Friday, November 27, 2009

Blackwater in Pakistan: Loose End or Larger Strategy?

There are two perspectives here:

First: There is a tug-a-war going on between the White House and the Pentagon. Among others, the elements from the previous administration, still influential in the Pentagon, are pressurizing Mr. Obama to increase war spending and troops for Afghanistan. They are also against normalization of ties between the US and Iran. So they are creating events and situations, without direct authorization from the president, to influence his decisions. In the case of Afghanistan, indirect threats of high ranking officials' resignations appear to have been made if Obama would not comply with their demands. Similarly, there are stories of 'discovering' this or that about Iran's "evil" intentions (like the Alavi Foundation case or Nuclear reactor, etc.) that are meant to create the hysteria for war. The important question and indicator in this perspective is: Would the Obama administration comply?

Cyril Almeida in a recent piece in Dawn (Nov 27, 2009) puts a spin on Jeremy Scahill's story in what appears to be an attempt by Almeida to shift the focus of critical scrutiny to the Pakistani Army. For that Almeida draws attention to Kestral Logistics, a security firm in Pakistan that was named in Scahill's story, as Scahill points out: "Kestral Logistics, a powerful Pakistani firm, which specializes in military logistical support, private security and intelligence consulting. It is staffed with former high-ranking Pakistani army and government officials. While Kestral's main offices are in Pakistan, it also has branches in several other countries." Scahill, however, is not clear about Kestral's direct connections to official military intelligence entities. Perhaps Scahill did want to imply that, but I doubt that straightforward connection.

Kestral and Blackwater (or Xe) could very well have been hired by the US supported current civilian government. In October 2007, when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, it was reported in the media that 'some' private security firm was taking care of her security. After her assassination a number of stories emerged in the media indicating that Bhutto distrusted Musharraf/Army's intentions.

Another important question to be asked here is that why a half-a-million strong Army with notoriously powerful security agencies would want to hire services of foreign security firms? Why would it let itself be undermined within its own territories? Especially when it is very concerned about foreign attempts to 'neutralize' its nuclear arsenals and is resisting any attempts to put them under foreign monitoring or surveillance? We have seen in the case of Swat that when Army goes seriously after the militant elements, it has been able to tackle them relatively well. Within this context, it's not the militant elements that Army is having trouble tackling with, it's the forces behind them, from neighboring countries and beyond, that make things complicated and that seek to pressurize the Army to comply with certain demands (see below for more on this line).

The point here is not to deny or affirm any connection between the Army and private security firms. Just that it cannot be simply assumed, and within the perspective presented here, it seems less likely. (Even when we are playing in the territory of speculations - supporting one perspective or the other - distinctions could still be made between the more probable from the less probable explanations.)

Second: The other perspective argues that increasing US presence was already part of the larger strategy. Mr. Obama is just locked into his election's anti-war rhetoric and constituency. He cannot come off as straightforwardly willing to increase war adventures in the Afghanistan. Hence the public drama of displaying a tension between the white house and the pentagon before the ultimate decision is announced. Similarly, there are certain targets to be achieved in Pakistan that relate to the military and neutralizing nuclear arsenal. I have written about this earlier. These targets were more clearly defined and pursued toward the end of the Bush administration (resulting in an already unpopular Musharraf's falling-out-of-favor). The Obama administration is continuing on the same strategy. When it comes to larger strategies, the 4- or 8- year term US presidents are only part of the deciding equation. Especially the presidents in their first term are not as powerful as one would think they would be as Commander-in-Chief. In the first perspective, that is why there is a tension between the two poles in Washington and one is able to exert so much influence on the other. In the second perspective, Mr. Obama has already consented to the larger hegemonic ambitions of the empire.

The specific targets in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan are also supported by the neighboring India and Israel. For Israel and its supporters in Washington (including both Neo-Cons and Liberal-imperialists), both Pakistan and Lebanon are peripheries that need to be ‘neutralized’ or 'kept busy' before or around any attack on Iran, (so as to minimize any severe backlash against US/Israel). Consider also the recent Jundallah bombing, which caused some discord between Iran and Pakistan. Jundallah, according to even US sources, has been funded by the United States.

In the second perspective, the purpose of Blackwater's covert operations - and that of other similar elements in Pakistan who are working with the security agencies of other countries and have nurtured some of the active terrorist groups in Pakistan - is to create conditions under which Pakistan would be pressurized to give in to the US demands. Instability and chaos also become the pretext for prolonged US presence in the "Af-Pak" region.

This is the political context of the heated debate on 'Sovereignty vs. American-backed democracy' in the current public discourse in Pakistan. The Pakistani Army has capitalized on this moment and has presented itself as the indispensable defender of Pakistan's sovereignty. This is despite the Army's ongoing convoluted relations with terrorist groups (including some elements of the Taliban and other militant sectarian groups: consider the whole discourse of "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban by military loud speakers in the media). This is also despite the perpetual dependency of the Army on the US for military aid and technology, and the Amry's willingness to work as US mercenaries as long as the latter does not undermine its authority in Pakistan (See the issue of Military and ISI reform through Kerry-Lugar Bill or through the civilian government). The Army is deeply suspicious of the "foreign" agenda of President Zardari and so do a significant number of people in Pakistan. Ironically enough, the same Army that was highly unpopular just over a year and a half ago is now seen by many as the champion of Pakistani people and sovereignty.

How come Zardari is still in power? In addition to the support from the US, part of it could be explained through President Zardari's success in courting support from politicians and power-brokers in the 'marginalized provinces' (vis-a-vis Punjab): Balochistan, Sindh, NWFP, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

How long is his government going to last? The major players are still in the game, the political conditions remain volatile, and so does his government.

Here is The Nation article:

Blackwater's Secret War in Pakistan
By Jeremy Scahill, The Nation, November 23, 2009

Also see,

See the following NY Times blog story on the same: "Pakistan's Taliban issues video denial - 16 Nov 09". There are many strands within the Taliban, some under control of the military and its security agencies, others not and supported by other forces. The Taliban as a collective phenomenon although a major cause of de-stability in Pakistan, but as I have argued before, they are largely pawns (voluntary or otherwise) in the hands of other bigger players in this game. They are largely symptoms of a bigger problem linked to the question of distribution of state power and foreign influence. A narrow, concentrated focus on the 'Taliban' or 'Religious Extremism' in Pakistan in the news media usually serves as distraction from that bigger picture. It's unfortunate that some political commentators in the Pakistani media still choose to focus only on the 'Taliban' and discard the larger, convoluted game as just "conspiracy theory".

Well, it only makes sense to have a "conspiracy theory" for explanation when there in fact are many 'conspiracies' at play in Pakistan! (Yes, pun intended!)

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