Washington, Feb.25 : US officials are quietly planning to expand their presence in and around the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan by creating special coordination centers on the Afghan side of the border where US, Afghan, and Pakistani officials can share intelligence about Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, according to State Department and Pentagon officials. According to the Boston Globe, the Bush Administration is also seeking to expand its influence in the tribal areas through a new economic support initiative that would initially focus on school and road construction projects.
American officials are constructing two new coordination centers on the Afghan side of a border at Torkham, near the Khyber Pass, and at a second position north of Torkham. Four more posts are under consideration, according to a senior Defense Department official who is not authorized to be quoted in the press.
According to the plans, the official said, about 15 Afghan, Pakistani, and American officials will meet daily at each center to share intelligence about militant activities on both sides of the porous, mountainous border, which extends about 1,560 miles between Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.
"The purpose of the centers is to share intelligence, ensure that all [parties] have a common operational picture of the area, coordinate operations that might be occurring on both sides of the border at the same time, and [settle conflicts] when necessary," said the Defense Department official
Officials recently asked the U.S. Congress for 453 million dollars to launch the effort - a higher request for economic support funds than for any country except Afghanistan.
The expansion of US efforts in the tribal areas - made possible, in part, by rising Pakistani anger at a string of suicide attacks by militants from the region - also includes the deployment of about 30 US counter-insurgency trainers to teach an elite Pakistani force to fight Al Qaeda and indigenous extremists.
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has long refused to allow US soldiers to operate openly in the semiautonomous tribal areas where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. But in recent months, as unrest in Pakistan grew and he became increasingly unpopular, Musharraf began quietly allowing more American "eyes and ears" into the region, Pakistani officials said in interviews.
US officials say they hope Musharraf's concessions will evolve into a greater role for US forces in the region over time.
"In order to get a window on what's happening on the ground, US forces need to be more present, whether they are physically there, or virtually there, monitoring," said Daniel Markey, a Pakistan specialist on the State Department's policy planning staff from 2003 until his retirement last year.
A State Department official who has been briefed on the plans said the United States hopes the initiatives will spread to dozens of border posts and eventually evolve into a form of military cooperation.
The idea for the centers grew out of a commission made up of intelligence and military officers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States who have held periodic meetings since 2003 in various locations in the three countries to discuss security and terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is also planning to send roughly 30 counterinsurgency trainers to centers in the Northwest Frontier Province and in Balochistan, where they will work with the Special Services Group, an elite commando force inside the Pakistani Army that is similar to the US Army's Special Forces, according to the Defense Department official.
News of the training was first reported by the Washington Post.
The CIA is also pushing to enhance its surveillance capabilities and intelligence cooperation with the Pakistani services at a covert location in the tribal areas, according to a Pakistani official in the tribal areas who asked not to be identified.