Asia Crisis

Pentagon ramps up direct military aid to Pakistan

(For more on Pakistan and Afghanistan, click [nAFPAK])

* Pentagon speeds funds to overhaul Pakistani helicopters

* Plans for more trainers faces resistance from Islamabad

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - The Pentagon is ramping up delivery of military equipment long sought by the Pakistani army to fight militants, U.S. officials said on Friday.

Some $200 million worth of equipment and services already in the pipeline for Pakistan has started to arrive but officials declined to provide full details, saying many of the more sophisticated items were classified.

Some programs have run into resistance from Islamabad, which is wary of appearing too close to Washington, they said.

The U.S. military aid is meant to help Pakistan mount a long-awaited ground offensive against Taliban fighters in their South Waziristan stronghold along the border with Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces are fighting a growing insurgency.

Hit by string of brazen militant attacks in the past 11 days that have killed about 150 people, Islamabad says a ground offensive by its troops is imminent.

"Each one of these attacks is troublesome," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "But the Pakistan government remains committed to addressing the threat there."

Direct military aid from the Pentagon, officials said, would come on top of the equipment that Pakistan receives through normal foreign military sales overseen by the State Department. Officials say those sales vary year to year but generally total around $300 million annually.

U.S. government aid is a highly contentious issue in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs high, and Islamabad has thrown up obstacles to some of the Pentagon's proposals, including one to expand counter-insurgency training for the Frontier Corps paramilitary force, officials said.


Underscoring those sensitivities, when President Barack Obama signed legislation this week giving $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan over five years, he did so behind closed doors after Pakistani critics said provisions in the law violated the country's sovereignty.

While pointing to growing military-to-military cooperation to counter the threat militants pose to the nuclear-armed state, U.S. officials say many of Pakistan's top commanders remain focused on expanding conventional capabilities to counter long-time foe India.

"It is frustrating," one official said. "We want to do more."

A special counterinsurgency fund approved by Congress earlier this year gave the Pentagon the authorization to speed delivery of military equipment to the Pakistani army.

Pentagon officials say equipment provided under the program can be delivered quickly because it bypasses normal "peacetime" rules governing foreign military sales that can take three to five years to process.

Congressional aides say the $200 million worth of equipment and services in the pipeline can arrive more quickly, in as little as 60-90 days, because much of it is not sophisticated and comes from readily available supplies.

In contrast, the delivery of F-16 fighter jets has been held up for years because it depends on production line schedules.

Another $200 million worth of equipment for fiscal year 2009, which ended on Sept. 30, remains available for Pakistan, and the Pentagon plans to nearly double the amount of direct military aid for fiscal 2010 to $700 million, officials said.

Shipments in recent months have included hundreds of night vision goggles, day and night scopes for rifles and radios to improve communications, as well as thousands of bullet-proof vests. Officials said armor-plated all-terrain vehicles were a priority item.


Pakistan has requested precision-guided weapons as well as pilotless "drone" aircraft, whose increasing use by the CIA to attack Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistani tribal areas has fanned anti-American sentiment.

Pentagon officials refused to release the list of the items authorized for Pakistan or to comment on the drone request. But many U.S. lawmakers are skeptical of Pakistan's intentions and transferring drone technology would face Indian resistance.

Officials said a portion of the $200 million currently in the pipeline was already being used to overhaul Pakistan's fleet of Mi-17 helicopters, critical for the planned operation in the mountainous Waziristan region.

Officials acknowledge getting the Mi-17s to Pakistan has been a difficult and time-consuming process. They are in short supply and the ones Pakistan has now have been heavily used in other operations and poorly maintained, the officials said.

To free up just 10 of the helicopters requested by Pakistan in June and July, the Pentagon had to "borrow" two from a training program for the Afghan military, sources said.

"We are doing everything within our power to assist Pakistan in improving its counter-insurgency capabilities," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wright said.

He said the counterinsurgency fund "put military assistance to Pakistan on a wartime footing," much like the way the United States supplies the security forces of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by John O'Callaghan)