Slander

by Nicholas Schmidle | January 8, 2010

In late August, a couple of weeks after a U.S. drone strike incinerated Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s most popular televised chat show, “Capital Talk,” hosted a panel to discuss national security. Among the guests was a squat, middle-aged woman with short black hair, streaked with silver dye, named Shireen Mazari. A defense analyst and public intellectual, Mazari is known for her hawkish nationalism--and deep suspicions of India and the United States. Her presence in the studio suggested that, despite the enormous threat her country faced from homegrown terrorists, the conversation that night wouldn’t center around Mehsud or the Pakistani Taliban.

Instead, over the course of the next half hour, the panel discussed reports that Blackwater, the North Carolina–based defense contractor that recently changed its name to Xe Services, was operating in Pakistan. Hamid Mir, the host of “Capital Talk,” showed video footage of Islamabad’s most expensive neighborhoods, featuring multi-story villas with high walls and satellite dishes. The homes looked like any other on the street. But red arrows, superimposed on the screen, pointed to allegedly incriminating electrical generators and surveillance cameras perched atop the walls. “American undercover people are coming,” Mazari said. “They are renting homes, and Blackwater is providing security, running death squads and assassination squads ... It is an occupation, by default.”

Mazari’s hunt for American spies and undercover defense contractors was only getting started. In September, she was named editor of The Nation, an English-language daily often described as “Fox News in Pakistan.” (Earlier this year, one columnist dubbed Mazari the “Ann Coulter of Pakistan.”) Throughout the fall, The Nation has published multiple front-page stories on the location of new “Blackwater dens” around Islamabad. It featured a news story last month titled “mysterious us nationals,” which described “two suspicious foreigners wandering in the guise of journalists ... [who] seemingly belonged to the US spy agency CIA.” The proof? That they “were driven towards the US Consulate.” (The “mysterious US nationals” turned out to be an English freelance photographer and an Australian photographer who works for Getty.)

The low point, however, came a couple of weeks earlier, when The Nation fronted a story titled “journalists as spies in fata?”--a reference to Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas--that cited anonymous law enforcement sources accusing Matthew Rosenberg, an American correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, of working as a “chief operative” for the CIA, Blackwater, and the Mossad. “We put in a question mark,” said Mazari, referring to the punctuation at the end of the headline, when I asked her whether she realized she was endangering Rosenberg’s life. (Daniel Pearl, also a Journal reporter, was kidnapped in Karachi in early 2002, accused of being a CIA agent, and beheaded.)

In the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States and Pakistan are ostensibly on the same side. But, as the Obama administration prepares to pour tens of thousands of new troops into Afghanistan, it faces a daunting array of challenges from its allies in Islamabad. Perhaps none is as disturbing as the anti-Americanism that is being fueled by Pakistan’s mainstream media. In a twisted development, most Pakistanis now view the United States as their greatest threat and enemy, usurping a place that India seemed primed to occupy eternally. And Mazari, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, may represent the vanguard of a well-educated, English-speaking, secular elite increasingly charged with hypernationalism and antipathy toward the United States. Mixing fact with demagoguery, and sometimes outright fiction, she represents yet another obstacle to Washington’s war on the Taliban.

For most of the past decade, Shireen Mazari wrote a regular column in The News, a popular English-language newspaper owned by the largest private media conglomerate in Pakistan. The country does not exactly have a free press--this fall, Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan in the bottom 10 percent of its Press Freedom Index, squeezed between Uzbekistan and Equatorial Guinea--but there is no shortage of dissenting opinions aired on any of the country’s myriad private TV channels. Over the past couple of years, much of the commentariat’s energy has gone into denouncing President Asif Ali Zardari and U.S. foreign policy. It’s an effort that Mazari, whose articles often criticize the country’s civilian leadership and breathlessly recount CIA plots to dismember Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons, has played a large part in leading.

I first met Mazari in 2006, when I was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (issi), a foreign ministry–funded think tank. She was the head of the institute, and I was in the country as a freelance journalist, but, at dinner parties, Mazari often introduced me as her “resident CIA agent”--a joke that’s never really funny and grew awfully uncomfortable over time. Eventually, in January 2008, I was expelled from Pakistan following months of reporting in Taliban-affected parts of the country. Last month, in a TV interview, Mazari said, “There is a history of American journalists misbehaving in Pakistan,” after which she mentioned my travels to supposedly off-limits regions and added, “Eventually, he had to be deported.”

Far from being on the fringes of Pakistani society, Mazari is something of an establishment figure. She was appointed director general of the institute by Pervez Musharraf’s government not long after the general seized power in an October 1999 coup. In subsequent years, Mazari says she enjoyed considerable influence within Musharraf’s circles, and those ties, combined with her writing, have led to charges that she is merely a pawn for Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, which remain critical of U.S. power and are critical of Zardari’s floundering attempts at governance. “It’s quite obvious that her views are in consonance with people in the agencies,” explained Arif Nizami, the former editor of The Nation, who led the paper from 1986 until this September, when Mazari took over. “She’s let loose by certain people in the agencies who would like to see the pot burning,” said an acquaintance of Mazari’s in Islamabad. “She’s just a mouthpiece.”

That doesn’t mean that Mazari’s charges are all without merit. There is, of course, a U.S. military and intelligence presence in Pakistan, and, two weeks ago, the New York-based liberal magazine The Nation--no relation to its Pakistani namesake--published a lengthy article alleging the activities of Xe/Blackwater in Pakistan on behalf of the U.S. military. Xe and the U.S. government deny the charges, but, when I spoke with Mazari soon after, she said, “I certainly feel vindicated.” She later added, “Our interests and the Americans’ interests don’t coincide.”

During Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan, the secretary of state spent much time arguing that U.S. and Pakistani interests did, in fact, coincide. To a cynical questioner who believed that Pakistan was fighting America’s war, Clinton replied, “We have a common enemy.” Indeed, in the past six months alone, the Pakistani Taliban has exploded bombs in Islamabad; attacked police and military sites in Punjab; overrun the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi; and bombed sites throughout Peshawar. More than 400 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since October. Behind closed doors, senior Pakistani leaders seem to realize the threat, which is why Islamabad accepts U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, silently condoning the drone strikes, for example, while condemning them for public effect. Mazari’s objections--like those of many other Pakistanis--are certainly understandable, but the reckless, oftentimes unsubstantiated way in which Mazari presents them only deepens the so-called “trust deficit” between the two countries.

In August, for example, Mazari wrote that an American citizen named Craig Davis had been arrested in Peshawar and deported because of his alleged ties to Creative Associates, a government contractor that she dubbed the “central organization” for U.S.-funded “suspicious, covert operations” in Pakistan. “Clearly there is a threatening US agenda seeking out our nuclear sites and assassinating people, thereby adding to our chaos and violence,” she continued. Weeks later, she wrote that Davis was back in the country. The U.S. Embassy objected to the story, and The News’s editorial-page editor went back and fact-checked the column. Some of Mazari’s assertions--Davis had not, in fact, been deported--didn’t check out. So, before her next column ran, the editor opted to hold the piece an extra day and show it to a lawyer. In the interim, Mazari announced that she was taking the job as editor of The Nation, though not before accusing the U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, of interfering with Pakistan’s free press. (It wasn’t the first time Mazari had accused the Americans of disrupting her career. When the Pakistan People’s Party won elections in 2008, they promptly removed her from her position at the issi, a development for which she also blamed Patterson.)

Mazari and The Nation, though smaller than The News, were a perfect fit; The Nation’s publisher has advocated nuking India and is also noted for his conspiracy-mongering. Since taking over, Mazari claims that the paper has been “seeing a big revival,” with circulation having “jumped up tremendously.” According to both Pakistanis and Pakistan-watchers, The Nation has become a right-wing outlet like Fox News. But Hamid Mir, the host of “Capital Talk,” cautioned against making the comparison--for fear of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. “The Nation is not very big and not very influential,” he said. “If The Nation becomes Fox News, then Pakistan will burn.”

Already, the Taliban have seized on the propaganda opportunity that Mazari has opened. When a bomb ripped through a Peshawar market in late October, killing more than 100 people, the Taliban, increasingly concerned about alienating the Pakistani public, refused to take credit for the blast. Instead, Mehsud’s successor, the Fu Manchu–styled Hakimullah Mehsud, blamed Blackwater. If that line becomes accepted, then not only will Pakistan continue to burn, but the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may burn along with it.

Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.

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