American Commandos Quietly Return to Pakistan
Islamabad had kicked out U.S. advisers following the Bin Laden raid
Pakistan expelled American commandos in the country four years ago, but now the special operators are back. Quietly.
In 2011, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship had become particularly strained. Furious about having not been told in advance about the May raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Islamabad ejected the Pentagon’s advisers and canceled visas for other incoming American personnel.
Between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. special operations element in that country fell under SOCFWD-PAK — alphabet soup translating to Special Operations Command, Forward, Pakistan. This unit “actively trained Pakistan military elements to improve counter-insurgency capabilities of those forces,” explained a public affairs officer at Special Operations Command Central – a.k.a. SOCCENT.
But despite a year full of very public problems, the breakup didn’t even last a year. By early 2012, the special operators were back with a new name – Special Operations Command Central, Forward, Pakistan or SOCCENT FWD-PAK – according to the official at the Pentagon’s top commando headquarters for the Middle East and Central Asia.
The small detachment is still working with the country’s troops. How the “PAK” turned into “FWD-PAK” is the result of an interesting diplomatic dance the two countries often perform.
Even before the Bin Laden raid, 2011 was a rocky year for Washington’s dealings in Islamabad. On Jan. 27, 2011, American CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, the capital of the country’s Punjab province. Initially, the State Department described him only as a employee of the U.S. consulate in Lahore.
“I can confirm that an employee at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore was involved in an incident today,” was all then Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley would say on the specifics of the shooting at the time. “And reports of a particular identity that are circulating through the media are incorrect.”
However, by the end of February, American officials had not only conceded that Davis was in fact the employee’s identity, but that he was a private contractor working for the CIA. After significant pressure from Washington and an agreement to pay a diyya – a blood debt under Islamic Sharia law – to the victims’ families, Islamabad turned Davis loose the following month.
But the damage was done. In April, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, traveled to Washington to speak with his American counterpart Leon Panetta.
By the time SEAL Team Six kicked in the door to Bin Laden’s complex, the two countries were on a collision course. The very visible and public spectacle of the raid – in no small part due to a the crash of a top secret helicopter during the mission – pushed Pakistani public opinion to the breaking point.
After Islamabad ordered the American trainers out of the country, Washington held up nearly $1 billion in military aid. On top of that, Pakistan’s decision to kick out Pentagon personnel appeared to have other unintended effects.
Six months after the top secret operation, U.S. Air Force warplanes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani troops at an outpost in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the Afghan border.
Before calling in the air strike, American and Afghan commandos claimed they had been attacked by the Pakistanis. Islamabad claimed the incident was unprovoked. A communication failure seems to have been at the heart of the incident.
“You have the … person manning a station inside the coordination center, and it just – think of a room that has several people in it, and everybody has their computer screen, but nobody can see the other person’s computer screen,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, in charge of the formal investigation, told reporters on Dec. 22, 2011. “He had been told not to pass the coordinates, but to only give a general location.”
With a language and translation barrier, Clark explained that the NATO officer had to try his best to describe the location without being able to point to it on a map. The Pakistani officer then had to figure out it across the room and call his superiors to find out if any troops would get in the way of the commando force.
“They coordinate and say no, there’s – we don’t have anybody there,” Clark added. “[But] that location that he’s pointing to is 14 kilometers to the north.”
Before getting the boot, SOCFWD-PAK specifically worked to share information with Pakistan to avoid these exact sorts of accidents. The elite American troops had in many instances been right on the front lines with Islamabad’s forces waging their own campaign against Islamic militants near the border.
Despite Pentagon denials, diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks clearly detailed the sometimes-close cooperation. Popularly known as Cablegate, Washington was also dealing with the leak at the same time its relationship with Islamabad took a nose dive.
“SOC(FWD)-PAK will use the Intel Fusion Cells as the deconfliction point and the conduit to pass intelligence back and forth,” a diplomatic note from January 2010 explained. Pakistani troops and paramilitaries, as well as American commanders in neighboring Afghanistan, would be involved in these hubs too.
So despite the public protests against American troops, it is hardly surprising Pakistan wanted the commandos back as soon as possible – and with a minimum of press.
“Today, liaison officers are integrated within the larger Department of Defense element in Pakistan,” the public affairs official explained. “Due to host nation sensitivities and operational security we will not disclose number of personnel or location.”
But we do know that in September 2012, the U.S. Air Force stood up a liaison element – no doubt to help keep air strikes away from Pakistani bases among other objectives – in Islamabad. The flying branch noted the creation of the unit in a heavily redacted history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Other special operators and supporting troops are no doubt situated in various command centers in the capital and perhaps other outposts elsewhere in the country. At the same time, the Pentagon was working steadily to extradite troops from the war in Afghanistan.
In place of conventional troops, commandos and drones continued to work with local troops and hunt terrorists. And when it comes to fighting various terrorist and militant groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and now Islamic State on both sides of the border, Pakistan is still a critical, if sometimes reluctant piece of the puzzle.
Afghan Pres. Ashraf Ghani has been highly critical of Islambad’s efforts to prevent extremists from slipping over the border. Earlier in September, Afghan and Pakistani officials met in Kabul to discuss ways to reduce attacks, infiltration and tensions.
Afterwards, Pakistani warplanes – including the country’s own unmanned attackers – stepped up strikes against Islamist groups. Unfortunately, the violence has hardly subsided. If anything the fighting has spiked accordingly.