, tactics, and history but also to create lasting relationships.

Naeem is proud of the bonds he has made with fellow officers. But he's also frustrated. He cites a general lack of understanding here about his country and says he thinks the US is disrespecting Pakistan and its Army by using unmanned aircraft to attack militant havens inside its borders.

"Any drone attack hurts me," he says quietly after class.

Success in Afghanistan hinges on its neighbor, Pakistan, and on America's ability to leverage its on-again, off-again relationship with the government in Islamabad. Critics say the US is relying too heavily on the Pakistani military to fight militants there. But others say the US must rebuild a lasting and strategic relationship with Pakistan that gets beyond the suspicions and veiled insults that often emanate from both sides.

In his faded camouflage uniform and with his backpack filled with books on US history, Naeem personifies this connection. The US hosted some 260 Pakistani officers last year – from year-long programs to shorter exchanges. Ties built here pay dividends years later: Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani Army and a linchpin of US interests in Pakistan, graduated from the Leavenworth program decades ago.

Recently, the Pakistan connection has become so important that the US is seeking to double the number of officers in the exchange within five years, says a Central Command official. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has urged this expansion, saying it is vital to engage with Pakistan for the long term and in positive ways.

It is a bid to change the relationship between the two countries, which has been characterized by fits and starts since the end of the cold war. It hit a low in the 1990s after Congress approved sanctions on Pakistan to (unsuccessfully) prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. Weapons sales and officer programs were put on ice.

The US saw Pakistan as an important ally again only after 9/11. Defense officials refer to the years in between as "the lost decade," a time of essentially no personal interaction between the militaries.

"There's an entire generation ... of Pakistani military officers who never had the opportunity to visit the United States because of various sanctions that were on – some for understandable reasons," said Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, a region of responsibility that includes South Asia and the Middle East, during a television interview in April.

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.

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."•

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