October Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Not all conspiracy theories are equally absurd. The idea that a private militia, owned by a Messianic Christian extremist, whose mercenaries are fuelled by equal parts anger and alcohol, may be overrunning Pakistan sounds like the paranoid ramblings of a crazed jihadist. But Blackwater, if the media is to be believed, is here.

Blackwater, the widely reviled, ultra-controversial private security company, was founded by Erik Prince, a former US army man who is believed to hold fundamentalist Christian views. His company, which changed its name to Xe because of all the negative publicity attached to its sinister-sounding original name, has provided troops to augment US forces in Iraq and Afghanstan. Its employees have, among other things, been accused of going on drunken shooting rampages, lying under oath about its activities, holding US soldiers at gunpoint and torture.

So far, Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi have vehemently denied that Blackwater is present in Pakistan. The same denial has been issued by US Ambassador Anne Patterson. The truth is a lot murkier and ambiguous.

The evidence that has been marshalled to prove Blackwater’s presence in Pakistan is entirely circumstantial but does hint at an overt widening of US presence in Pakistan. By far the most controversial has been the proposed expansion of the US embassy to a size that would make it the largest embassy in the world. The media has claimed that the under-development complex, costing over $1 billion, will be guarded by about 1,000 US Marines and Blackwater mercenaries. US Ambassador Anne Patterson scoffed at these figures, and while justifying the embassy expansion as necessary given the increase in aid to Pakistan, said that only 15-20 Marines would be needed. She also added that there are currently about five to 10 Marines guarding the embassy.

Although only tangentially related to the Blackwater issue, matters took a somewhat bizarre turn on September 19 when police raided Inter-Risk, a private security firm that had a contract to provide armed guards to the US. In the initial raid, police seized 70 weapons that they claimed were unlicensed and arrested two employees. Syed Ali Jaffer Zaidi, the owner of Inter-Risk and a former captain in the military, was arrested soon after. What makes the timing of this raid so curious is that only a day earlier, a report had appeared in the local media that Inter-Risk had received special permission from the prime minister to import over 80 weapons that are otherwise not allowed. Allegedly, a US official had requested this permission. Zaidi was quoted in the news report as confirming that he had applied for these licenses.

Some sections of the media took this raid as further evidence of Blackwater’s presence in Pakistan, claiming that Inter-Risk was recruiting locals for Blackwater. But such conjecture has no merit. There is nothing sinister about the US hiring a private security company since most embassies in Pakistan do the same. And Inter-Risk does have experience in this field since it has previously provided security to the Japanese consulate.

Also caught up in the Blackwater controversy is Creative Associates International Incorporated (CAII), an American NGO that was operating out of Islamabad and Peshawar but whose current work in Pakistan is shrouded in mystery. Media reports fingered CAII as a front for the CIA and claimed that the organisation had hired Blackwater employees to guard its offices. Craig Davis, the person heading CAII’s office on University Road in Peshawar, it is alleged, was kicked out of Pakistan for establishing contacts with members of the Taliban.

While CAII is officially an independent, non-governmental organisation, it is doubtful that it would exist without government funding. Reports available at the website of the watchdog group Centre for Public Integrity show that CAII receives about 90% of its funding from the US government. And a lot of its work, which includes development projects, is done in areas that are of interest to the US, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza.

000_Nic197679The question of CAII’s presence in Pakistan is also up in the air. Pakistan is conspicuously absent from the company website’s directory giving information about all their worldwide offices. This information appears to have been scrubbed from the website since CAII was advertising available jobs in Pakistan on various online job boards till as late as July 19. At the time this story was filed, CAII had not responded to emails asking if they had offices in Pakistan and what the contact numbers for those offices might be.

This information might cause one to be deeply suspicious of CAII but there could be an alternative explanation. The anti-foreigner sentiment in Pakistan has reached new heights and just last year, Stephen Vance, a USAID contractor who worked for CHF International, was gunned down in Peshawar, coincidentally near University Road. Given that the CAII has already been accused of being a front organisation for the US government, it would not be that surprising if the group wanted to keep a low profile, especially since one of its employees had been publicly named — if not proven — as engaging in illegal activities.

The anti-foreigner flames have been further stoked by television stations that gave addresses of houses in Islamabad that were supposedly occupied by Blackwater.

Again, there could be a less sinister explanation for why the US might have rented these houses. The US embassy, it is believed, has about 450 employees, out of which about 200 are there for short-term projects. Only a small percentage of these employees can be housed within the boundaries of the embassy, explaining why they would need the extra houses. A US Embassy spokesman, however, refused to confirm their staffing and housing situation.

The fog of secrecy surrounding Blackwater’s alleged presence is so thick that government officials who should know what is happening are giving differing accounts, even when speaking off the record. A high-placed official at the Intelligence Bureau, who wished to remain anonymous as he was not authorised to give this information, rejected out of hand reports that Blackwater is operating in Pakistan. Instead, he claimed, the gun-toting, shade-donning foreigners seen in Islamabad were most likely foreign guards imported by a Pakistan-based security firm that is partly owned by a foreign company. But there is reason to doubt this explanation. The security firm in question has denied that it imported foreign guards, claiming that doing so would be illegal without permission from the interior ministry.

Meanwhile, a politician who also happens to be close to President Zardari, said that he personally believed Blackwater was operating in Pakistan, but upon further questioning it emerged that he was basing this opinion on media reports and not any inside knowledge. He did, however, say that he doesn’t think it is all that big a deal if Blackwater is in Pakistan because another private US-based military organisation DynCorp, which like Blackwater has provided forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, was operating quite openly in Pakistan without causing a public furor. Further complicating the already confusing web of ties connecting various security groups working in Pakistan, he also said that DynCorp had ties to Inter-Risk, and was providing training to its security guards. DynCorp’s continued presence in Pakistan can be confirmed since they have posted job vacancies on their website for an aviation expert and an avionics expert to be based in Islamabad. But both the US and Pakistan refuse to even confirm information that DynCorp has made publicly available, as US Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire and Foreign Office spokesman Muhammad Basit told the media that they did not know anything about DynCorp’s presence in Pakistan.

Even former chief of army staff and current conspiracy theorist Aslam Beg waded into the Blackwater brouhaha at which point the debate reached its nadir. Beg held Blackwater responsible for the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto. In a crowded field, Beg came out on top for lack of self-awareness. He seemed to have forgotten — or perhaps never knew — that Benazir, in a letter to Musharraf before she returned to Pakistan, asked for permission to bring Blackwater guards as part of her personal security retinue.

The alleged presence of Blackwater operatives in Pakistan has stirred anger in the media, blogosphere and among the general public in a way that other US actions that were considered a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty never did.

Dr Awab Alvi, who runs the popular blog Teeth Maestro, is behind an initiative known as Blackwater Watch, which can be found at the site PakVoices.net. The PakVoices domain, according to Alvi, is owned by the Peoples Resistance Network, which came into being after the imposition of emergency by then president Musharraf in 2007. The site uses mapping technology to mark areas where any Blackwater operatives have been spotted. Such an initiative, especially in the current climate, has the potential to turn into a witchhunt against all foreigners, but Dr Alvi claims that his team will ensure that all reports are checked out before they are marked on the team: “We need to interact with the first reporter before they are published online — the network of reporters that can be used are generally a wide variety of civil society activists that the Peoples Resistance group was involved with during the martial law resistance days — scattered across Pakistan.” Alvi admits that there is a possibility of mistaken identity but asserts that “reports will not be treated lightly and if any people are at risk we need to make sure its correct.”

Currently, two cites, Karachi and Islamabad, are marked as areas on the site where Blackwater is in operation. The first report of Blackwater sightings in Karachi is provided by journalist Ahmed Qureshi, who used the transportation of US Humvee vehicles from Port Qasim as evidence of Blackwater’s presence. This link is tenuous to say the least, since these vehicles could be used by non-Blackwater US forces that are either in Pakistan or even be transported to Afghanistan.

While it is somewhat worrying that Blackwater Watch may provide the impetus for vigilante justice, as Alvi points out, Pak Voices has used their mapping and reporting system for various worthy causes, including providing locations of IDP camps.

The fear foreigners in Pakistan now feel is real. One Australian journalist, who wished not to disclose his name because he felt it would lead to further harassment if he publicly complained, said that he had been stopped by policemen in Islamabad with greater frequency than before, and that he always made sure that he carried his papers with him. He said, “I have been working in Islamabad off and on since 2005. I now feel less welcome here.” Journalists are also finding it harder to come to the country as revealed in a leaked letter written by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, which spoke of a blacklist for journalists and warned that denying visas to media personnel would likely hurt Pakistan’s image.

Ultimately, the controversy over Blackwater is about far more than the company itself. What Pakistanis seem to want is the truth about US intentions in the country and about how they are going to achieve their aims. Until then, the Blackwater hysteria will provide the country an outlet to vent its anger.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.