Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fear and Loathing in AfPak

In this lead story from the online edition of the New York Times on the 26th of September, reporter Carlotta Gall humanizes one of the 16 American and Afghani officials allegedly ambushed and killed in cold blood at the Pakistani outpost of Teri Mangal in 2007, at the end of what they had thought would be a peaceful meeting to resolve a border dispute:

"…a Pakistani soldier opened fire with an automatic rifle, pumping multiple rounds from just 5 or 10 yards away into an American officer, Maj. Larry J. Bauguess Jr., killing him almost instantly. An operations officer with the 82nd Airborne Division from North Carolina, Major Bauguess, 36, was married and the father of two girls, ages 4 and 6."

US Major Larry J. Baugess (source: NYT)

Ms Gall’s story, the publication of which coincided with an increase in the verbal volleys being fired in Pakistan’s direction, blended seamlessly into the narrative currently being fed to the American public by its mainstream media. The narrative can be summarized by this editorial, The Latest Ugly Truth About Pakistan, in the same publication two days before:

"Those who came under fire that day remain bitter about the duplicity of the Pakistanis. Colonel Kuchai remembers the way the senior Pakistani officers left the yard minutes before the shooting without saying goodbye, behavior that he now interprets as a sign that they knew what was coming."

The increased rhetorical aggression is, in its own words, just the latest play in this game:

“The Pentagon hopes public exposure will shame the Pakistanis — who receive billions of dollars in aid — into changing their behavior.”

But realpolitik aside Ms. Gall – who is an award winning, experienced reporter covering Afghanistan and Pakistan - and the New York Times, are right to seek to ‘tell the truth’ and expose this story of ambush, murder and injustice in the AfPak borderlands in 2007. That, along with making a profit, is what serious journalists and serious publications are supposed to do. Here is another example of a similar story about the unjust ambush and murder of 16 men in the AfPak borderlands in 2006.

 The Spin Boldak massacre of 2006 (Photos from Afghan CID via The Atlantic)

This one is the culmination of a two-year investigation by roving reporter Matthieu Aikins. It is the story of smuggler Shin Noorzai and the 15 companions (farmers, traders, and a 16-year-old boy) who were traveling with him in Afghanistan in 2006 when he accepted an invitation from Mohammed Nadeem Lalai, an officer in the Border Police, to stop in Kabul on their way to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to celebrate Nauroz. Lalai led them to a house where, during the festivities, the 16 were drugged, bound, gagged, loaded into vehicles with official plates and driven 500 kilometers south to Spin Boldak, by a smuggler/Border Police colonel named Abdul Raziq:

"Raziq and his men loaded their captives into a convoy of Land Cruisers and headed out to a parched, desolate stretch of the Afghan-Pakistani border. About 10 kilometers outside of town, they came to a halt. Shin and the others were hauled out of the trucks and into a dry river gully. There, at close range, Raziq’s forces let loose with automatic weapons, their bullets tearing through the helpless men, smashing their faces apart and soaking their robes with blood. After finishing the job, they unbound the corpses and left them there."

Brig General Abdul Raziq (source: The Atlantic)

If the name Abdul Raziq sounds familiar to anyone who follows developments in Afghanistan, it is because he is now Brigadier General Abdul Raziq of the Border Police, and also acting Police Chief of Kandahar, where he continues to exercise his penchant for torture and killing. The drug trafficker's rapid rise through the ranks is all the more remarkable, Mr Aikins establishes, when you consider how well documented his extracurricular activities have been:

"Though Raziq has risen in large part through his own skills and ambition, he is also, to a considerable degree, a creation of the American military intervention in Afghanistan. (Prior to 2001, he had worked in a shop in Pakistan.) As part of a countrywide initiative, his men have been trained by two controversial private military firms, DynCorp and Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, at a U.S. -funded center in Spin Boldak, where they are also provided with weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment. Their salaries are subsequently paid through the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a UN-administered international fund, to which the U.S. is the largest contributor. Raziq himself has enjoyed visits in Spin Boldak from such senior U.S. officials as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus."

In her story, Ms Gall hints at how official inquiries into the 2007 incident seemed opaque and half-hearted:

"General McNeill, who is retired, remembers the episode as the worst moment of his second tour as commander in Afghanistan, not only because he knew Major Bauguess and his family, but also because he never received satisfactory explanations in meetings with his counterpart, the Pakistani vice chief of army staff, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat."

In his, Mr Aikins notes a similar pattern of investigative shortcomings on the other side of the line:

"In public, American officials had until recently been careful to downplay Raziq’s alleged abuses. When I met with the State Department’s Moeling at his Kandahar City office in January, he told me, “I think there is certainly a mythology about Abdul Raziq, where there’s a degree of assumption on some of those things. But I have never seen evidence of private prisons or of extrajudicial killings directly attributable to him."
"Yet, as a 2006 State Department report shows, U.S. officials have for years been aware of credible allegations that Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians, the details of which have, until now, been successfully buried."

Both include the obligatory search for meaning in the tragedy reference. Ms Gall with:

"As for the Afghans, they still want answers. “Why did the Pakistanis do it?” General Same of the Afghan Army said. “They have to answer this question."

Mr Aikins with:

"It was a tribal conflict,” Waheed said, shaking his head, his long fingers trembling as they tapped against his cheek. “Raziq had a problem with Shin, but why did he have to kill all the others?"

To the jaded eye weary of reading endless accounts of the death and destruction wrought by mankind’s continued obsession with playing toy soldiers, the most interesting thing about Ms Gall’s piece was its timing, and this account of one of her previous interactions with Pakistani intelligence. Mr Aikins', on the other hand, kept my attention, partly because of nuggets like the following:

"Toward the end of 2009, senior ISAF officials reportedly thought about pushing for Raziq to be replaced. According to leaked cables, a high-level meeting was convened in Kabul, chaired by Deputy Ambassador Earl Wayne and Major General Michael Flynn, to discuss the problematic behavior of Raziq, among others. “Nobody, including his US military counterparts,” one cable noted, “is under any illusions about his corrupt activities.” Ultimately, however, General McChrystal, who was then the commander of ISAF and U.S. forces, decided that Raziq was too useful to cut loose, according to an article in The Washington Post. (McChrystal, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.) Cables also reveal that an American information-operations team even proposed a plan, “if credible,” for “the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’ of Razziq."

We wait with bated breath for a time when there will be a US policy push for the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’ of Pakistan.


Hunter S. Thompson

These two strikingly similar and yet markedly different stories had me reaching for a passage from the beginning of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, describing the hard-drinking clientele of Al’s Backyard:

"Vagrant journalists are notorious welshers, and to those who travel in that rootless world, a large unpaid bar tab can be a fashionable burden.

There was no shortage of people to drink with in those days. They never lasted very long, but they kept coming. I call them vagrant journalists because no other term would be quite as valid. No two were alike. They were professionally deviant, but they had a few things in common. They depended, mostly from habit, on newspapers and magazines for the bulk of their income; their lives were geared to long chances and sudden movements; and they claimed no allegiance to any flag and valued no currency but luck and good contacts.

Some of them were more journalists than vagrants, and others were more vagrants than journalists – but with a few exceptions they were part-time, freelance, would-be-foreign correspondents who, for one reason or another, lived at several removes from the journalistic establishment. Not the slick strivers and jingo parrots who staffed the mossback papers and news magazines of the Luce empire. Those were a different breed.

…In a sense I was one of them – more competent than some and more stable than others- and in the years that I carried that ragged banner I was seldom unemployed…It was a greedy life and I was good at it. I made some interesting friends, had enough money to get around and learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.

Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.

At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles- a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going."

Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in 2005.


Junaid Akhlaq said...

Excellent article man... I so wish I could write like you.

Do you have any good writing tips?

Farrukh's News said...

fasi Zaka is a great writer

AKS said...

I personally thought that this was a terrible article, and a missed opportunity at objectively analyzing an alarming incident.

Part of the reason why I feel this way is that I first read this article in the IHT supplement provided by Express Tribune, where it appeared on the front page under the title:

"New Details Reveal Face of Pakistan as Enemy"


Now I don't know if the New York Times print edition also carried this or not, but I would imagine that it would have done so.

The narrative the author appears to be conveying is that Pakistan, or at least its army, is untrustworthy and that the US-Pak alliance has directly resulted in American deaths.

The second last paragraph however contradicts this :

"Both Generals Helmly and McNeill accept as plausible that a lone member of the Frontier Corps, whether connected to the militants or pressured by them, was responsible, but they also said it was possible that a larger group of soldiers was acting in concert. The two generals said there was no evidence that senior Pakistani officials had planned the attack."

It seems pretty clear to me that there is no evidence presented here to support the narrative that 'Pakistan is the real enemy.'

It would have far better for the author to focus less on Pakistani duplicity and more on the fracturing of the Pakistani military command structure.

The incident highlights the level of anti-American sentiments and disenchantment with the present conflict felt by ordinary Pakistani soldiers.

There has been a visible increase in the number of Pakistani military personnel, enlisted soldiers and officers, going rogue. This is a dangerous development and one that makes me extremely jittery.

Is it possible that the reason why the Pakistani army establishment does not want to initiate any further military actions is because they cannot trust their own people to remain loyal?

Anonymous said...

AKS your comment, and particularly the last para is insightful, and needs to be explored and expanded. Bravo.
As for the suggestion (on the comment form) of not using the anonymous option, well I find it very cute from a blog whose writers are never named.

Anonymous said...

AKS: Interesting comments. You talk of "the fracturing of the Pakistani military command structure" and said that "There has been a visible increase in the number of Pakistani military personnel, enlisted soldiers and officers, going rogue." Do you have any empirical evidence to back that up with? Or is it just one of those feelings backed by anecdotal stories? Incidentally, the threat of "potential" division being caused within the ranks of jawans by an unpopular operation has long been talked about even by the military as one reason for not rushing into military operations in the tribal areas.

On the other hand, one could argue that you've missed the point of the piece altogether. It is not focusing on Pakistani military duplicity and is in fact looking at the duplicity of the media, specifically the international media...

Ralphy said...

I am not sure why you think that Pakistani treachery at a peace meeting on the Afgan-Pakistani border is equivilent to a war lord's massacre of 16 people. Or more precisely, why American international reporting should place just as much importance on both news articles? You never made your case other than the innate failings of demented, alchoholic tramps posing as journalists.

Anonymous said...

Very good post. Troubling that the on ground stories are not reported in the mass media. We need mroe Hunter Thompsons!

Y Khan said...

Excellent piece and really well written. You have to understand that the American corporate media specifically regarding international relations will always tow the US Governments line. Even with the Abu Gharaib incident CBS had knows about the incident for many months but only released the information when they thought another network might go out with the news. If you look at the patterns of news before the Iraq war and now regarding Pakistan, there are systematic "leaks" printed in high profile newspapers like Washington Post and the NYT which basically re-inforce the point of view of the US establishment. This point of view is further emphasised by bringing out stories that have a certain human aspect related to the general political theme, e.g. Pakistan's duplicity, that makes the average reader completely believe the governments line. Not for a moment is there a question asked, in fact any kind of a query is seen as un-american. The funny thing is that the US domestic electronic media in particular uses one liners like "No spin zone" (FOX) or "keeping them honest" (Anderson Cooper CNN) to make its audience believe in their integrity but the smart audience have started to access other sources on the internet or AlJazeera or BBC to get real news,

With respect to Pakistan bashing on US media I do not think it is going to stop until Pakistan attacks North Waziristan. Until that happens Pakistan is going to be the main target.

TLW said...

This feels like way, way above my pay grade. MSS (And others at Cafe Pyala) please don't feel stressed. There are others with you.

The strange case of sudden pressure on Pakistan is an interesting development. I would just point out that Tariq Ali did mention the story of the Frontier Corps soldier who went rogue and killed a visiting American officer, a couple of years ago. One more question is why the US Government sat on that story for years and pulled it out only at a time when it would embarass the Pakistanis.

I would say that a lesson Pakistanis should take away from this is to discourage illegal actions, because they get pulled back and shoved in our faces, a few years down the line to blackmail and pressurise us.

NastySurprises.Com.Pk would be the chronicle of horrendous (and blackmail-worthy) Pakistani illegal behaviour.