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US, Pakistan moving closer, but cautiously

world Updated: Apr 30, 2010 00:28 IST

The scheduled arrival of 50 additional US military personnel in Pakistan in June, accompanying four new F-16 fighter jets, will increase the official number of American boots on the ground there by 25 per cent. It is enough to make the Pakistani government shudder with trepidation.

Exaggerated tales of US soldiers and spies flooding the country are regular front-page fare in Pakistan, and cause for strident political criticism of Western intervention that sometimes erupts into violence.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence services remain highly suspicious about the motives and methods of their US counterparts, a wariness mirrored in American attitudes toward Pakistan.

But a strategic decision by both sides to improve counterterrorism cooperation, along with the personnel requirements of increased US aid, have led in recent months to a small but significant expansion in the US presence in Pakistan.

There are currently about 200 US military involved in security assistance in Pakistan, including a Special Operations training and advisory contingent, initially set at 80 troops, that has twice been enlarged since last year and now totals up to 140 troops in two Pakistani locations, according to senior US military officials. The Pakistani government prohibits US combat forces.

The CIA has sent additional intelligence-gathering operatives and technicians in recent months. Plans are under way to establish a joint military intelligence processing center. After an initial period of tension, Pakistani officers are using cross-border intelligence compiled at two joint coordination centers on the Afghan side of the frontier.

Although news media and the public continue to criticize the CIA’s drone-fired missile attacks targeting insurgent figures in western Pakistan, intelligence cooperation in directing the missiles has improved, according to Pakistani officials.

Under agreements connected to Pakistan’s purchase of 18 F-16s scheduled for staggered delivery this year, a US military team must be on hand to ensure that sophisticated, top-of-the-line avionics, weapons and data systems aboard the aircraft remain secure.

The planes, which for the first time will allow Pakistan to conduct nighttime air operations, are far more advanced than the 30-year-old US aircraft that are the current air force mainstay.

They will be housed at Shahbaz air base in south-central Pakistan, one of three bases where Pakistan allowed limited US use for several years after the 2001 beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

Far from advertising the arrival of a new contingent of Americans at Shahbaz, the Pakistani military is building a cloistered facility to house them amid some 5,000 of its own troops that will occupy the newly expanded base. Pakistani and US military and intelligence officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so on the record.

“Certainly, this is a delicate area,” a Pakistani military official said of the US presence.

Both Pakistani and US officials expressed concern about how the previously unpublished news of the team’s deployment would be played in the Pakistani press.

“For someone against the United States, it is not all that easy to make him like the US overnight,” Nawabzada Malik Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s MoS for foreign affairs, said.

Progress in bilateral relations culminated with last month’s meeting between senior Pakistani cabinet and military officials in Washington.

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