Who’s Afraid of Blackwater?
Pick a name that sounds like a parody of those terrorist organisations in James Bond movies bent on world-domination, and chances are that you will constantly be dogged by controversy. The charge-sheet against the military company Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince (or Blofeld if you want to take the 007 analogy any further), is impressive: obstructing investigations, holding US soldiers, for whom it ostensibly works, at gunpoint, shooting innocent civilians while under the influence of alcohol, and the widespread belief that the group is driven by a fundamentalist Christian ideology.
In recent weeks Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe Services in February in a futile attempt to disassociate the company from its many scandals, has become the object of much discussion and outrage in the Pakistani media and blogosphere. If the breathless, entirely speculative and unsourced reports are to believed, Blackwater mercenaries are overrunning Islamabad and Peshawar. The controversy reached its peak when a column by defence analyst Shireen Mazari on Blackwater’s alleged presence in Pakistan was pulled by The News (although it did appear on its website), reportedly at the request of US Ambassdor Anne Patterson.
While the Pakistani government denies that Blackwater is operating in the country, a New York Times report from last month quotes many current and former employees of the company as saying that Blackwater employees were loading Predator drone missiles in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
If that is indeed the scope of Blackwater’s activities in Pakistan, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about. Drone attacks are a reality in Pakistan, especially given their success in killing Baitullah Mehsud; who’s loading them seems a secondary issue.
It has also been suggested that Blackwater’s mercenary soldiers have been guarding US embassy officials in Islamabad. This, too, is a ‘controversy’ hardly worthy of the name. Indeed, it is customary for foreign officials and dignitaries to have private guards from their own country – presumably because they feel safer with their own countrymen. In fact, as pointed out in a recent piece in The Guardian, former president Pervez Musharraf has kept retired Pakistani commandos as part of his security detail in London.
There also seems to be an element of opportunism in the hyping of the Blackwater story. When the late Benazir Bhutto wanted to return to Pakistan, she approached the hated company for protection but the Pakistani government refused to give the mercenaries visas. And while there was no objection at the time to Benazir’s desire to bring Blackwater operatives on Pakistani soil, there was plenty of criticism of Musharraf for refusing to accede to Benazir’s security demands. It would not be unreasonable then to conclude that Blackwater critics in Pakistan are opposed to the entire spectrum of US policy in the country – certainly an uncontroversial point of view in Pakistan – rather than a loathing of Blackwater per se.
For the sake of intellectual honesty, critics should acknowledge their true motives rather than drumming up the fear that Pakistan is being trampled by forces that are darker than Darth Vader’s soul.
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