In yet another blow for U.S.-Pakistani relations, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that he believed that the Pakistani government had “sanctioned” the murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad. Admiral Mike Mullen, who is set to retire in September, said that although he did not have a “string of evidence” linking Shahzad’s killing in May, he had “not seen anything that would disabuse that report that the government knew about this.” He added, “It was sanctioned by the government, yeah.”
The diplomatic relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been tense ever since Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan in early May, and this accusation adds to an already fraught situation. Shahzad was kidnapped near his Islamabad home in May; his body was found two days later. He had, according to the New York Times’ Elizabeth Bumiller, “written scathing reports about the infiltration of Islamic militants into the country’s security services.”
Earlier this week, senior officials in the Obama administration said that they had intelligence that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had ordered Shahzad killed. ”Every indication is that this was a deliberate, targeted killing that was most likely meant to send shock waves through Pakistan’s journalist community and civil society,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Writing for Time, Omar Waraich explains that Pakistani journalists are under extreme pressure. ”Journalists now face a public campaign of intimidation bent on silencing them and holding them up as traitors,” he said.
Adm. Mullen, however, is the first American official to publicly accuse Pakistan of being involved in Shahzad’s death, a sign, according to journalists, that his patience is wearing thin. His comments will almost certainly have an effect on the United States’ relationship with Pakistan. Firdous Ashiq Awan, the Information Minister, slammed Mullen’s claims, saying in a news conference that he had made “extremely irresponsible and unfortunate statement.”
“This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America. It will definitely deal a blow to our common efforts with regard to the war on terror,” Awan said.
What’s unclear is whether Mullen’s comments were approved beforehand or if Mullen, looking toward his retirement, simply let caution fly to the winds. In his remarks, Mullen indicated that Shahzad’s death was part of a systematic pattern of violently removing troublesome journalists, which may signal that he was simply venting frustration at a country with whom he has diligently worked to create strong diplomatic ties.
“His [death] isn’t the first. For whatever reason, it has been used as a method historically,” said Mullen. “It’s not a way to move ahead. It’s a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction.”
The fragile relationship between the United States and Pakistan was certainly not helped by Mullen’s frank words. But is there a point at which diplomatic relationships should be risked in order to condemn ongoing human rights abuses? If, as Mullen and Waraich allege, journalists are being targeted and intimidated by the Pakistani government, maybe it’s time someone spoke up. Whether this is the right way to do so is another question.
Photo from Medill DC via flickr