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.