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Story Publication logo November 21, 2009

Pakistan: Playing the Spy Card

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"The Economics of Security" explores the threat of extremist violence in South Asia, especially...

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I'm settled, at last, in Islamabad, and trying to get my head around the transformation afoot here. Certainly, the country has come a long way since I was last here in 2005. One thing that is new is the size and the vibrancy of Pakistani media, in both Urdu and English, in print, on air and online.

[It's a profound story, given that the press seemed to explode at just the moment that the Musharraf government set out to quiet it. In the conflict that ensued, the press became parties to the civil society protests against the regime over other issues (mostly, the independence of the judiciary), and ultimately, to the return of civilian power last year. If you're interested, check out this documentary on the subject.]

In any case, I've arrived in the midst of a battle between The Nation, a newspaper that takes a nationalist editorial line; the American Embassy and foreign media; and left-liberal outlets that tend to look favorably on US policy.

The relevant backstory is that the Nation's editor, Dr. Shireen Mazari, has previously overseen controversial stories on Blackwater and the CIA in Pakistan that have earned her rebukes from the U.S. Ambassador and she says, resulted in her column dropping from another paper (The News) and her hiring as editor of the Nation. Now, she's run a story in the Nation suggesting that Wall Street Journal South Asia correspondent Matthew Rosenberg is a spy for both the CIA and Mossad.

The story has unleashed a firestorm and a petition signed by a host of international media outlets condemning the piece, and resulted in Dr. Mazari appearing for an interview on the leading liberal TV station, Dawn News, where Mazari repeatedly pointed out that Rosenberg is Delhi-based (though did not elaborate on the significance of that detail) and where she also pointed out the international press has not rallied to the cause of Pakistani journalists who have been threatened. Since then, most of the local Urdu-language press has rallied behind the Nation and Mazari has continued to publish along these lines. It doesn't look like this issue is going anywhere anytime soon.

Factual concerns and journalistic implications aside, what is important for American Pakistan-watchers to note is the currency that the argument about an Indian-Israeli-American conspiracy has among locals. That perception of conspiracy leads to skepticism about any acts of American generosity, including humanitarian and economic aid. To the extent that development aid is central to US strategic objectives in the region, countering the perception of conspiracy--true or false--should be a priority. I'll be meeting American policymakers while I'm here, and I certainly plan to ask them how, or if, they're addressing the issue.

Until then, watch Mazari's interview with Dawn. It's long (about 40 minutes, in four parts), but well worth the time.

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