Pakistan is seeking advanced U.S. attack helicopters and other weapons as part of a comprehensive arms package to bolster preparations for what its military is calling a “silent surge” of more than 100,000 troops into the mountain lairs of al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the country’s Northwest Frontier Province.
“I have been ambassador here for two years, and all I have to show for it is eight secondhand Mi-17 transport helicopters for a war that requires helicopters to root out al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said in an interview with The Washington Times.
The ambassador said, “Military operations would have been quicker and much easier to plan and execute if we had the equipment. We have had tremendous attrition and a lot of loss of lives because of not having the right equipment.”
The $2.5 billion in arms that Pakistan has requested includes new helicopter gunships, including AH-1W and the Apache-64-D; armed helicopters, such as the AH-6 and MD-530 Little Bird; and utility and cargo helicopters, such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, the CH-47 D Chinook and the UH-1Y Huey.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the U.S. government is aware of its ally’s military wish list.
“The Pakistani military’s interest in additional lift is well-known, and we have tried to help meet their needs by providing several Mi-17s. We will continue to try to help them acquire the helicopters and other equipment they require to defeat the insurgents and terrorists in their midst,” Mr. Morrell said.
Pakistan’s military last year reversed its policy of signing cease-fire agreements with local tribal governors as it did in 2007 and 2008 in the regions thought to be hiding places for senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
The new “silent surge,” however, also has cost the lives of thousands of Pakistani soldiers, including generals. The ambassador said Pakistan has lost more than 600 officers affiliated with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its powerful and influential military intelligence arm.
Pakistan also has lost three one-star generals and one three-star general in combat. Five other generals have been killed in terrorist attacks.
Pakistani military officials have said their forces have a total of just 26 combat and transport helicopters for a counterinsurgency war in a mountainous region where helicopters provide a critical advantage.
But the Pakistani wish list also includes equipment that is not traditionally associated with counterinsurgency or mountain warfare. The Pakistanis are also requesting M1A1 tanks and M113A3 armored personnel carriers, as well as air-defense missiles, such as the Stinger, the Javelin and the Hawk.
The list also includes a request for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), among the newest and deadliest high-tech arms.
The CIA operates UAVs in Pakistan for missile strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The CIA operations, which are not publicly acknowledged by either government, have caused tensions in the past with Pakistan’s military, which argues that it should take the lead in overseeing the drone war in the remote, largely ungoverned tribal provinces.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times that he was waiting for an assessment from the State Department and the Pentagon before commenting on the Pakistani arms request.
“We have provided a lot of equipment to Pakistan,” he said. “We have seen some progress from them in some areas of the country, and we have seen less willingness in other areas.”
Pakistan has declined to send its troops into North Waziristan. Pakistani officials say they lack the helicopters to fight in the region. Some U.S. officials have pointed out political considerations for Islamabad if an offensive is launched in that region.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that “we ought to at least consider this request.” But he also added that the U.S. should provide “better training and maintenance for Pakistan’s military.”
The senator added, “There are continued concerns about this relationship between the ISI and the Taliban.”
But he also noted that a year ago, no one would have predicted that Pakistan’s military would take on the Taliban and al Qaeda redoubts in the Northwest Frontier Province. “There is a good argument to provide the equipment they need,” he said.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said the helicopters Pakistan wants would be useful to counterinsurgency operations.
“My sense is that all of those helicopters are useful in counterinsurgency operations, given the rugged terrain of western Pakistan. It is less clear that is the case with M1 tanks and air-defense missiles.”
Gen. Barno, who is now a senior adviser and fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said, “We tend to favorably view requests for equipment that are for counterinsurgency and view less favorably requests for equipment that would have a primary purpose for conventional warfare.”
Washington in the past has quietly attempted to dial back tensions between Pakistan and India, two U.S. allies that have fought four wars in the past 60 years. A sale of battle tanks to Pakistan likely would set off alarms in India.
“Anything on that list would upset the Indians,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That by itself is not really a criterion, though, for these arms sales. Of that list of things, the one that would be most incendiary for the Indians would be the UAVs.”
Ms. Schaffer said that UAVs “are relevant to the terrorism agenda, but the Indians would see that as a way to do deniable attacks against India.”