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US helping expand commando force

February 07, 2008

WASHINGTON, Feb 6: US military advisers are helping the Pakistanis double the size of their elite commando force in a continuing effort to blunt the rising threat of terror groups and anti-government militants operating in the unruly tribal areas, a senior Defence Department official said on Wednesday.

The American military presence is fewer than 100 personnel, said Mike Vickers, assistant secretary of defence for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and is focused on what he called “targeted training.” That includes assisting Pakistan’s Special Service Group and teaching specialised fighting techniques, such as helicopter assaults.

“It’s been ongoing for a while,” Vickers said during a meeting with reporters. “They’re expanding their capability substantially; they’re essentially doubling their force. So we’re helping them with that expansion and trying to improve their capabilities at the same time. There’s also some aviation training. It’s been ongoing for several years.”

The number of US forces in Pakistan is a sensitive issue. Many Pakistanis openly support or sympathise with Al Qaeda, the Taliban or other militant groups and would view a sizable American presence in their country as an unwelcome intrusion.

That means the US military will not conduct ground operations on its own inside Pakistan unless President Pervez Musharraf’s government requests such direct support.

“We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that’s a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support,” Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief, said last month. “The blowback would be pretty serious.”

Defence officials told Congress on Wednesday that Al Qaeda is operating from havens in “under-governed regions” of Pakistan, which they said pose direct threats to Europe, the United States and the Pakistan government itself. Adm Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted in written testimony that the next attack on the United States probably would be launched by terrorists in that region.—AP