Monday, November 30, 2009

Reaction To The Scahill Piece On Blackwater Part II: What It Means For Pakistan

This is the second post in a three part series on Jeremy Scahill's investigative piece on Blackwater in Pakistan. In the first post, I dealt with the extent to which we should buy Schaill's claims, seeing as how they were based exclusively on three anonymous sources. In this post, I deal with the impact of the revelations on Pakistani security and politics.

One of the most interesting aspects about the Scahill piece is how muted the reaction to it has been. Most media outlets have only reported on the publishing of the article, and not carried many opinion pieces on it. Both the U.S. and Pakistani governments have also been largely silent on the issue of Blackwater in Pakistan, with the exception of Anne Patterson issuing a routine denial of Scahill's claims. To be honest, I simply do not know what to make of this. The revelations contained in Scahill's article are serious enough to merit a significant blow-back, but for whatever reason, that simply hasn't happened (as opposed to Sy Hersh's piece on nuclear security in Pakistan).

The most obvious and glaring aspect of the story is the fact that the military-intelligence complex in Pakistan purportedly gave Blackwater its blessing to operate in the country, as far back as 2007. This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the military has always worn the robe of ultimate guardian of the state, and has always represented itself as fiercely defending Pakistan's sovereignty against all threats. Letting private security firms from the United States plan and execute military operations isn't exactly consistent with that image.

This brings me to my second point. Unlike most secrets, this one has been well-kept. The sensitive nature of the secret leads me to strongly believe that even within the military and intelligence networks, only a few know about Blackwater's role in Pakistan. More to the point, I'm almost dead sure that no one in the civilian establishment knew about this. Military policy and decisions, especially at the operational level, are left out of their hands anyway. In other words, when Rehman Malik said that Blackwater wasn't operating in Pakistan, and that he would resign if it was discovered that he was wrong, I don't think he was being disingenuous. I think he simply didn't know.

Which, in turn, leads me to a third point. One of the most common complaints in Pakistan, from observers of all stripes, is that the Zardari government is much too close to the U.S (just as, in these critics' view, the Musharraf government was much too close to the U.S; this pattern will be the subject of a future post). The permission or acquiescence granted to a private security firm by the government, were it to be widely revealed, would simply reinforce the perception of over-coziness. But the ironic thing, in this instance, would be that the civilian leadership would catch the blame for an enterprise entirely run by the military. Not dissimilar to Kargil in 1999, civilians could well end up paying penance for the military's mistakes.

The biggest question, from a purely Political perspective (note the uppercase "P"), is: how much does this matter? The answer to that isn't actually as clear-cut as one would imagine. On the one hand, it is incredibly bizarre, to say the least, to witness a sovereign government granting permission for international forces -- international mercenary forces -- to operate on its territory. This state of affairs raises a number of important questions, both at a theoretical as well as a practical level: how long is this supposed arrangement meant to last? Who exercises ultimate control over Blackwater's conduct in Pakistan -- JSOC, the Pakistani military, or Blackwater itself? Who will be accountable if Blackwater employees murder a cab driver in cold blood, as the Scahill piece alleges happened in South America? Who will be accountable if Blackwater employees go on a murderous rampage, as occurred in Iraq in 2007? Most importantly, how decayed is the capacity of the Pakistani state if it is literally outsourcing military operations to secure itself?

On the other hand, the concept of sovereignty is fairly tricky, and does not lend itself to soundbite-sized analysis. Broadly speaking, there are two elements that we think of when we refer to a state as sovereign: external and internal. Externally, a state is sovereign when other states respect its right to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. It is all about non-interference. Internally, sovereignty refers to a state's essential monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its geographic boundaries. It is all about control.

In this case, the two components of sovereignty are in opposition. It is certainly the case that Blackwater operating in Pakistan violates its external sovereignty, for the simple reason that you have an extra-territorial (private) actor involved in important aspects of state policy. But it is also the case that they are there by invitation -- the government of Pakistan has countenanced their presence. In one important sense, then, the state has conferred upon Blackwater a certain "legitimacy" with respect to its use of force. If anything, it is actors -- such as the Taliban -- who employ force without the government sanctioning it that violates Pakistan's sovereignty to a greater extent.

My interpretation of Scahill's revelations are that this speaks more loudly to concerns about Pakistan's capacity than Pakistan's sovereignty. It is immensely disturbing that despite this war having gone on for more than half a decade, the Pakistani government is still unable to deploy instruments of the state in order to achieve anything that looks like "victory" (however murkily that may be defined). At bottom, Mosharraf Zaidi's arguments for the centrality of Pakistan's state and institutional robustness, or lack thereof, in this conflict are accurate. Blackwater wouldn't even be an issue if the military and Frontier Corps and police and ISI were very good at what they do, and on the same page when they do it. Patently, this is not the case.

All this analysis, analysis which I would like to think is nuanced, is basically moot. At the basest and most visceral level, the presence of Blackwater on Pakistani soil to plan and conduct military activity is deeply offensive to the majority of the Pakistani population, and functionally speaking, that's all that matters. It actually makes the war that much harder to fight, because it feeds into the nationalist right's narrative of this being "America's war" and Pakistan being nothing more than a client state. And the only thing more dangerous than a nationalist right that is untethered to reality is a nationalist right untethered to reality which finds supportive evidence for its positions.


Jaydev said...

Though "BlackWater" name freaks out everyone who have seen Bourne sounds like BlackBriar,TreadStone..
incidentally names of fictitious black-ops..
but isnt Xe just provides..
1)security to US diplomats & possibly intel ppl in Pak,
2)loads JDAMs/Hellfire into UAVs..
These tasks looks too mundane..
just a private security agency functions except the ground support thingy to UAV..
There seems to be an acute shortage of personnel for CIA..and ex-SAS/Delta/CIA talent (good ones) are resigning their jobs and working through these private agencies for larger pay...I saw a national geographic piece on ex-SAS private guards doing their risky mission in Iraq(in midst of Sunni-Shia death squads,mass causality bombings)which is transporting couple of diplomats from one point to another.

So only difference one can see about Xe is they might be carrying automatic assault rifles/personal defence weapons rather than 9mm pistols or revolvers carried by private guards..Not very surprising in a place where there is high availability of assault rifles with civilian population..
I mean if you put things in proper looks pretty normal..
I mean do you seriously expect Holbrook to do the roaming he did in Bajaur IDP without some seriously badass "white" special ops guys watching hus back..
I am confused by the hula-boo..

Ahsan said...


You're wrong, my friend. If you read the Scahill piece, it's clear they do more than that. Specifically, they are involved in raids and counter-terrorist operations on the ground in FATA and NWFP.

Bubs said...

I hate to be pedantic but I've edited too many pieces where ‘beg the question’ was misused. This cartoon does a good job of explaining how it should be used although Ifear it may be too late to reclaim the phrase.

Ahsan said...

Haha thank you for that Bubs. Frankly, I was unaware of the correct usage as pointed out by the grammatically correct dinosaur. Thank you to both for pointing out the error. I've corrected it here.

Khalid said...

So should we then conclude that, contrary to common belief, in fighting the Taliban, the problem has been one of capacity and not willingness on part of Pakistan (Army).

YS_1 said...

the problem has been one of capacity and not willingness

No its been a combination of both. Ahsan bought up the correct idea of the Pakistani state being decayed.

This degradation will have to be corrected over the coming decades.

I think there's a turf war aspect within the US military that feeds into this as well. Scahill covered this in his piece where he mentioned that JSOC seemed to be subservient to Centcom.

JSOC has permission to operate in Pakistan, coming directly from Dick Cheney's office, when Centcom tried to directly intervene like in Angoor Adda September 2008, it was shot back at by the Pakistani military. JSOC is literally welcome. The regulations binded Centcom is not.

And now the head of Centcom's mission in Afghanistan, McChrystal, is the former head of JSOC.

YS_1 said...

Lastly, I have to point out an excellent summary on this entire affair, and the functions of the unit in Pakistan:

The US military and Blackwater (which now calls itself Xe) are running a kill-squad in Pakistan, seeking out people perceived as a threat to America and kidnapping and/or killing them. They're pretending that the operation is clandestine, but of course, you can read all about it in The Nation and there's no reason to believe it isn't well-known among Pakistanis. Folks tend to find out when their friends, family, or townsfolk are murdered or kidnapped, but of course, the project isn't "clandestine" in Pakistan, only in America. You're the people who aren't supposed to know.
Dick Cheney would be so proud. Heck, maybe Cheney's involved — it has his scent, and other than moving out of the Vice Presidential mansion there's been little evidence that he's actually gone from US government. The article claims, improbably, that senior figures within the Obama administration and the US military chain of command might be in the dark about the program's existence.

Jaydev said...

I didnt know that..that's crazy if its true..and STUPID.I would be very surprised if Pak military let (contractors)them go around killing and kidnapping as they like.
Its more likely that, they are "boxed-in","take them around in scripted fashion" and most probably..give leadership to Pak FC commandos or something. Its easy to make an example of them like Daniel Pearl or Gilad Shalit if they cross the line.Very very unlikely that they move around as they like..I mean the contractors..JSOC or CIA SAD will of course be scouring for intel or lasing targets for UAV strikes.

WA said...

Kind of agree with Jaydev.

Is it possible Scahill might be exaggerating the role of Blackwater in Pakistan by using selected quotes and not providing details? Planning operations and analyzing intelligence is understandable. But I don't think Pakistan army will give them a free hand as suggested by the article.

black said...

Faiza said...

Check this out. More of Blackwater's history.