A dangerous secret

How a Chico writer stumbled on a clandestine black-ops program in Pakistan operated by the notorious private militia Blackwater

Gayle Kimball is shown here with many of the dozen books she has authored. She had no idea her latest book, a survey of the insights and questions of teens around the world (inset), would lead her to discover—long before it became public knowledge, that the infamous Blackwater private militia was carrying out special operations in Pakistan.

Gayle Kimball is shown here with many of the dozen books she has authored. She had no idea her latest book, a survey of the insights and questions of teens around the world (inset), would lead her to discover—long before it became public knowledge, that the infamous Blackwater private militia was carrying out special operations in Pakistan.

Photo courtesy of Gayle Kimball

On Oct. 17, 2009, Chico author Gayle Kimball got an e-mail from her friend Saeed, a 17-year-old Pakistani boy with whom she’d been corresponding for some time. He is one of the nearly 4,000 teenagers from around the world she’s contacted via e-mail for her next book, Wired & Green: Global Youth Insights & Questions, a survey of teens worldwide.

Something ominous was occurring in his country, Saeed said. American troops and Blackwater mercenaries were starting to make their presence known.

“There is a badge of blackwater army in my city,” wrote Saeed, who lives in Peshawar, in the frontier region adjoining the largely lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Afghanistan border. “They have bought a specific land and that area is sealed securely. They live there. But I have no idea what’s their mission. A few days earlier, my friend texted me that 700 U.S. army soldiers have landed in Pakistan at 3 in the morning and 1,000 will come after that. We have never experienced U.S. soldiers entering the soil of our country like that. This definitely is a sign of danger for us.”

If Saeed was correct, Kimball thought, she inadvertently had come to know a hugely important secret about U.S. involvement in Pakistan that virtually nobody in America—outside of government and military circles, presumably—was aware of: The United States had sent troops and private mercenary contractors into a sovereign and supposedly friendly nation.

This was unprecedented—and disturbing.

It’s now known, following the Feb. 3 roadside bombing that killed three U.S. special-operations soldiers (along with three schoolgirls) in Peshawar, that U.S. troops have been operating in Pakistan for some time. But four months earlier, when Kimball first heard about them from her young friends, top military and governmental officials staunchly denied they were in country.

Right or wrong, there was reason for the subterfuge. Pakistanis in general dislike and distrust the American government, and confirmation that the U.S. military was operating in their country would have provoked outrage against the already weak pro-U.S. government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

At the same time, Zardari is under tremendous pressure from the United States to respond to the growing insurgency in his country. He deployed the Army to drive Taliban soldiers from the Swat Valley, and he’s quietly allowed the United States to use his country as a staging area for the drone bombing attacks on Taliban hideouts in the FATA.

Kimball knew none of this when her teen reporters in Pakistan began telling her about the presence of U.S. military personnel and Blackwater mercenaries in their country.

“I had no idea,” she said during a recent interview. “I thought Blackwater had been completely discredited in Iraq and kicked out.” So she was especially surprised to discover the company, now known as Xe Services, was in Pakistan at the behest of the Obama administration, especially since the president, in March, had stoutly insisted no armed forces would be sent to the country.

She went to the Internet to find out more, but was able to locate only one relevant article. The report had appeared in The Intelligence Daily, an online journal of geopolitical and economic news, on Sept. 2. Written by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Quraishi, it’s headlined “US Hummers Enter Pakistan, Undercover American Soldiers in Islamabad,” and begins as follows:

“ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Undercover armed Americans are swarming the Pakistani capital in the latest sign that the elected government has allowed Washington to dispatch what is believed to be a large number of American special operations agents and contractual security guards, including the infamous Blackwater private militia.”

Kimball’s teen reporters subsequently directed her to other reports indicating the presence of American personnel, including Blackwater and DynCorp mercenaries, in both Islamabad and Peshawar. The Blackwater employees stood out, according to the articles, for their arrogant and disrespectful treatment of locals.

Kimball was furious—and frightened. She wrote up her experiences, gave it the title “A Dangerous Secret,” and distributed it widely, including to Sen. Barbara Boxer. She wanted others to know what was going on, but the story was largely blacked out in this country. She felt alone, like the only person in this area who knew what her country was secretly doing to the people of Pakistan.

Then, on Nov. 23, The Nation magazine published a lengthy article by Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the Word’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, titled “The Secret US War in Pakistan.” This was the first significant account of U.S. armed involvement in Pakistan, and it confirmed everything Kimball had learned.

“[M]embers of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan,” Scahill writes.

The Blackwater operatives, working in conjunction with the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, “also assist in gathering intelligence and help direct a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes,” he adds.

The JSOC assassination program is distinct from the CIA assassination program that the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, announced he had cancelled in June 2009. The JSOC, which was commanded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal before he was put in charge of NATO operations in Afghanistan, is the special-operations branch (read: counterterrorism and covert services) of the U.S. military.

Scahill’s efforts to get official confirmation of Blackwater’s presence in Pakistan all hit a blank wall. The Defense Department, Blackwater, the Pakistani government and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad denied it.

Indeed, two days after Scahill’s article appeared, on Nov. 25, the American ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, issued a press release rejecting The Nation’s assertions about Blackwater as “completely false.”

American “personnel and programs in Pakistan have only one purpose—to assist the government and people of Pakistan as they face the complex challenges confronting their nation,” she said.

And so it remained, until Jan. 21, 2010, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed, in an interview for Pakistani television, that Blackwater was indeed operating in Pakistan.

The acknowledgement was huge news in Pakistan, made larger two weeks later when the three American troops were killed.

Department of Defense officials quickly tried to backtrack, saying Blackwater didn’t actually work for the Pentagon. As Scahill reports in The Nation, that’s because it’s actually contracted to Kestral, a Pakistani security and logistics firm. “That contract, say my sources,” Scahill writes, “is technically with the Pakistani government, which helps cloak Blackwater’s presence.”

Now the world sees what Gayle Kimball saw back in October, when the whole thing was terribly hush-hush. Had it not been for her teen reporters in Pakistan, she too would have known nothing then.

Right now, her biggest concern is for them, especially the three she is in closest contact with. She gets frequent e-mails from them, in which they talk about their fears of terrorists as well as of the American mercenaries, of the chaos that seems to lurk just below the surface of Pakistani society, and of the secret deals their government has made with an American government they don’t trust.

All have studied previously in the United States, and they like Americans as people very much, but they don’t understand why this country is meddling in their internal affairs.

Nor does Kimball, who is convinced fighting terrorism with violence is not the answer. Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson’s visit to Chico last year convinced her that education, not violence, is the way to combat the religious extremism that fosters terrorism.

In the meantime, she is trying to raise funds to bring her Pakistani friends to this country to attend college. She is also collecting more teen participants and preparing to gather their insights on a wide range of topics into her book.