Pakistan, the Media and the Politics of Nuclear Weapons
The Unspoken War
By ANTHONY DiMAGGIO, Counterpunch, September 27-28, 2008
"We're on the brink of war with Pakistan…the fact remains that American forces have and are violating Pakistani sovereignty…the Bush administration's decision to step up attacks in Pakistan is fatally reckless, because the cross-border operations' chances of capturing or killing al Qaeda's leadership are slim. American intelligence isn't good enough for precision raids like this, Pakistan's tribal regions are a black hole that even Pakistani operatives can't enter and come back alive. Overhead, surveillance and intercepts do little good in tracking down people in a backward, rural part of the world like this…our going into Pakistan, risking a full-fledged war with a nuclear power, isn't going to stop them…Finally, there is Pakistan itself, a country that truly is on the edge of civil war. Should we be adding to the force of chaos?"
- Robert Baer, September 17, 2008
As a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, Robert Baer has many important insights to add to American foreign policy deliberation. Too bad his warnings have been systematically ignored throughout the mainstream media. The comments above, cited from Time magazine, are the only commentary I've managed to find in all of the American press that warn about the dangerous game the U.S. is playing in destabilizing Pakistan.
The Pakistani political situation has heated up with the September 21st bombing of the Islamabad Hotel, which many suspect was undertaken by radical Islamists. The massive attack, detonating over one ton of explosives, killed at least 60 civilians, injured hundreds more, and may have been intended for Pakistan's Prime Minister, President, and military leaders (who had reportedly planned to meet for dinner at the Hotel).
This attack on Pakistan's government is merely one of many that have been attempted against major officials in recent months. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a suspected Islamist attack in December of 2007, while former President Pervez Musharraf was also the target of attempted assassination. Pakistan's political leaders are caught between the terrorist attacks of Islamist forces on one side, and the increasingly cavalier bombings of the United States, which have further inflamed hostility toward Pakistani officials close to American political leaders.
In recent years, the U.S. military has increased its aggressive attacks against Pakistan. These attacks have typically led to civilian casualties, rather than to the neutralization of Al Qaeda- affiliated or Islamist terrorists. The basis for this extended, low-intensity conflict arose in January 2006, when the U.S. attempted to assassinate Al Qaeda's number two political leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in an attack on the village of Damadola on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. The attack failed in killing Zawahiri, instead resulting in the deaths of 18 civilians. The policy of U.S. aggression was formalized in July of 2007, when the Bush administration issued a presidential order that authorized American attacks inside Pakistan without the approval of Pakistan's government.
The enunciation of the Bush administration's Pakistan position was followed by numerous attacks on alleged terrorist targets, with dire results. Various attacks in recent years using unmanned predator drones resulted in dozens of deaths, and led thousands of Pakistanis to protest the attacks as unwarranted, terrorist incursions into their sovereign territory. Recent U.S. attacks in September 2008 in the mountainous Waziristan region in Northwest Pakistan have left dozens of civilians dead, consistently failing to kill suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives.
The U.S. has long treated Pakistani leaders as if they were commanded by Washington. Following 9/11, the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan "back into the Stone Age" if it did not cooperate with the war against Afghanistan. Pakistan's assistance was demanded, considering the Pakistani Secret Intelligence's (the ISI) lengthy history of working with the Taliban and radical Islamists in Afghanistan. The cooperation of Pakistani presidents Musharraf and Zardari resulted in intense skepticism on the part of the country's public, which views them as corrupt figureheads serving the United States. It's not difficult to see why considering the United State's long history of opposing democracy in Pakistan. As Time magazine aptly admits:
"For much of Pakistan's history, Washington has preferred doing business with military dictators, who don't answer to voters and, at least on the surface, seem more eager than their citizenry is to cooperate with Washington." Popular discontent has become even further entrenched in light of Islamist terrorist attacks, increased political instability, a sluggish economy, and the escalated assault from the United States.
Media reactions to U.S. attacks against Pakistan have varied tremendously depending upon the country reporting the developments. Pakistani and American media coverage differ night-and-day in their framing of the issues. Pakistan's Nation newspaper condemned a September 4th border raid by the U.S. military as an act of "tyranny" and "ruthless aggression and crude pressure" against its people. The paper condemned the U.S. for its unmanned predator drone attacks as a "violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity" – and as part of a larger "killing spree" that has been undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism.
American media coverage, conversely, is driven by a warmongering that's remarkably indifferent to the dangers involved in escalating the conflict. U.S. attacks on Pakistan inevitably carry the risk of further inciting Pakistani anger against the U.S. Such anger takes on a renewed urgency in light of widespread political and military instability, and the recent emboldening of anti-governmental Islamist forces. All of this, we should remember, is happening in a country that possesses nuclear weapons. The U.S. has attacked this nuclear power with no regard for the consequences of the possible use of Pakistan's weapons, should they fall into the hands of anti-American forces.
Don't expect to hear about many of these warnings in the U.S. press, however. If political leaders refuse to address the concerns over U.S. aggression (and they haven't), then for all practical purposes these concerns may as well not exist. Short of occasional media coverage in papers such as the New Yorker, most of the American press has been hesitant to criticize the U.S. too heavily for unwittingly evacuating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders from Pakistan during "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan. These leaders secretly fled Afghanistan, along with Pakistani intelligence officers when they were evacuated by the U.S. in late 2001 in a plan approved by the Bush administration and promoted by former President Musharraf. Rather than focusing on this embarrassing incident, blame for Islamist forces' operations in Pakistan has been placed squarely at the feet of the Pakistani government, which is attacked for "turning a blind eye as the militants organize their insurgency" from within the country.
Star reporters such as Bob Woodward have swallowed hook-line-and-sinker government claims that targets in Pakistan may be pin-point targeted with "newly developed techniques and operations." In the New York Times, editors depict the conflict in an Orwellian fashion, framing Pakistan, rather than the U.S., as the true threat. Illegal U.S. attacks are framed innocently as a response to terrorism, with the Pakistani government's promises of reprisals against invading troops seen as "threatening" the safety of U.S. troops. There is little room under this framework for condemnations of U.S. actions as illegal. While the New York Times has tactically criticized the Bush administration attacks in Pakistan as a "desperation move," it has also lent strong support to future attacks: "If an American raid captured or killed a top Qaeda or Taliban operative, the backlash might be worth it." CIA officer Baer's warnings about the severe dangers of such attacks (and their extraordinary likelihood of failure) are unsurprisingly ignored.
A systematic review of the Washington Post's coverage of U.S.-Pakistani relations further demonstrates the tremendous levels that American propaganda has reached. A review of the paper's coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the dangers of nuclear weapons in relation to North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan reveals a troubling pattern. From June 1-September 15, 2008 (the period in which American attacks in Pakistan dramatically escalated), coverage of U.S. responsibility for increasing the danger of a nuclear conflict with Pakistan have appeared in not a single story. In contrast, over thirty stories appeared (one story every three days) regarding U.S. foreign policy and Iran's alleged threat from developing nuclear weapons. In the case of North Korea, over 55 stories appeared (one story every two days) about U.S. foreign policy and the supposed threat from North Korea.
What is most striking about the examples of North Korea and Iran is that both countries have pursued a de-escalating of tensions with the U.S., engaging in various negotiations with the U.S. and other parties over the last year over the WMD issue. Iran itself was found not even to be developing nuclear weapons by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. North Korea has recently begun the long process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program, disassembling its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon (in 2007 and 2008). These stories, regardless of the de-escalation, often condemned Iran and North Korea as nuclear rogues that only disarmed because of U.S. and allied actions.
What reporting has shown up in the Washington Post on Pakistan, the U.S., and nuclear weapons places blame solely on Pakistan's leaders, leaving U.S. officials free from skepticism. Attention is devoted almost exclusively to the actions of Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, who admitted to selling nuclear technology and secrets to Iran, North Korea, and Libya during the 1990s. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is also lambasted for having allegedly smuggling information on nuclear enrichment to North Korea. No stories are found criticizing the U.S. for destabilizing Pakistan, or warning about the dire consequences of such instability for Pakistan as a nuclear power. No attention is devoted to addressing U.S. recklessness in consistently attacking another nuclear power. In short, nuclear threats from Pakistan arise only from Pakistani actions, not from those of the U.S.
The American media's opposition to printing stories that are critical of the U.S. are not unexpected. If American political elites refuse to challenge America's dangerous initiatives in Pakistan, there is little reason to expect that the media will do so on its own. American reporters have long been known for their stenographic role, faithfully reflecting the official debate in Washington, rather than independently promoting their own reasoned, critical dialogue. Such reliance on, and dissemination of, official propaganda, however, has major effects on public opinion. In a recent poll released on September 22nd, 68% percent of Americans questioned supported taking military action in Pakistan to kill terrorists and Islamist figures "even if the [Pakistani] government does not give the permission to do so." Such a commitment to imperial aggression poses major problems, for reasons discussed above. American survival in a time of terror requires that we refrain from escalating threats with other nuclear powers. Whether the public will effectively take up this challenge remains an open question in an era of media spin and official propaganda.
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the “War on Terror” (2008). He teaches American Government at North Central College in Illinois, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anil Dawar, "Pakistani President and PM Just Missed Hotel Bomb Blast," Guardian, September 22, 2008
Tariq Ali, "The American War Moves to Pakistan," TomDispatch, 16 September 2008
Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, "U.S. Attack on Taliban Kills 23 in Pakistan," 9 September 2008; CNN.com, "Suspected U.S. Attack Kills 13 in Pakistan," 12 September 2008.
David Usborne, "Musharraf: U.S. 'Threatened to Bomb' Pakistan," 22 September 2006,
Bobby Ghosh, "The U.S. and Democracy in Pakistan," Time, 20 August 2008,
Editorial, "Defending Sovereignty," Nation, 16 September 2008; Mazhar Qayyum Khan, "Anger at War on Terror," Nation, 16 September 2008.
Javid Husain, "Impotent Rage," Nation, 16 September 2008; "The Killing Spree," Nation.
Seymour Hersh, "The Getaway," New Yorker, 28 January 2002.
Reuters, "Pakistan Condemns 'Cowardly' U.S. Attack," 11 June 2008.
Steve Weissman, "Bob Woodward's Not-so-Secret Weapon in Iraq," Truthout, 16 September 2008.
Editorial, "Running Out of Time," New York Times, 22 September 2008.
Glenn Kessler, "Bhutto Dealt Nuclear Secrets to North Korea, Book Says," Washington Post, 1 June 2008, 16(A); Joby Warrick, "Smugglers had Design for Advanced Warhead," Washington Post, 15 June 2008, 1(A); Joby Warrick, "Nuclear Ring was More Advanced than Thought, U.N. Says," Washington Post, 13 September 2008, A11.
"New Poll Shows Americans Support Major Changes in U.S. Foreign Policy," Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, September 22, 2008.
The Problem of Pakistan - Steve Coll, New Yorker