Pentagon Drops Post in Pakistan for Top General

The New York Times

May 9, 2008, Washington, DC – When the Pentagon announced in March that Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood would become the senior American officer based in Pakistan, it reflected the military’s aim to put a crisis-tested veteran in a critical job at a pivotal time in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But nearly two months later, the military has quietly canceled the assignment of General Hood, a 33-year Army veteran who was excoriated in the Pakistani news media for one of his previous jobs: commander of the United States prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

During General Hood’s command from 2004 to 2006, military authorities force-fed with tubes detainees who were engaging in hunger strikes at the Guantánamo prison, a step they justified as necessary to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide to protest their indefinite confinement. Also during General Hood’s tenure, reports that an American guard may have desecrated a Koran stirred wide protests in the Islamic world.

The decision to withdraw General Hood’s assignment has not been announced, but it appears to reflect the widening shadow that the military prison at Guantánamo is casting over American foreign policy. While the United States considers Pakistan a close ally in its counterterrorism efforts, the accounts by Pakistanis who have returned to Pakistan after being held at Guantánamo Bay have added to anti-American sentiment in the country.

Several leading Pakistani military and foreign affairs commentators denounced General Hood’s selection in recent weeks, calling on their new government to block his appointment. In interviews this week, American military officials said they had reluctantly concluded that General Hood’s effectiveness could be seriously hindered, and that his personal safety might even be at risk if he were to take up the post.

About 65 detainees at Guantánamo Bay have been repatriated to Pakistan, according to Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a military spokeswoman.

It is not clear whether Pakistan’s new government requested that the appointment be canceled. But on Thursday, a spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, Mohammed Sadiq, told reporters that the government was “fully cognizant of the public sentiments and sensitivities regarding the reported transfer of General Hood to Islamabad,” and he added, “We hope to address this matter of public interest in the best possible manner.”

Asked about the withdrawal of the appointment, an American military spokesman sought Thursday to put the best face on an awkward situation. “General Hood is being considered for a different, equally important job in the Centcom headquarters,” said Capt. James Graybeal, chief spokesman for the United States Central Command, which oversees military affairs in Pakistan.

General Hood did not return e-mail messages or a telephone call to his office on Thursday.

General Hood, who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in Kosovo, had been expected to become chief of a division of the United States Embassy in Islamabad known as the Office of the Defense Representative to Pakistan. The office has about two dozen people and oversees military relations with Pakistan, including training and equipment.

Until a few years ago, a colonel typically directed the office. But in a sign of Pakistan’s strategic importance in the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the job was upgraded to that of a two-star general. The current head of the office, Maj. Gen. James R. Helmly, had been scheduled to leave at the end of May. No replacement for General Hood has been named.

Two senior Defense Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue involves personnel decisions, expressed chagrin that General Hood’s selection had not been evaluated more carefully.

Under General Hood’s command, and after consultations with senior Pentagon officials, American guards at Guantánamo Bay used forceful methods in dealing during 2006 with detainees who engaged in hunger strikes. They strapped them into “restraint chairs,” sometimes for more than two hours at a time, to feed them through tubes and prevent them from deliberately vomiting afterward.

General Hood, who took command of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay in March 2004, shortly before the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq broke, sought to put a more human face on it. He was credited by lawyers for the prisoners and human rights groups with having improved the treatment of detainees, and it was soon after he took over that some of the most severe interrogation methods were curtailed.

But he also had to deal with the fallout of a report in Newsweek asserting that a military inquiry was expected to find that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at the detention center. The magazine later retracted the article, but the military inquiry concluded that a soldier had inadvertently splashed urine on a Koran. The magazine’s original assertion led to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that left at least 17 people dead.

Criticism of General Hood in the Pakistani news media was unrelenting after the Pentagon announced on March 13 that he would take over the post.

“Guantánamo Bay itself has become a symbol of injustice, torture and abuse of Islam, and sending a commanding officer from there to Islamabad begs the question: What is the message coming out of the Pentagon for Pakistanis by this insensitive act?” Shireen M. Mazari, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, a research group in Islamabad financed by Pakistan’s foreign office, wrote on March 20 in The News, one of the largest English-language newspapers in Pakistan.

Dr. Mazari added, “Equally important, given that host governments always have a choice of refusing a nominee — and many Western countries have exercised that right in the diplomatic nominees of the Pakistan government — why has the Pakistan government chosen to silently accept what the U.S. military dishes out, with no thought to the sensitivities of its own people?”

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