In the last 62 years, except for the brief spurt of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s public diplomacy, much of the country’s relations with the US have remained a complex network of deals and personal understandings the rulers of the day give to the American negotiators dangling short carrots on long knives
Transparency has become the first victim of Pakistan’s deepening cooperation with the US. The country is choking with visitors from Washington who rain on Islamabad incessantly, the latest being General David Petraeus, the US Central Command chief. (The list of others who have come, gone, come back again and again is too long. It can literally take up the entire space for this article, and still be incomplete.) But when it comes to the reasons behind these visits and what transpires in the lengthy meetings that are held on these occasions, there is a virtual drought of accurate information. Not even the best-informed circles in the country are informed enough to hazard a guess about the discussions behind closed doors. As for the nation’s elected representatives, they are completely clueless on this score.
To protect the sanctity of classified information is an age-old rule, which even the world’s most open societies have not discarded. But throwing a thick blanket of secrecy on issues that should squarely be in the public domain violates all principles of accountability. And yet, this is exactly what prevails in Pakistan today: a culture of silence and deception is the hallmark of how decisions are made on behalf of the people of the country without them even knowing about the nature and the consequences of these steps. For all they know, they could well have been committed to fighting unwanted, expensive wars, or might have been thrown in the vortex of bad peace deals.
To be sure, this secrecy is nothing new. Pakistan’s relations with the US have always been the privilege of a charmed group of the military-civil bureaucracy and a very small slice of the political elite. In the last 62 years, except for the brief spurt of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s public diplomacy, much of the country’s relations with the US have remained a complex network of deals and personal understandings the rulers of the day give to the American negotiators dangling short carrots on long knives. A casual glance at the declassified documents of the past era reveal the depth of the bilateral commitments an unaccountable coterie in Pakistan gave to Washington, keeping these safely away from the realm of informed public debate. We know through experience how almost each of these commitments came to haunt the country and caused the pandemic of fear and paranoia about Washington’s grand designs against Pakistan. The present day distrust between the two countries is fathered directly by the opaqueness with which General Musharraf ran his policies. But just as sure is the fact that this manner of conducting relations with the US does not fit into the realities of the new mood in Pakistan that is hypersensitive about the issue of sovereignty and national dignity and super-suspicious of the world outside. From the high table of high-stakes global politics, this may look like a negligible concern. Also, so far the public in Pakistan seems to be taking rather nicely in its stride the absence of information on what is transpiring between the two countries. Why bother to give out information when no one is bothering to seek it? It can also be said that urgent decisions cannot be allowed to get stuck in the pipeline of national debate, which most of the times remains inconclusive. This view is not totally without weight. Public diplomacy is messy. Not every step can be explained to everyone, as not everyone is on the same page of what really serves the national interest. It can be exhausting and futile to convince Imran Khan for instance that even within some of the native Taliban there are a number of them who are irreconcilable and that they cannot be taken care of without foreign technical and military assistance. But when overstretched, this view becomes a deliberate deception, programmed to conceal questionable actions, and to exercise power without any fear of democratic accountability.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how the situation has developed as far as the present phase of Pakistan’s cooperation with the US is concerned. There is little regard for procedure and propriety. Each visitor, be it a military commander, an intelligence representative, or a member of some obscure House or Senate committee on some irrelevant subject, is regaled with meetings with the president, the prime minister, a whole legion of ministers and of course the chief of army staff, to whom it seems the government has outsourced all of Pakistan’s defence policy.
The poor optics of these endless official engagements is worsened by a new affliction: terror tourism. Swat, once famous for its luxurious surroundings, has now been reduced to a briefing room on operation Rah-e-Rast. The once sensible aim of showcasing Pakistan’s success against organised militancy has now become a desperate desire to earn visitors’ compliments and prove Pakistan’s sincerity in the war against terror. And this goes on side by side with the loud public claims of this being our war, fought for our reasons, for our people. But the most disconcerting is the fact that no official word is available on the more pressing issues of public concern related to the aim and strategy Pakistan is pursuing in tandem with Washington on both sides of the border with Afghanistan. Circumstantial evidence suggests fundamental adjustments in Pakistan’s view and approach towards the Taliban in Afghanistan. The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-in-command of Mullah Omar, and two shadow governors, Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Muhammad, representing the Quetta Shura from Pakistan, are illustrative of this fact. As is the drone strike last week that killed one of ailing Jalaluddin Haqqani’s 13 sons, Muhammad Haqqani.
There are other things happening. The controversies about US diplomats moving around in cars with fake number plates have disappeared, as has the hype about Blackwater. (To the best of my understanding neither proper number-plates have been issued nor the US diplomats have stopped driving cars.) With the US releasing a significant chunk of the money from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), and its training programme for the military-led Frontier Corps (FC) getting into faster gear, Pakistan’s relations with the US seem to have leapt to a new level altogether. But the merit of these changes, or their pitfalls, are not part of any debate at any forum in Pakistan. The government is mum, the opposition is distracted, and the media fixated on the judiciary’s many marvels. This has left the field of critical policy making to the generals and the bureaucrats, not known for sharing secrets with the nation, and not accountable to anyone.
No wonder that this phase of Pak-US ties, like all past phases, is open to the charge of being based on unfair compromises and backroom deals. If this trend continues, Victorian Imperialist Lord Cromer’s words about Egypt under foreign influence might begin to ring true of Pakistan in 2010: “We do not govern Egypt, we govern the governors of Egypt.”
The writer is a leading Pakistani journalist