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Defense / NATIONAL SECURITY

Mullen Claims Islamabad 'Sanctioned' Journalist's Killing

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, right, pictured with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, center, and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, accused the Pakistani government of being complicit in the death of a prominent journalist.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
July 7, 2011

The United States believes the Pakistani government "sanctioned" the murder of a prominent Pakistani journalist who had been probing links between the country's security services and its Islamic militants, said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"It was sanctioned by the government," Mullen told journalists at the Pentagon on Thursday. "I have not seen anything to disabuse the report that the government knew about this."

Mullen's comments are the first high-level confirmation that Washington believes its nominal allies in Islamabad ordered the kidnapping, torture, and killing of Syed Saleem Shahzad, 41, in May. The comments will only add new stress to the deeply troubled relationship between the two countries. Many members of Congress from both parties have been calling for the United States to reevaluate—and possibly cut—its extensive financial aid to Pakistan amid growing questions about Pakistan’s willingness to combat the militants who operate out of extensive safe havens within its own borders.

 

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Mullen said he couldn’t confirm press reports that Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency had carried out Shahzad’s murder. An array of U.S. military and intelligence officials believe the ISI killed Shahzad to prevent him from continuing a series of investigative articles about the infiltration of militants from al-Qaida and other extremist groups into Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

Shahzad wrote for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and the Italian news agency Adnkronos International. He disappeared shortly after the publication of an article claiming that a bloody militant attack on the Pakistani navy's main base in Karachi earlier in May was payback for the navy trying to crack down on al-Qaida infiltrators in its ranks. In the article, Shahzad claimed that members of the armed forces who sympathized with al-Qaida’s militant ideology passed maps and detailed information about the facility’s defenses to the insurgents who mounted the 16-hour attack on the base.

Following his death, the Obama administration condemned the journalist’s killing, calling on the Pakistani government to launch a full investigation, which is continuing. The ISI has strongly condemned any involvement in Shahzad’s torture or killing.

Mullen’s willingness to publicly accuse the Pakistani government of ordering Shahzad’s murder risks upsetting the balance the Obama administration and the Pentagon must strike as they struggle to determine how to deal with Pakistan, a vital ally in the war on terrorism that nevertheless is continuing to provide extensive support to the militants carrying out attacks against U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The ties between the two countries hit a new low earlier this year after a CIA agent was accused of killing two Pakistanis and then set free, and only exacerbated after several American Special Operations Forces raided a villa in the garrison town of Abbottabad, a short distance from the capital, to kill al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden. Pakistani officials angrily condemned the mission as a violation of their sovereignty and kicked hundreds of U.S. and British military trainers out of the country in response. In the United States, meanwhile, many lawmakers have angrily called for slashing aid to Pakistan for its failure to find bin Laden or to cut off its support for militants.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mullen acknowledged the growing calls for a fundamental change in U.S. strategy toward Pakistan.

“There are those who believe that we should ratchet back on material support, we should ratchet back on financial support,” he said. “I could certainly see that as a possibility in the future.”

Mullen refused to weigh in on whether U.S. aid should be reduced, a decision that he said would need to ultimately be made by Congress. But he said he believed cutting ties to Pakistan entirely “would be a disaster now and I think it would be a disaster in the future.”

Still, anti-Pakistani sentiment is rising sharply in Washington, and it looks increasingly likely that the United States will move to reduce its multi-billion dollar aid package to Pakistan in the months ahead. At a recent Senate hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that the administration was “not prepared to continue providing [extensive military aid to Pakistan] that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken.”

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