Gates faux pas opens the door to criticismJanuary 24, 2010
The US embassy on Saturday tried to paper over Defence Secretary Robert Gates’s diplomatic faux pas of confirming Blackwater presence in Pakistan by putting the blame on the media, but it found few takers. Secretary Gates’s impromptu comments in a television interview have renewed the focus on seething rage among Pakistanis about the involvement of private US security companies, particularly Blackwater, in the country.
The embassy, in a statement on Secretary Gates’s remarks, accused the television station and newspapers of inaccurate and dishonest reporting. “The television station and many newspapers chose to inaccurately portray his answer as tacit confirmation on the use of Blackwater in Pakistan instead of as a commentary on use of security contractors in general. At no time did Secretary Gates say that Blackwater is operating in Pakistan,” the statement said.
Perhaps the secretary’s reply to a query in an interview with a private channel, when read along with the question, may bring the slip out. According to the transcript posted on the website of US Department of Defence, Secretary Gates had said: “Well, they’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theatres of war involving the United States.”
He had been asked: “And I want to talk, of course, about another issue that has come up again and again about the private security companies that have been operating in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan.
“Xe International, formerly known as Blackwater and Dyncorp. Under what rules are they operating here in Pakistan?”
Officials accompanying the secretary immediately after the show made him realise the mistake of publicly acknowledging the presence of private US security firms in Pakistan, something which had earlier been denied by both the Pakistan government and the US embassy.
Damage control exercise was planned and Secretary Gates, in an interaction with print journalists the following day, attempted clarification of his statement: “Department of Defence (DoD) does not use Blackwater in Pakistan. We have no connection with Blackwater in Pakistan.”
Observers believe there is technically little difference between the two statements. He did not deny outright Blackwater presence. He just confined himself to saying his department did not employ them in Pakistan.
Whether the remarks were unintentional or Mr Gates was trying to be too candid, diplomatic observers believe the comments are set to widen the trust deficit between the US and Pakistan, which the secretary himself conceded was making it difficult to work together in confronting extremism. The controversial remarks have also put the government in an awkward and embarrassing position. Opposition parties are now having the last laugh, seeking explanations from the government.
Several attempts were made to seek the government’s reaction from the Foreign Office and key federal ministers, but everyone was tight-lipped. The slip has taken the government not only by surprise, but has also come at a most inappropriate time when it was struggling to cope with the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordinance.
Although reports in Pakistani media since early last year had been expressing concern about the presence of Blackwater and other US contractors, but publication of reports in British and American media about the mercenary firm’s activities in Pakistan turned the spotlight on the issue.
In November, Jeremy Scahill reported for US magazine The Nation that Blackwater was operating out of a covert base in Karachi, where it “plan(s) targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan”.
Scahill had alleged that Blackwater, which had a subcontract with a private Pakistani security company, worked for US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Subsequently in December, the Guardian carried a report about Blackwater presence at an air force base in Balochistan, which was being used by US. It is interesting to note that though Mr Gates had denied that Department of Defence was not Blackwater’s employer in Pakistan, but he had stayed short of saying if State Department or any other US government agency was using them here.
An answer to this riddle can probably be found in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments at a Town Hall meeting in Islamabad during her visit in October.
The secretary, in reply to a similar question, had said: “I understand the sensitivity of the issue, but I want to be clear why we have any contractors, well because we get dozens and dozens of threats every month directed towards our diplomats and public officials, who are here for diplomatic activity. Our diplomats don’t carry arms, but on the other hand if they have to get out they need security.”
Notwithstanding the US embassy’s rejoinder on the issue, people are largely convinced that Mr Gates has inadvertently spilled the beans. But for them the most important question now is whether Blackwater has been operating on its own, under the camouflage of some local security company, or in league with some elements within the country’s security apparatus or even the government.