By Omar R Quraishi
Over the past few weeks one has come across several letters and reports — both from professional journalists as well as from concerned citizens — about the presence of mysterious foreign-looking security men in Peshawar. In fact, initially it was Peshawar but a recent letter said that these men were also seen in one of Islamabad’s central markets. In fact, a regular writer for this newspaper’s editorial pages, Shireen Mazari, in her piece of Aug 26 said that a company by the name of Creative Associates International Inc. (henceforth CAII) was operating inside Pakistan and that the foreign men seen by citizens were quite possibly working for it.
Also, in the third week of August, a German news magazine as well as a major American newspaper reported that the CIA had been using Xe Services LLC (formerly Blackwater) to provide security for the "secret" bases that it was maintaining "inside Pakistan and Afghanistan" to launch drone attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Xe LLC is the same company that, it now turns out, was hired by the CIA to "collect information" on al-Qaeda leaders as well as in its secret rendition programme. Some commentators in the alternative press in the US have more or less accused the company of being the CIA’s death squad claiming that the role its personnel played is well beyond gathering information on al-Qaeda leaders and assets.
In a detailed report, the New York Times said that the owner of the company, the very controversial Erik Prince, was part of the original 20-man contingent that flew out to Afghanistan to work with the CIA at its station in Kabul. It also said that Blackwater was working with the CIA in Shkin — which happens to be situated in Paktika province. Interestingly enough, Shkin is just across the Pakistan border from Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, the very place where US Special Forces carried out a deadly raid on Sept 3, 2008 and in which several women and children were killed. Three helicopters were used in the raid and F-16 jets provided air cover, according to reports in this newspaper and the NYT.
The paper claimed that despite the controversy surrounding Blackwater the US government would be paying the company around $150 million for contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As if this were not enough, the nature of the payments was such that they were being made not to the company but to individuals — the US government had apparently entered into contracts with individuals who were then paid for their ‘services’. The reason that this was done was — in line with the tactic of ‘plausible deniability’ often used by governments and their intelligence agencies — that in case something went wrong the US government could easily distance itself and deny that it had any such programme in place with what is essentially a private mercenary company.
A former agent who worked in undercover operations for the CIA was quoted in The Nation (a leading alternative US publication with a robust presence on the web) as saying: "What the agency [CIA] was doing with Blackwater scares the hell out of me. When the agency actually cedes all oversight and power to a private organization, an organization like Blackwater, most importantly they lose control and don’t understand what’s going on. What makes it even worse is that you then can turn around and have deniability. They can say, ‘It wasn’t us, we weren’t the ones making the decisions.’ That’s the best of both worlds. It’s analogous to what we hear about torture that was being done in the name of Americans, when we simply handed somebody over to the Syrians or the Egyptians or others and then we turn around and say, ‘We’re not torturing people.’"
The publication also spoke to a ranking member of Congress on the House Intelligence Committee who said that Blackwater was "part of the innermost circle strategising and exercising strategy within the Bush administration" and that "Erik Prince operated at the highest and most secret level of the government". The legislator further added: "Clearly Prince was more trusted than the US Congress because Vice-President Cheney made the decision not to brief Congress."
So if Blackwater (or Xe LLC or whatever it’s called now) is in Pakistan (something that Anne Patterson or her bosses in Washington will never confirm in any case) then it should be reasonable cause for some concern for Pakistanis — simply because of the horrific record of its personnel in Iraq and because of its shady/secretive/clandestine relationship with the CIA and the US Department of Defence.
As for CAII, it has been given several major contracts by USAID and it is likely that the same may have happened with USAID now working actively in Pakistan. According to details from the website of the Center for Public Integrity, a private US-based watchdog, around 90 percent of the company’s contracts come from USAID and that it has annual revenues of over $50 million. It seems to prefer working in conflict or potential-conflict areas since the roster includes the likes of (in addition to Afghanistan) Serbia, Mozambique, Angola, El Salvador, Haiti, Benin, Guatemala, Lebanon and Liberia. According to the company’s website, clients include the US Marine Corps, the Jordanian government and the World Bank.
Examples of its ‘projects’ suggest that it works closely with the US government and its various agencies, particularly the departments of state and defence. For example, in the late 1980s, it received USAID and Pentagon funding to "help demobilize and provide civilian training" for the Contras in Nicaragua. The Washington Times (a paper known for its rightwing views) recently reported that Creative Associates had contracts with two "well-known" oil companies, and that when the Center for Public Integrity asked the company to name them, Creative refused to answer and obliquely said: "Our work for USAID helps advance United States global interests in peace and security, and is carried out in accordance with the governing rules and regulations of the United States government."
The centre also said that as long ago as Oct 2003, the company refused to answer nine of its questions that it had asked Creative regarding certain contracts. It pointed out that only six months prior to this round of refusals, the head of the company, Maria Kruvant, had told The Washington Post that "the issue of transparency is part of our life" and "I usually say quite comfortably that people know my shoe size". The centre gives several examples from Iraq, in particular a project called "RISE, or Revitalization of Iraqi Schools and Stabilization of Education" dating back to 2003 where it implies that the company was favoured in a big way by USAID and that the contract in question was worth as much as $157.1 million over its three-year implementation period. Also in 2003, USAID awarded CAII a three-year contract worth over 60 million dollars for "educational reform" in Afghanistan for "rebuilding 1,000 schools, training 30,000 teachers and providing $15 million worth of textbooks". In 2004 CAII was given another contract in Iraq, worth over 55 million dollars, to provide "technical assistance" to the Iraqi ministry of education.
The writer is Editorial Pages
Editor of The News.