Three US special forces soldiers were killed in northwest Pakistan this week, confirming that the US military is more deeply engaged on the ground in Pakistan than previously acknowledged by the White House and Pentagon (see ” The Secret US War in Pakistan,” November 23, 2009). The soldiers died Wednesday in Lower Dir when their convoy was hit by a car bomber in what appeared to be a targeted strike against the Americans. According to CENTCOM, the US soldiers were in the country on a mission to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force run by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry that patrols the country’s volatile border with Afghanistan. A Pakistani journalist who witnessed the attack said that some of the US soldiers were dressed in civilian clothes and had been identified by their Pakistani handlers as journalists. The New York Times estimates that there are sixty to a hundred such US special forces “trainers” in Pakistan. Capt. Jack Hanzlik, a spokesman for the United States Central Command said there are about 200 US military personnel in Pakistan.
While the deaths of the soldiers has sparked impassioned discussion in Pakistan about the extent of the US military presence, the Pentagon has emphasized that the US soldiers were in Pakistan on a training mission at the invitation of the Pakistani government, saying they were not engaged in direct combat.
But the geography of Wednesday’s attack–in the northwest of the country in an area where the US has no on-the-ground aid presence and where Pakistani forces have struggled against the Taliban and other insurgents–reveals just how close to the epicenter of the action in Pakistan the US military is. According to CENTCOM, the soldiers were not members of Delta Force or the Green Berets, instead classifying them as “civil affairs” trainers. Officially, CENTCOM describes this mission as part of an expanding “partnership with the Pakistani military and Frontier Corps,” providing “increased US military assistance for helicopters to provide air mobility, night vision equipment, and training and equipment–specifically for Pakistani Special Operations Forces and their Frontier Corps to make them a more effective counter-insurgency force.”
In military parlance, these above-board US “training” forces operating under an unclassified mandate are “white” forces, while operatives working for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) would be classified as working on “black” operations, sometimes referred to as Special Mission Units. Since 2006, JSOC teams have operated in Pakistan in pursuit of “high-value” targets.
“What we’re seeing is the expansion of ‘white’ Special Operations Forces into Pakistan,” says a former member of CENTCOM and US Special Forces with extensive experience in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. “As Vietnam, Somalia and the Balkans taught us, that is almost always a precursor to expanded military operations.” The former CENTCOM employee spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Pakistan operations. He characterized the US military’s role with the Pakistani Frontier Corps as “training in offensive operations,” but rejected the idea that at this stage these US trainers would cross the line to engage in direct combat against Taliban forces. That does not mean, he says, that US military forces are not fighting in Pakistan. “Any firefights in Pakistan would be between JSOC forces versus whoever they were chasing,” he said. “I would bet my life on that.”
What has gone largely unmentioned in the media coverage of the deaths of the three US soldiers in Pakistan is the role private contractors are playing. While the New York Times reported that “The Americans’ involvement in training Frontier Corps recruits in development assistance was little known until Wednesday’s attack,” The Nation first reported on that program–and the US involvement in training the Frontier Corps–last December. A former Blackwater executive told The Nation that Blackwater was training and advising the Frontier Corps, working on a subcontract with Kestral Logistics, a Pakistani firm. The presence of the Blackwater personnel in Pakistan was shrouded from the public, the former executive said, because they worked on a subcontract with Kestral for the Pakistani government. At times, he said, Blackwater forces cross the line from trainers or advisers and actually participated in raids. “That gives the Pakistani government the cover to say, ‘Hey, no, we don’t have any Westerners doing this. It’s all local and our people are doing it,’ ” said the former executive. “But it gets them the expertise that Westerners provide for [counterterrorism]-related work.” After the US soldiers were killed on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and said the dead men worked for Blackwater. “We know the movement of US Marines and Blackwater guys,” said Taliban spokesperson Azim Tariq. “And we have prepared suicide bombers to go after them.” The United States dismissed the claim about Blackwater as “propaganda and disinformation.”