Wednesday, October 7, 2009

U.S. Embassy Islamabad Taking Heat Over Security Measures

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I've been following the news about the legal troubles of Inter-Risk, a security contractor to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, and the related troubles the embassy itself is having over the Pakistani perception of our large security footprint in their country.

The Washington Times had an exclusive story on this yesterday (U.S. security firm's Pakistan role questioned):

A firm providing security for U.S. diplomats in Pakistan was equipped with sophisticated weaponry that appears more suited to Special Forces commandos, raising questions about its real role in a country facing a serious terrorist threat.

Two police raids last month on Inter-Risk - a subcontractor for the big U.S. firm DynCorp International - turned up dozens of unlicensed weapons including 61 assault rifles, police officials told The Washington Times.

Islamabad Police Senior Superintendent Tahir Alam said police also briefly detained the head of the security firm, retired Capt. Syed Ali Jaffer Zaidi, a veteran of more than a decade in the special forces of the Pakistani army.

The raids appear to have exposed mixed signals within the Pakistani government and the lack of trust that continues to plague U.S. relations with Pakistan, an on-and-off ally in the war against Islamic extremism.

Police took action against Inter-Risk six months after U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson wrote a letter to Interior Minister Rehman Malik asking for licenses for normally prohibited high-caliber weapons. [TSB note: these "prohibited bore" weapons, to use the Pakistani legal term for them, are merely AK-47 rifles, not anything truly sophisticated or commando-esque. Any rifle with a bore diameter greater than .222, or any automatic weapon, is normally prohibited to non-government parties but licenses may be issued for them by the approval of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, which is what Ambassador Patterson was requesting.]

-- snip --

[A] senior Pakistani defense official, who has knowledge of the situation but was not authorized to speak on the record about it, said there has been "extraordinary concern among government officials and the people of Pakistan regarding DynCorp, as well as other U.S. security operations firms in our country."

Regarding that "extraordinary concern" among the government and public, at least some of the local news media think it is misplaced. The Pakistani daily English-language newspaper Dawn had a very sensible editorial on the topic last week, which said in part:

First, American officials in particular face serious threats in Pakistan and they certainly need extra security. Since the possibility of marines protecting American officials has been vociferously rejected by the media and denied by the government only recently that leaves the option of private security guards.

Second, private security companies operate by the dozen in Pakistan, protecting countless private citizens and properties, and every company trains its employees and provides them with weapons. So unless there is something in particular that the security firm assisting the Americans is doing wrong, there is little sense in opposing a firm that is after all providing jobs and training to Pakistanis.

It appears though that the ‘wrongs’ allegedly committed are less about legalities and technicalities and more about politics and turf wars. There is zero risk of Islamabad being overrun by ‘American’ security. This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no occupation and, frankly, it is embarrassing to suggest that the state and national assets could be at risk from a handful of private guards.

But the leaks of ‘suspicious’ activities are sustained enough to suggest that a faction in the government or the intelligence/security apparatus is worried. Perhaps because the state has not fully worked out what is and isn’t permissible for the growing number of foreign nationals to do inside Pakistan and the tendency for the Americans to push the envelope on occasion to see how far they can go has some Pakistani officials trying to push back through the media. If that is indeed the case, then it needs to be sorted out at the earliest at the highest levels of officialdom.

If Dawn is correct, the U.S. Embassy is on the receiving end of a propaganda campaign that is raising exaggerated concerns about legitimate security measures it is taking, with the likely goal of forcing the U.S. government to pull back its expanding presence in Pakistan.

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