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When things go boom in the night, Pakistanis blame Blackwater

The US says it doesn't work with the security firm Blackwater in Pakistan, and the Pakistani government insists no Blackwater employees are working in the country. But many Pakistanis doubt those assertions, complicating US efforts to build trust.

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In recent years, Blackwater gained notoriety over allegations of recklessness and excessive, often lethal, force in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Feb. 11, the Iraq government expelled more than 200 current and former foreign security contractors in connection with a 2007 shooting by Blackwater guards in Baghdad that left 17 civilians dead. In December, a US court dismissed charges of manslaughter against five Blackwater employees, a decision Vice President Joe Biden said the US would appeal. Two former Blackwater contractors based in Kabul are facing charges of second-degree murder over the deaths of two Afghans who were allegedly shot in a traffic accident last May.

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The buildup of distrust and swirl of rumors have left Pakistanis to imagine the worst about US intentions, fueling already intense anti-Americanism: Blackwater is here to kill and “disappear” people, or seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons if the country falls apart. The US is arming and funding not only the Pakistani Army but also the Taliban, to kill off both sides and take over the country. Most Taliban must be foreigners, because Pakistanis would never kill civilians, as the suicide bombers here do, the theory goes.

The Taliban have exploited these beliefs, warning of Blackwater attacks in the northwest. Last November, the Taliban accused the firm of carrying out a suicide bombing to “malign” the insurgency, which “does not believe in the killing of innocent civilians.”

Blow to national pride

The idea of American security contractors let loose in the country reflects Pakistani frustrations with the US but also with their own government. Already many see their leaders as kowtowing to the US by fighting militants at its behest and allowing drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Protesters have demonstrated against Blackwater in Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi.

“If there’s a good reason” for the firm to operate here, “on occasion they should explain it,” says Cyril Almeida, assistant editor of the Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily.

“You don’t have to tell me so-and-so Blackwater official is in so-and-so compound doing whatever covert operation,” he says. “But give a clear understanding. What kind of personnel have you got inside the country, and on the military side, what are they doing?... Is it legal?... Is it desirable?”

But even on military cooperation, the US and Pakistan tend to downplay their partnership to avoid inflaming anti-Americanism. A counterinsurgency training program run by US forces in northwestern Pakistan – spotlighted this month when three American soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb – had been acknowledged but not advertised.

Even as US drone attacks on Pakistani soil have become an open secret, US officials continue to refer to them indirectly. When the airstrikes first ramped up a few years ago, both governments denied knowledge of them.