BARA, Pakistan — More than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists are secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas, American military officials said.
The Americans are mostly Army Special Forces soldiers who are training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics, the officials said. They do not conduct combat operations, the officials added.
They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan’s government and military, in an effort to root out Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged.
Pakistani officials have vigorously protested American missile strikes in the tribal areas as a violation of sovereignty and have resisted efforts by Washington to put more troops on Pakistani soil. President Asif Ali Zardari, who leads a weak civilian government, is trying to cope with soaring anti-Americanism among Pakistanis and a belief that he is too close to Washington.
Despite the political hazards for Islamabad, the American effort is beginning to pay dividends.
A new Pakistani commando unit within the Frontier Corps paramilitary force has used information from the Central Intelligence Agency and other sources to kill or capture as many as 60 militants in the past seven months, including at least five high-ranking commanders, a senior Pakistani military official said.
Four weeks ago, the commandos captured a Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda here in this town in the Khyber Agency, one of the tribal areas that run along the border with Afghanistan.
Yet the main commanders of the Pakistani Taliban, including its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and its leader in the Swat region, Maulana Fazlullah, remain at large. And senior American military officials remain frustrated that they have been unable to persuade the chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to embrace serious counterinsurgency training for the army itself.
General Kayani, who is visiting Washington this week as a White House review on policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan gets under way, will almost certainly be asked how the Pakistani military can do more to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the tribal areas.
The American officials acknowledge that at the very moment when Washington most needs Pakistan’s help, the greater tensions between Pakistan and India since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November have made the Pakistani Army less willing to shift its attention to the Qaeda and Taliban threat.
Officials from both Pakistan and the United States agreed to disclose some details about the American military advisers and the enhanced intelligence sharing to help dispel impressions that the missile strikes were thwarting broader efforts to combat a common enemy. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the increasingly powerful anti-American segment of the Pakistani population.
The Pentagon had previously said about two dozen American trainers conducted training in Pakistan late last year. More than half the members of the new task force are Special Forces advisers; the rest are combat medics, communications experts and other specialists. Both sides are encouraged by the new collaboration between the American and Pakistani military and intelligence agencies against the militants.
“The intelligence sharing has really improved in the past few months,” said Talat Masood, a retired army general and a military analyst. “Both sides realize it’s in their common interest.”
Intelligence from Pakistani informants has been used to bolster the accuracy of missile strikes from remotely piloted Predator and Reaper aircraft against the militants in the tribal areas, officials from both countries say.
More than 30 attacks by the aircraft have been conducted since last August, most of them after President Zardari took office in September. A senior American military official said that 9 of 20 senior Qaeda and Taliban commanders in Pakistan had been killed by those strikes.
In addition, a small team of Pakistani air defense controllers working in the United States Embassy in Islamabad ensures that Pakistani F-16 fighter-bombers conducting missions against militants in the tribal areas do not mistakenly hit remotely piloted American aircraft flying in the same area or a small number of C.I.A. operatives on the ground, a second senior Pakistani officer said.
The newly minted 400-man Pakistani paramilitary commando unit is a good example of the new cooperation. As part of the Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas, the new Pakistani commandos fall under a chain of command separate from the 500,000-member army, which is primarily trained to fight Pakistan’s archenemy, India.
The commandos are selected from the overall ranks of the Frontier Corps and receive seven months of intensive training from Pakistani and American Special Forces.
The C.I.A. helped the commandos track the Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda, Zabi al-Taifi, for more than a week before the Pakistani forces surrounded his safe house in the Khyber Agency. The Pakistanis seized him, along with seven Pakistani and Afghan insurgents, in a dawn raid on Jan. 22, with a remotely piloted C.I.A. plane hovering overhead and personnel from the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s main spy service closely monitoring the mission, a senior Pakistani officer involved in the operation said.
Still, there are tensions between the sides. Pakistani F-16’s conduct about a half-dozen combat missions a day against militants, but Pakistani officers say they could do more if the Pentagon helped upgrade the jets to fight at night and provided satellite-guided bombs and updated satellite imagery.
General Kayani was expected to take a long shopping list for more transport and combat helicopters to Washington. The question of more F-16’s — which many in Congress assert are intended for the Indian front — will also come up, Pakistani officials said.
The United States missile strikes, which have resulted in civilian casualties, have stirred heated debate among senior Pakistani government and military officials, despite the government’s private support for the attacks.
One American official described General Kayani, who is known to be sensitive about the necessity of public support for the army, as very concerned that the American strikes had undermined the army’s authority.
“These strikes are counterproductive,” Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province, said in an interview in his office in Peshawar. “This is looking for a quick fix, when all it will do is attract more jihadis.”
Pakistani Army officers say the American strikes draw retaliation against Pakistani troops in the tribal areas, whose convoys and bases are bombed or attacked with rockets after each United States missile strike.