On Monday I wrote that the answer to whether or not the US can trust Pakistan can be found in the answer to a related question: Can Pakistan trust the US? Like an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, each side is searching for an equilibrium of cooperation despite a past of defections. The Tuesday New York Times article speculating that the US wants to expand raids over the Pakistani border didn’t help matters, instead seeming to confirm Pakistani fears of American duplicity. While the US immediately rejected the Times report, the US needs to give more than verbal assurances to our Pakistani allies. We need to give helicopters.
The primary benefit of providing helicopters will be to improve Pakistan’s ability to target militant groups in the tribal areas. With these helicopters – both transport and combat – Pakistan’s military will have the resources it needs to move into the remote tribal areas where militant groups are hiding out, taking a more visible leadership role in the fight.
Despite some analysts questions about Pakistani willingness to battle militant groups on their Western border, military officials on the ground in the region note that the constraint is not will, but resources. According to one military official who spoke with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:
…Washington should realize that the Pakistanis “are unable to conduct significant new operations without additional troops. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality.” This official notes that the Pakistani military has lost 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers fighting the extremists, with three to four times that many wounded. Civilian casualties are in the tens of thousands.
Indeed, a recent TIME article by Omar Waraich quotes retired Pakistani General Talat Masood explaining that logistical difficulty is the greatest obstacle to action in North Waziristan, the region the US is anxious for the Pakistani military to move into.
Pakistan has agreed in principle to mount an offensive there, but insists that it will do so at a time of its own choosing. “There is little prospect of an offensive at least before February,” says Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst. “Indeed, in the winter, it won’t be able to hold the ground at night, they would need two and a half divisions. And they have to consolidate the areas they’ve already cleared [of Pakistani Taliban] in Swat and South Waziristan. There is a worry that they may lose ground there.”
Helicopters are the answer.
In his forthcoming book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at Brookings, writes:
One critical area where American efforts could go a long way is in improving Pakistani air mobility. A key to any successful counter-insurgency is to be able to rapidly deploy soldiers and equipment to hot spots. That means helicopters and lots of them. That is how we have fought insurgents for decades. It was the loss of control of the air and thus loss of air mobility that doomed the Soviet 40th army in the 1980s.
Expanded air mobility would improve Pakistan’s ability to target and eliminate militant havens in the tribal areas, speeding up progress in our overarching goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda. This would not only eliminate militant safe havens, it would allow a more visible leadership role for the Pakistani military whose contributions and sacrifices are too often overlooked in the mainstream media.
By facilitating this expanded role, we would not only be improving our timeline for success, we will nullify counterproductive discussions about whether or not Pakistan should “do more”, and whether there are secret plans to introduce US troops within Pakistan’s borders. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, said explicitly on Tuesday that, “We work with our allies, especially the US, and appreciate their material support but we will not accept foreign troops on our soil — a position that is well known.” According to Ambassador Haqqani, transport and combat helicopters would allow their military to conduct operations deeper in the tribal areas.
Additionally, helicopters will improve Pakistan’s conventional defense capabilities against a regional state threat such as India. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it’s quite important. Ensuring that Pakistan has defensive parity with its neighbors is a key to regional security, as is the demonstration that the US values Pakistan’s perceived security goals.
Buttressing Pakistan’s conventional defenses will help ease concerns that the US is encroaching on its sovereignty and favoring Indian dominance in the region. Providing these aircraft will demonstrate that the US is willing to make a long-term commitment to Pakistan’s comprehensive security needs and is not simply using it as a temporary proxy against jihadi groups on their Western border.
Earlier this year, Pakistan requested 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. Sen. McCain (R–Ariz.) expressed support for the request at the time. The US should honor their request.
As evidenced by the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, Pakistan and the US are making progress both in terms of building trust and defeating extremist militant groups in the region. H.D.S. Greenway recently called on American officials to put “more emphasis on trying to understand Pakistan’s vital national interests — some ‘strategic patience,’ as Admiral Mullen put it, and a little less bullying”. There’s one more item that could speed progress in the war and help overcome lingering suspicions between our two nations: helicopters.