Mr Gilani goes to Washington

Rahimullah YusufzaiPrime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani is back home from his maiden visit to the US and no doubt about it that this will be hailed as highly successful like the numerous trips that successive Pakistani rulers frequently undertake to distant lands and climes. It is another matter that such visits generally achieve little in terms of benefiting the country and its people, who as taxpayers foot the bill for the unusually large entourages giving company to the president or prime minister on their grand overseas tours.

Mr Gilani’s supporters and public relations staff would certainly hail his US visit as a success because it is their job to do so. In particular, the economic assistance being promised to Pakistan, albeit with certain conditions, would be highlighted to show that the visit achieved some tangible results. But analysts and those who watched him from close quarters in the US are already saying that the prime minister should not have undertaken this important visit without first settling into his position. He was still new to his job as prime minister and had yet to come out of the overbearing influence of not only his party leader Asif Ali Zardari but also certain advisers.

Someone considered weak at home cannot command respect abroad. Having done business with military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, the Americans knew for sure that they cannot expect Gilani to make decisions on his own and deliver. It was common knowledge that Prime Minister Gilani wasn’t fully in control of affairs in Pakistan.

The result was that he appeared ill-prepared at times while addressing select gatherings of members of the American intelligentsia or visiting the White House, which offers a world stage to visiting heads of state and government.

Quite a few instances have been cited by the media to show that our prime minister was ill at ease and inarticulate during his encounters with intellectuals and the media. At the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, his replies to questions by ambassador Richard Haas and others confused the audience and even evoked laughter. And in the company of President Bush at the customary press talk at the White House after their meeting, Prime Minister Gilani had a slip of tongue when he addressed him as “Mr President Bush” instead of “Mr President” and uttered the word “handpicked” rather than “handful” while referring to the militants. One could blame this on his poor command over the English language and move ahead. Here it is pertinent to mention that Mr Gilani is good at reading from prepared text but is all at sea while speaking extempore in English or answering questions.

As if the ill-timed, crudely-conceived and aborted move to bring the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under greater civilian control on the eve of the prime minister’s US visit wasn’t enough, yet another American missile strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas hours before Mr Gilani’s meeting with President George W Bush made the situation even more complex and inserted an element of distrust into the uncertain relationship between Pakistan and the US. For President Bush to publicly declare after the meeting with Mr Gilani that the US respected and supported Pakistan’s sovereignty was like making a joke at the expense of his guest at the White House that day. Pakistan’s sovereignty had been violated the eighth time this year by firing four missiles from a CIA-operated drone that very day in Zyara Leeta village near Wana in South Waziristan and killing and wounding several people, including women and children.

Even if one of those killed was an Al Qaeda operative named Midhat Mursi As-Sayid al-Masri, or Abu Khubab al-Masri, it still amounted to extra-judicial killing of a person neither tried nor convicted for his involvement in any act of terror. Announcing a reward of $5 million for his capture and blaming him in general terms for some acts of terrorism cannot be equated to conviction and make him liable to be killed, more so in democratic societies such as America which prides itself for the quality of its system of justice. Then there is the issue of “collateral damage” because the six other persons killed in the attack weren’t wanted to the US and had not been accused of being members of any terrorist organization.

More importantly, Pakistan’s sovereignty wasn’t respected as President Bush would like us to believe and the country’s airspace was violated one more time. As usual, the government and armed forces of Pakistan tried to absolve themselves of the responsibility to defend the country’s borders and protect citizens by arguing that details of the incident weren’t available. It amounted to sending the message that South Waziristan and indeed parts of rest of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) were beyond the reach of the government and security forces and Pakistanis living there now have to fend for themselves. Or it was like telling the tribes inhabiting the tribal borderlands that this was price they had to pay for not standing up to the local and foreign militants who have established safe havens in the area and were infiltrating the Pak-Afghan border to challenge the US-led coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

When a state abdicates its responsibility to protect citizens from attacks by manned and unmanned aircraft intruding into its territory, none should fault the tribesmen if they start looking to the militants to fill the vacuum and provide them protection. One doesn’t agree with JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s assessment that Pakistan could lose NWFP if the current state of affairs continues because its majority Pakhtun population doesn’t view separation from the federation as a cure for its existing problems. There is no separatist movement in the province and Afghanistan, in turmoil for three decades and presently occupied by US-led Western forces, cannot inspire the Pakistani Pakhtuns to consider merging with the war-torn country.

Still the Frontier deserves the utmost attention of the government, which sadly enough is in a state of disarray, because some of its tribal areas and settled districts are suffering a conflict that has defied all solutions prescribed thus far. To make matters worse, insincerity and sometimes inability or unwillingness of the parties to the conflict to honour peace accords and interference by the US and other powers have sabotaged all attempts to peacefully resolve the problem. Prime Minister Gilani’s US visit would remain under discussion for quite some time and curious observers would want to know if there are some secrets attached to the trip. PPP leader Ahmad Mukhtar, who must be the only defence minister in the world to tell his nation that his armed forces cannot do anything about the pilotless US drones that fly unchallenged over the tribal areas, did leak the information that President Bush expressed his displeasure to Mr Gilani about the ISI’s alleged links with the Taliban militants.

The sudden US efforts to demonize the ISI could be linked to the attempts at home before the prime minister’s visit to the US to subordinate the premier intelligence to the Rehman Malik-run interior ministry. The aborted move, which received public approval from PPP head Asif Ali Zardari, sent alarm bells ringing and alerted the military to get it revoked. If the decision was made in coordination with the US authorities, it indeed is something serious as it clearly shows the distrust prevailing between sections of the civilian and military establishment. It also explains the extent of the unwanted US role in decision-making in Pakistan.

There is no doubt that the ISI’s domineering political role has harmed Pakistan’s nascent democracy and its interference in Afghanistan’s affairs has earned ill-will among Afghans for Pakistan. In fact, the ISI grew stronger and ambitious while collaborating with the CIA to fight America’s wars in Afghanistan first against the Soviet Union and now Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But reforming the ISI is Pakistan’s business and involving the US in cutting it down to size would give one more opportunity to Washington to interfere in our affairs.

The writer is executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email:



Source: The News, 2/8/2008

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