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Pentagon Cautious on Reported Pakistani Plan to Arm Tribal Militias


U.S. defense officials responded cautiously Thursday to a report that Pakistan plans to give weapons to thousands of men in its western region so they can join the fight against militants who have taken refuge in the area. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

A senior U.S. military official told VOA he was not aware of the Pakistani plan reported by The Washington Post, and is not sure if the report is accurate. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer also could also not confirm the Post's claim that the United States supports the Pakistani plan, but he said U.S. military leaders do, in general, support what he called "innovative ideas" to deal with militant safe havens in western Pakistan.

Pentagon Spokesman Brian Whitman had a similar view.

"What we support is efforts by the Pakistani government to deal with these extremist threats that are not only a threat to their own country, but also to, in particular, the bordering country of Afghanistan, where we've seen an increased activity along that border. So I would say that we are supportive of the Pakistani government acknowledging and dealing with these internal extremist threats in their country," he said.

Whitman could not comment on the specific program reported by The Washington Post, but he said any effort that addresses extremists in Pakistan in an "effective" and "meaningful" way "is good."

The Post report says Pakistan plans to provide Chinese-made AK-47 rifles to thousands of fighters in new local militias, whose leaders say they will fight the Taliban. Top officials of the militant movement that used to rule Afghanistan, and allies in other groups including al-Qaida, have taken refuge in western Pakistan, and U.S. officials say they use the safe haven to plan attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and possibly elsewhere.

A Pakistani effort to control militants in the western tribal areas through agreements with local leaders failed last year, and was sharply criticized by U.S. officials. The officials believe that effort delayed the kind of more-decisive moves into the western region by Pakistan's army that have only happened in recent months. Those operations have earned praise from many of the same U.S. officials who criticized the earlier approach.

Some experts point out that Pakistan's tribesmen are generally well armed already. The experts say the more important question is how the tribes use their weapons. American strategists believe local forces can play a key role in fighting insurgents and terrorists, as they did in Iraq, particularly in its Anbar Province, where tribal leaders decided to oppose al-Qaida early last year and helped turn the tide of that conflict. But they also caution that it is a difficult and potentially dangerous process.

The officer who spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday said, "the devil is in the details." He said if Pakistan is going to arm local militiamen, the success or failure of the program will depend on who has the power to make key decisions, and exactly who they decide to give the weapons.

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