“The deaths of three American soldiers in a Taliban suicide attack on Wednesday lifted the veil on United States military assistance to Pakistan.” So began a Feb 4th piece by Jane Perlez in the New York Times.
But even all these days on, it’s been a very discreet unveiling.
Lest we forget, US servicepeople are not supposed to be dying in Pakistan. It’s not Iraq, it’s not Afghanistan. There’s no agreement for combat troops to operate. Until recently, U.S. officials have repeatedly officially denied having any combat troops in place. This month’s killing exposed that lie — so what were the US troops doing there?
What we’ve learned so far is the soldiers were part of what federal officials say is a small contingent of American soldiers who’ve been training Pakistan’s army for 18 months now.
As the Times puts it, “the trainings has been acknowledged only gingerly by both the Americans and the Pakistanis…..so as not to trespass onto Pakistani sensitivities about sovereignty and not to further inflame high anti-American sentiment.”
For a taste of that gingerly-acknowledging, read the Times story. In more than 1, 000 words Perlez quotes roughly a dozen sources, all but two of them US officials, or Pakistanis working implicitly or explicitly with the US embassy. Of two non-official sources, one makes the obvious point:
The American soldiers were probably made targets as a result of the drone strikes, said Syed Rifaat Hussain, professor of international relations at Islamabad University. “The attack seems a payback for the mounting frequency of the drone attacks,” Professor Hussain said.
It’s an obvious point because the Pakistani press and local activists have been making it loudly, n the press and in street protests for months now. In the same week that Perlez’s piece appeared, the country’s English daily, The News, ran a long editorial on the rapid increase in US drone attacks, making the point that roughly 41 civilians have been killed for every alleged Al Qaeda or Taliban target.
The Taliban’s rewarding its fighters with new cars when they bring down US drones — “The shooting down of the drone has lifted the morale of our fighters. It’s a huge success for the poorly armed Taliban against a powerful enemy,” remarked a senior Taliban commander, at the car-award ceremony.
Among the Pakistani public, surveys constantly show that Pakistanis consider the US a greater threat than the Taliban, despite 3,021 Pakistani deaths in terrorist attacks last year. If the drones are controversial, the presence of US soldiers on Pakistani soil is far more so.
If the US war is quietly shifting, it’s not quiet inside Pakistan. People are kicking up a stink. Yet Perlez’s piece, which is bylined Islamabad, reads more like an Embassy hand-out than a Pulitzer Prize-winner’s research. Times readers get only the barest whiff of local reaction, and that may be the most dangerous strike yet.