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The Hersh Story: Fantasies, Falsehoods And A Forewarning

Posted by yourpakistan on November 10, 2009


The most disturbing aspect of the piece – and also the most threatening, is his description of what the US plans are for Pakistan’s nukes.

In Bob Woodward’s book, “Bush at War”, he recalls how when he (Woodward) quoted Hersh to Bush, the latter replied that Seymour Hersh was a liar! Hersh’s article “Defending the Arsenal” in The New Yorker (November 16, 2009) has predictably caused a stir in Pakistan. But this always happens after the event; after foreign journalists have been given excessive access into the corridors of power in Pakistan. So it has been with Hersh. Now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claims Hersh has a well-known “anti-Pakistan” bias. If that is the case, then did the MFA give an official perspective on how much access Hersh should have been given in Pakistan? Did they advise the President to avoid meeting this man or did they give any official brief to the President on what to say to him on sensitive issues? Clearly, the Zardari meeting with Hersh has no reflection of the MFA or any official Pakistani position. Instead, there is a reflection of ignorance with the President declaring that our army officers are “British-trained”!

However, leaving aside these minor issues, there are two aspects that reflect the speculative and often factually incorrect nature of the piece. First, let us look at some of the inaccuracies, if not outright falsehoods. The manner in which Hersh has dealt with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and his claims that Pakistan and the US began sensitive nuclear cooperation, reveal a preconceived mindset. The author set out to make certain points and then sought mostly unidentified sources to prove his point! This is evident because the largest single interview cited is of “Colonel Imam” whom Hersh describes as “the archetype of the disillusioned Pakistani officer”! Now anyone who knows Col Imam knows he is a maverick, with his own idiosyncratic perspective and is certainly not typical of even disillusioned army officers – although how many of those Hersh has actually met is also questionable.

But for Hersh, Imam provides a logical development to his other theory, that it is not so much a Taliban seizure of the Pakistani nukes that is worrisome to the Americans but the fear of a “mutiny” within the army with extremists believing in the Hizbul Tahrir goal of setting up a Caliphate taking control of some nuclear assets or even diverting a warhead. Talk about being far fetched given that there is no history of mutiny in the army and the organisational interest is always supreme. Also, to a large extent the prevailing culture within the army reflects, to a large extent, the leadership at any given time. Also to assume that extremism is rampant in the military because generals no longer serve alcohol to visiting journalists is a bit ridiculous. I had argued on this point long and hard with Hersh after his last visit to Pakistan, when we met abroad, but clearly when a point has to be made, it will be made despite evidence to the contrary and no matter how fanciful the “proof”!

On the nuclear security agreement also, some claims are debatable at least. For instance, he describes Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine as being based on a de-mating of the warheads from their triggers. This is absolutely false and nowhere has the military ever claimed this either in any reference to doctrine. In fact, the weapons are not de-mated at all but are simply not on hair trigger alert – which they do not need to be on in any case. So if his source of information is so incorrect, many of the other assumptions are also subject to doubt. For instance his claim, and he cites a former US intelligence officer to prove his point, that the Pakistanis gave the US a virtual look at such sensitive information as number of warheads, some locations, and so on is bizarre since even within the nuclear community this knowledge is not known except by very few. As for giving them information about command and control, Pakistan is one of the few countries that has put out a detailed explanation of its command and control structure in the public space. So what one can assume is the intelligence officer is confusing the briefing given to some journalists – foreign and Pakistani – about command and control, the programme and so on as a “virtual look”! That briefing is impressive and on seeking an explanation to the Hersh claim from SPD (Strategic Plans Division), the answer was that this is the only briefing that could have created the false impression.

Coming to the Mullen news conference of 4th May where Hersh claims the Admiral spoke openly about increased cooperation on nuclear security between the US, Mullen did note that the US had worked with the Pakistanis to improve the security of their nuclear arsenal. Of course even this limited access to the US military is too much from the point of view of our arsenal’s security, but it does not imply “highly sensitive understanding” of the US “with the Pakistani military”. There is also little proof that ongoing consultations on nuclear security between Washington and Islamabad intensified after Obama’s Af-Pak policy – especially since the Af-Pak idea got a cold reception in Islamabad. Finally, the most far-fetched claim, citing an American official, in Hersh’s piece is that the army is controlled by the Punjabis who cannot get along with the Pushtuns, so somehow that creates a simmering undercurrent within the military, creating a veritable goldmine for mutiny! He really needs to look more carefully into the Pakistan army and its composition as well as its culture.

Moving on from the actual factual inaccuracies, even falsehoods, to an equally important issue raised by the article is the question of access. Why do we allow these people so much access in this country – right from the President down? President Musharraf talks openly of the supposedly secret tunnels and so on. Others are equally prone to spilling their guts out to inquisitive foreign journalists. Why? And why must we abuse each other through these journalists? Incidentally, this time round Hersh did not seek the official version from the MFA; nor did he seek an interview with General Kidwai of SPD. He told me Hersh had sought access but could not get it, but on checking I found he did not send in any written request.

Finally, a most disturbing aspect of the piece – and also the most threatening, is his description of what the US plans are for Pakistan’s nukes. That is what the game is all about – a unilateral US plan to have a force in Pakistan to attempt to take out the triggers and thereby decapitate the nukes. Is that why we are seeing so many covert US personnel coming into Pakistan? There is no deal; but there is a threatening unilateral US agenda. That Hersh has explained most vividly!

Dr. Mazari is the Resident Editor at The Nation

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