WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Special Operations Forces on a training mission in Pakistan are playing an expanded but largely unseen role in the country's counterinsurgency campaign, working with paramilitary units to "hold and build" tribal areas as militants are cleared out.
U.S. defense and administration officials say the elite trainers, who currently number more than 100, have not and are not authorized to take part in Pakistani military offensives in the semi-autonomous tribal regions, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, along the Afghan border.
Pakistan has balked at U.S. offers of joint military operations there, officials said on condition of anonymity.
But Special Ops trainers play a bigger role than has been widely disclosed in helping Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, such as surveying and coordinating projects aimed at winning "hearts and minds" and preventing Taliban fighters from returning to areas once they have been pushed out.
A Pentagon proposal would deepen that role by creating a special $10 million pool of funds the trainers could spend more quickly on civil affairs and humanitarian projects in the FATA in coordination with their Pakistani counterparts.
U.S. defense and administration officials spoke about the training program and the new proposal on condition of anonymity because, as one said, the relatively small American military presence is such a "radioactive" issue in Pakistan.
U.S. and Pakistani officials worry that detailed disclosures about the role of Special Ops could compromise operational security, spark a backlash among Pakistanis against their government and fuel already high anti-American sentiment.
There are 200 U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, including troops who guard the sprawling American Embassy compound in Islamabad. The number of Special Operations trainers fluctuates from as little as 60 to about 120.
A February bombing that killed three Special Operations "civil affairs" specialists in northwest Pakistan partly exposed how small U.S. teams sometimes venture out beyond the confines of heavily guarded military bases.
'WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS'
Washington is in talks to increase the number of Special Ops trainers and authorize sending them to sectors deeper in the tribal regions, but details have yet to be worked out.
"This is in the line of essentially training," a senior U.S. defense official said of the Special Operations Forces. "This is a part of winning hearts and minds -- endearing the public to the military and to the government."
"We're in full support, essentially behind the scenes with a Pak-Mil (Pakistani military) face on it, to be able to have them legitimize the government of Pakistan and the military as the people that have brought security to the area and now are providing the initial tools to be able to help and build."
The $10 million in funds, which has yet to be approved by the Pentagon leadership, would be modeled after the Commanders' Emergency Response Program, or CERP, which has become a linchpin of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and has been credited with helping turn the tide in Iraq.
CERP-funded projects are intended to gain the confidence of local residents and leaders and discourage them from cooperating with insurgents. The program has been authorized for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq -- not Pakistan.
"It does give me some different authorities to be able to assist the government of Pakistan, the Pak-Mil, a little bit quicker, with the right accountability," the senior U.S. defense official said. "We have controls in place," he added when asked about congressional concerns about oversight.
At $10 million, the CERP-like funding would represent a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid promised to Pakistan, although the amount could be expanded later.
As was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the senior defense official said a CERP-like program in Pakistan "might be useful, particularly after a conflict-affected area, to immediately, rapidly go in, do quick impact projects that the Pak-Mil have come to us to seek help with, whether it be electricity, whether it be water, whether it be road."
Alongside large increases in funding to train and equip Pakistani forces for counterinsurgency operations, U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized the CIA to sharply expand a counterterrorism campaign of aerial drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets near the Afghan border.
Under the proposal, the $10 million would come out of State Department economic assistance funding for Pakistan, officials briefed on the matter said.
Critics say the move risked stoking concerns in Pakistan about U.S. meddling and could open the door to a further escalation down the road.
Advocates say an expanded Special Operations role in development is needed because U.S. government projects normally take months or longer to get approved, and because the security environment is too unstable in large parts of the FATA for nonmilitary organizations to lead the effort.
The senior defense official said the goal was to "seed the environment to then allow the security to calm down, people to return and for the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) to follow in after."