Washington disappointed by new face of Pak democracy

By Shaheen Sehbai

WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came to Washington and has returned to Islamabad but the decision makers of DC are still confused what to make out of his unofficial ‘official’ visit.

The eagerness at every level to meet and see him was to assess and evaluate the man in terms of his usefulness as a replacement to their long-trusted but fading friend, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and the plain fact is that Washington is disappointed and has decided not to take him seriously.

It is so because the man who represented democracy in Pakistan fell short on many scores. Not that the official Washington did not know but the real Washington needed to have a firsthand look at the man they were being asked to deal with after Gen Musharraf.

This real Washington comprises scores of think tanks, lobbyists, Congressmen, retired diplomats, bureaucrats, generals and media gurus. They did not go home with the perception and confidence that Gilani was the right man who they could instantly start dealing with, trust and depend on.

What they found lacking was the depth of understanding and vision in dealing with complex international and security issues, articulation to comprehend and project Pakistani policies in a clear and candid way, more so on public places than in closed door meetings. They did not find the will and the capacity in the prime minister to grasp the importance of issues, take control of matters and make decisions which he could sustain.

The one issue which damaged Gilani’s credibility as a potentially serious leader and policy-maker was the brutally botched up ISI fiasco. Whoever did this to Gilani actually torpedoed his US visit, which turned into a non-starter the moment the ISI notification was withdrawn. It was beyond Gilani to stand by his order for more than a few hours and Washingtonians got the message that they were dealing with a non-entity and should not take him seriously.

On top of this image, the prime minister personally did not do anything to help himself. Whenever Gilani read from a written script, he was coherent, articulate and looked like a man who knew what he was talking about. But the moment the script was over and he had to answer questions, the level of discourse and understanding came crashing down to earth. The contrast was so stark and embarrassing it discounted both the images Gilani presented and made him look like artificial and someone who was being remote-controlled.

Washington was not ready for such a visit and whoever forced it on Gilani did a great disservice to the man, to the party he represents and to Pakistan’s infant democracy. At a time of great internal political, administrative, security, economic and social turmoil, packing him off to Washington as a showpiece, so early in office, could at best be described as a deep conspiracy of sorts.

The prime minister was not ready for the visit as he has yet to learn the basics of the governance, starting with speaking before the TV prompter to the nation, to determining how to handle big or small issues, how to consolidate power and how to demonstrate it. He is only a beginner.

But his insincere advisers, more interested in their own self-projection, pushed him to fly across the Atlantic for performing the impossible task of exposing himself to the most sophisticated, important and hawk-eyed audience of decision makers to be found anywhere in the world.

I would not blame Mr Gilani as he was not expected to know what he was getting into but his leader Asif Ali Zardari certainly had a very clear idea of what could happen and more importantly Ambassador Husain Haqqani should have been the one to veto the visit at this particular time, knowing both Mr Gilani and Washington inside out.

The PM was subjected to a rigorous schedule, at one time nine important appointments in a day, including two or more major speeches, several critical meetings, media appearances and mostly listening to the US officials full of brutally frank and insulting masterly advice coupled with incriminating evidence of rogue behaviour of Pakistani establishment and agencies.

This was a menu full of vulgarities for a man who was not even in charge of his own office, was surrounded by appointees who received orders from other power centres and reported the results somewhere else. He was mercilessly thrown to the wolves and made into a punching bag in Washington, but, given his Seraiki nature, he did not even complain and took the punches smilingly.

A serious analysis should expose the damage done to Mr Gilani and his party, no matter how high the pedestal on which our ambassador and other diplomats may stand to claim credits, which they are.

The ‘joint statement’ released after the visit was prepared by Husain Haqqani even before the prime minister had touched down on the Andrews Air Force base near Washington. Haqqani was in constant contact with the White House and the State Department and the language of the statement, which was not a ‘Joint Communique’ released after official visits, had been carefully drafted so that it gave away nothing while discussing everything that the two countries needed to talk about.

Even on urgent issues decisions were put into abeyance. Pakistan had purchased American Boeing 777 aircraft at a hugely inflated price because PIA wanted direct non-stop flights from Pakistan to the US cities but this basic right was denied during Musharraf’s days, who never protested. The announcement that the flights were to be resumed was to be made in the PM’s visit but even this was deferred.

The joint statement buried this issue in the following diplomatic words: “The US and Pakistan will work together toward a goal of establishing direct non-stop flights between the two countries before the end of 2008, expanding people-to-people ties and improving the investment climate to the benefit of the people of both countries.” Instead of announcing the flights, the two sides will now “work together toward a goal of establishing direct non-stop flights before end of 2008.” This practically means the issue is dead for the time being.

Likewise on the much publicised ROZs in FATA, the latest pronouncement is that: “The two leaders renewed a joint commitment to pursue steps to establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones that will expand trade opportunities in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” In simple words, the previous commitment was not enough and the needed steps are nowhere in sight.

The 1,200 plus words of the joint statement is all verbosity and diplomatese, highly sounding phrases meaning nothing, such as: “The president and the prime minister reaffirmed their commitment to the long-term strategic partnership between the US and Pakistan, which was based on shared values and held immense potential for the enduring peace, security, stability, freedom, and prosperity of Pakistan and of the region.” Some smart diplomat thinks this sentence had solved all the existing problems between the two countries, notwithstanding the merciless bombings and missile strikes by US drones inside Pakistan while these high sounding words were being written in Washington.

The only dollar figures given in the joint statement refer to $115 million in food security assistance of which only $42.5 million will be available in the next nine months. So while Mr Husain Haqqani has extorted a solid commitment of $42 million, the price paid is that food has also become a security issue for Pakistan and now Pakistan and the US will also have a ‘strategic dialogue’ on agricultural cooperation.

The much-touted $15 billion aid for next 10 years is not mentioned in the joint statement but it does say that the two leaders welcomed recent efforts in the US Congress to extend the US assistance commitment to Pakistan and the president will continue to work with Congress to ensure the continued US support to Pakistan over the long-term. Who will benefit from this long-term aid is for everyone to guess as Mr Bush would certainly not be there and whether Mr Gilani can claim to be there is a moot question.

In the critical defence cooperation area, now we have another subject added to the already dreaded ‘war on terror’. The joint statement says cooperation will be expanded between the US and the Frontier Corps and other Pakistani security forces on the front lines in the ‘fight against violent extremism’, which will be rooted out from the Pak-Afghan border areas, including the NWFP, FATA and Balochistan.’ This means a large number of new battlefronts in every sensitive part of Pakistan are about to be opened.

The only mention of late Benazir Bhutto, who must be turning in her grave at the Gilani visit and how Haqqani handled it, was: “This is not Charlie Wilson’s war, it is Benazir’s war.” What the PM meant by it was never explained but an old Pakistan watcher and expert, Steve Cohen, aptly summed up Gilani’s visit in these words: “This is the best government we could ever hope to get in Pakistan. I just don’t know if it’s enough.”

Source: The News, 1/8/2008

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