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World News

Pakistan deaths underscore sensitive U.S. mission

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The bombing that killed three U.S. Special Operations troops in Pakistan on Wednesday has exposed one of the U.S. military’s most sensitive missions -- training an elite paramilitary force in counterinsurgency.

The Pentagon does not generally talk publicly about the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is high and conspiracy theories abound over what the U.S. military is doing there and whether it infringes on the country’s sovereignty.

Tensions have been stoked by increased U.S. pilotless drone attacks against targets in the border region where militants have sought sanctuary and launched attacks on U.S. troops fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan.

U.S. defense officials say, in all, there are some 200 U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, including troops that guard the sprawling American embassy in Islamabad.

Among them are more than 100 Special Operations troops training the Pakistani Frontier Corps, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.

Talk of the Special Operations forces comes at a bad time for Pakistan’s unpopular pro-U.S. president, Asif Ali Zardari, who faces dissent over a sluggish economy and cannot afford to be seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to fight militants.

The three Americans killed in northwest Pakistan were assigned to the training mission but worked as “civil affairs” specialists, defense officials said. The Special Operations training covers counterinsurgency tactics, including intelligence gathering and development.

Such civil affairs specialists work with local authorities, including tribal leaders and mayors. The troops were on their way to the opening of a girls school renovated with U.S. funds but officials gave no details of their role there.

U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke rejected what he said was propaganda and disinformation by the Taliban, particularly allegations that those killed were employees of the U.S. company formerly called Blackwater who were involved in clandestine operations in Pakistan.

“There’s nothing secret about their presence there,” Holbrooke told reporters.

QUESTIONS ABOUND

U.S. defense officials said Islamabad has in the past thrown up obstacles to expanding the Special Operations mission over fears of a public backlash, frustrating U.S. officials.

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 were focused on expanding conventional capabilities to counter long-time foe India.

“Pakistan’s military has demonstrated increased counterinsurgency training and doctrinal adjustments but its priority remains India,” Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear in his 2011 budget proposal this week that training and equipping the Pakistani military for counterinsurgency activities was a growing priority as he sought to increase funding for that element by a half-billion dollars to $1.2 billion.

It is unclear how much of the money would be earmarked for the Frontier Corps, which is responsible for security in areas near the Afghan border seen as part of a global militant hub.

Gates also proposed large funding increases to expand Special Operations and the Pentagon’s main publicly disclosed train and equip program.

“In a world where arguably the most likely and lethal threats will emanate from failed and fractured states, building the security capacity of partners has emerged as a key capability -- one that reduces the need for direct U.S. military intervention, with all of its attendant political, financial and human costs,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday in unveiling the defense budget.

Editing by John O’Callaghan

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