The French submarines/Pakistan attacks the US scandal


A few days ago, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly accused Pakistan’s famous (or infamous) spy agency the ISI of playing a direct role in supporting the insurgents who attacked a NATO convoy on 10 September that killed at least five people and wounded 77 coalition soldiers, as well as the deadly attack on the American Embassy in Kabul last week.  It is unusual, to say the least, for the top American military official to call out what is ostensibly an ally in this way and the Pakistanis have rejected the charge categorically.

Still, the imagination wanders: the ISI — or factions of it, at any rate — might have a great many reasons to want to retaliate against the US, not least the assassination of one-time (and perhaps recent) ISI protégé Osama bin Laden deep in Pakistani territory.  [Five days before that happened, I questioned why Osama bin Laden was still free, then wrote about what his death meant and how the news spread on Twitter, and later wrote about less famous people the US has targeted in the Af-Pak region].  And it is not as if the ISI has a history of staying onsides with the US: it is now implicated in an ambush on May 14, 2007, though American officials knew this at the time and hushed it up.

As it happens, there is a very similar long-brewing controversy in France involving Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, bribery, and double-crossing.  In May 2002, suicide bombers attacked a bus in Karachi and killed eleven French naval engineers.  Pakistan blamed Al Qaeda, naturally, but many French suspect Pakistan itself perpetrated the attack.  The reason, as outlined by investigative journalists Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme in their book The Contract, is convoluted: in 1994, France signed a $1 billion contract to supply Pakistan with three Agosta submarines, a contract larded with kickbacks for the Pakistanis (legal at the time, at least under French law) some part of which was siphoned off as retro-commissions for the French officials (this part was illegal).  You can read more about that here.  Edouard Balladur was prime minister of France then and contemplating a run for the presidency (a much more powerful position) and he supposedly wanted these retro-commissions/kickbacks/bribes to fund his campaign.  Balladur denies this but, anyway, he lost and the winner, Jacques Chirac, proceeded to outlaw such kickbacks, thus halting payment on $33 million ‘owed’ to the Pakistanis; hence, it is the thought, the retaliatory suicide bombing and the submarine-specific target of French naval engineers.  In France, this story is made contemporary by the name of Edouard Balladur’s Economy Minister and campaign manager: Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president, who can be assumed to have been complicit in the deal, if indeed such a deal existed at all.

Back in the US, the New York Times posits another potential reason, in addition to the Osama bin Laden killing, why Pakistan might have decided to retaliate against the US and this one sounds quite a bit like the French Agosta submarine scandal.  Earlier this year, President Obama suspended or canceled about a third of the $2 billion of military aid the US sends Pakistan — ‘security assistance’ being the American euphemism for kickbacks, since it is well understood that some substantial fraction of that aid money feathers the retirement nest of various Pakistani officials.  By this reading, the ISI wanted to punish the US for cutting back the flow of arms sales and the off-budget commissions that go with them, just as it had the French a few years earlier.

The moral of the story is that it is easier to give kickbacks than to withhold them and that Pakistan will use whatever leverage it has — which, mostly, is concentrated violence deployed locally — to make its displeasure known.


Update 30 October 2011: An attack on an armored bus transporting troops in Kabul killed 13 foreigners yesterday, most of them Americans, and four Afghans.  The New York Times article is headlined “Haqqani network sends message with Kabul attacks” and offers a similar interpretation as above, minus the French parallel, and again makes clear that Pakistan is using localized violence as a form of diplomatic communication.


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