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.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Newscom/File
Members of the US private security company Blackwater patrol over Baghdad in January 2007. Many Pakistanis believe that the company is operating inside Pakistan, a rumor that the US government denies.

Armed Americans are driving around in unmarked cars, getting caught, and mysteriously released. Who are they? Blackwater, running covert ops for the United States in Pakistan.

Or at least that's what large numbers of Pakistanis appear to believe.

It sounds like textbook conspiracy theory. But in a country that’s already highly suspicious of the US and the notorious security firm, rumors that germinated in small circles have spread nationwide and taken root among mainstream journalists and intellectuals.

For many Pakistanis, the tales confirm that America at best cannot be trusted. For the US, they create another wall of resistance to convincing Pakistanis the US is an ally, one that desperately needs their help fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

These days “any embassy vehicle that’s got men who are in good shape seem to be Blackwater,” says US Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire. “It certainly makes getting our message across more challenging."

Mr. Snelshire says he fields as many as 20 calls a day when especially scandalous reports about Blackwater (which has rebranded itself as Xe) hit newsstands. He says the embassy only employs security contractors from a different firm, DynCorp, and only to train Pakistanis as security guards.

When asked if Blackwater or Xe worked for any other branch of the US or Pakistani government, he writes in an e-mail, “I would refer you to Ambassador [Anne] Patterson’s statement that ‘we do not use Blackwater or Xe in Pakistan.’ On the question of whether or not Blackwater or Xe have any private contracts or contracts with the Government of Pakistan I would refer you to Blackwater/XE.”

Three calls to the company were not returned.

History of distrust

Many of the stories circulating about Blackwater are far from substantiated. Even Awab Alvi, an early adopter of the rumors who tracks the topic on his blog, says that “there’s no concrete evidence” and that “of the 50 reports that come through, maybe one or two are right.” Many accounts come from the Pakistani paper The Nation, which last year drew criticism for calling an American journalist a spy, forcing him to leave the country.

But like many Pakistanis, Dr. Alvi can tick off decades’ worth of reasons not to give the US the benefit of the doubt – and why rumors of secret US-backed operations might find a receptive audience.

In the 1980s, the narrative goes, the US propped up dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq as an ally against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the war ended, the US withdrew, leaving Pakistanis to cope with the guns, drugs, and refugees that spilled into their territory.

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.

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.

“I have a problem with the government constantly lying about these things,” says Asif Akhtar, a blogger based in Lahore, adding that it has undermined its credibility.

When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Islamabad in January, Pakistani media seized on what appeared to be an admission that Blackwater was indeed operating here. In response the Defense Department issued a statement saying it “does not use Blackwater in Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s government denies any Blackwater presence, as Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani reiterated last week. Interior Minister Rehman Malik famously vowed last November to resign if proved wrong. The speculation has spiraled to the point that “anybody traveling with white skin is considered to be Blackwater,” he told Dawn last week.

‘A lot of evidence’

Repeated denials, however, have not stemmed rumors of policemen pulling over carloads of Americans with weapons, nor quashed speculation that these people are Blackwater. Instead, the belief has gained currency as Western media have reported that Blackwater is working for the CIA in Pakistan.

In August, The New York Times said the firm was operating on secret bases in the country to load bombs onto the drones fired at the tribal areas – a contract the CIA acknowledged in December by saying it had been canceled.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Blackwater head Erik Prince detailed his firm’s partnerships with the CIA, including training agents to assassinate Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan. A November report in the American publication The Nation claimed that Blackwater employees were plotting assassinations from a base in Karachi and training Pakistani forces, and sometimes conducting raids with them, in the northwest.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Blackwater was operating in Pakistan under a different name,” says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad who is frequently cited in Western media.

Mr. Hussain says he is 100 percent sure Blackwater is operating in Pakistan. “Even when the CIA says they have terminated contracts with them, there is no guarantee that these guys will not resurface,” he says. “What has appeared in public is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Correspondent Issam Ahmed contributed from Lahore, Pakistan.
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