US faces complex challenges in Pakistan, commander says

Mission in region mixes politics with military effort

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is complex and often volatile. As a key ally in the region, Pakistan sits astride key supply routes for coalition forces in Afghanistan. Commanders operating in the country must strike a balance between the political needs of supporting the host nation’s government and military while managing communications at the very edge of Defense Department networks.

A top U.S. commander, recently returned from his assignment, provided an inside picture of this relationship and the challenge of operations in Pakistan. Speaking Aug. 18 at the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Customer and Industry Forum in Baltimore, Vice Adm. Michael LeFever, commander of the Office of the Defense Representative to Pakistan, described his recent tenure in the region.

During his three years in Pakistan, LaFever was responsible for coordinating operations there between coalition forces and the Pakistani military. His multifaceted job role included serving as defense attaché and in security, serving as a liaison with the Pakistani military. “It was an environment where opportunities arose and you had to be standing in the door to take advantage of them,” he said.

Pakistan faces a variety of problems and challenges, from insurgents in its lawless tribal areas to rampant poverty and political instability. It is also a key ally in the region and a vital ground and air corridor for supplies and military flights into Afghanistan.

During his time there, what was initially a one-year assignment was extended by an additional two years to support the troop surge into Afghanistan. To support that operation and the humanitarian mission to provide aid to Pakistan after devastating flooding in 2010, his command grew from 80 people to nearly 1,000 to coordinate the flood relief. “I was clearly at the edge in the most challenging environment in the world,” he said.

LaFever’s mission presented a variety of command and control challenges, such as coordinating with the Pakistani military for counterterrorism operations and implementing complex security assistance programs. The rapid growth of these programs also pushed U.S. forces into austere bases in the region and stressed the local network due to an increased need for video streams and communications, he said.

The U.S. also supported the Pakistani military with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets; satellite downlinks; mobile communications; video compression; and secure communications.

The rapid growth of his command, coupled with the expanding mission requirements, put an increased burden on communications and data networks. At the beginning of his assignment, LaFever said that his communications was managed by the State Department and several different U.S. government agencies. This arrangement proved inadequate as the mission expanded.

Turning to DISA for help, LaFever said that the agency coordinated communications between the various federal agencies involved. With DISA’s support, the command was able to manage a secure video teleconferencing service between the U.S. embassy and the White House to manage monthly briefings.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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