Pakistan has expelled a team of British military trainers sent to help with the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, as the fallout from the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden continues to rock relations between Islamabad and its western allies.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that at least 18 military advisers, deployed as part of a £15m programme to train the paramilitary Frontier Corps, have been withdrawn from Pakistan. Most are already back in the UK.
Their removal is seen as an indirect casualty of worsening relations between Pakistan and the US over the 2 May Navy Seal raid in Abbottabad, which was conducted without Pakistani consent.
Although British relations with Pakistan are warmer, the embattled army, stung by a barrage of public criticism, is keen to demonstrate its independence from all western allies.
Since Bin Laden’s death, Pakistan has sent home at least 120 US military trainers, most of whom were engaged in training the FC. The British team, a mix of seasoned officers and NCOs, had been stationed at a British-funded FC base near the capital of Balochistan, Quetta.
The training scheme began last August and was scheduled to run until at least summer 2013. The MoD hopes to redeploy the team once the tensions abate.
In an email statement, a spokeswoman said the trainers had been withdrawn “on a temporary basis” at the request of the Pakistani government in response to “security concerns”.
“The training teams will continue their own training and will be ready to redeploy at the first possible opportunity,” she told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The 60,000-strong FC, which is deployed along the length of the 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan, has long been in the frontline of Pakistani efforts to combat Taliban militancy and flush al-Qaida from its tribal havens.
But its troops are considered under-trained and ill-equipped, and Pakistan’s western allies have in recent years prioritised a multimillion pound effort to bolster their skills and equipment.
That programme has now virtually collapsed as US-Pakistani relations fall to their lowest point in a decade. The trouble began in January after a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, shot dead two men in Lahore, prompting the withdrawal of a quarter of the US training force.
The reductions accelerated following the Bin Laden raid, as the military sought to signal its displeasure with its western allies – in particular the CIA – and to boost its faltering public support.
After a 9 June meeting to discuss the crisis, the military leadership issued a statement in which it disputed American claims of $15bn (£9.4bn) in aid over the past decade, and suggested that future US military assistance should be diverted to civilian economic programmes. CIA drone strikes were “not acceptable under any circumstances,” the military said.
The US says it wants to rebuild the relationship, deemed “too important to fail” but tensions have erupted at ground level. Last week the Pakistani media reported that US trainers had clashed with base guards when prevented from retrieving personal effects after being ordered to leave. The US embassy in Islamabad denied the incident.
The FC, which draws its recruits from the Pashtun tribes along the Afghan border, has suffered heavy losses in recent years. Its paramilitary troops have led assaults on mountainous Taliban strongholds and been targeted in numerous suicide bombings. In May, a large attack on a training centre of the related Frontier Constabulary killed 100 young recruits.
But the FC has also been accused of numerous human rights violations, particularly in Balochistan where the British base is located. Human rights groups say the FC has played a central role in a vicious crackdown on Baloch nationalist insurgents, who are unrelated to the Taliban, that has resulted in hundreds of illegal abductions and extra-judicial executions.
Dawn newspaper has reported that at least 170 suspected nationalists, many abducted by FC personnel, had been killed since July 2010. Most bore the marks of severe torture.
A furore erupted last month after video footage showed FC troops shooting dead five unarmed Chechens, including a pregnant woman, at a checkpost in Quetta. The government says it is investigating the incident.
The British team at the Quetta camp was reportedly working alongside six US advisers, helping to train 360 recruits at a time on 12-week courses.
The US has funded a much larger FC training centre on the outskirts of Peshawar.
A military spokesman in Islamabad said between 200 and 300 US military personnel remain in the country.