A double standard -By Cyril Almeida


WHEN the Americans or the British do it, it is interference; when the Arabs do it, it is friendly intervention. Get involved in domestic politics, that is.

As political instability stalks this unfortunate land once again, every prince, sheikh and Arab tycoon who fancies himself to be a political dilettante is racking up frequent-flier miles, working the phones or receiving as his guest one or the other Pakistani politician hoping the chips will fall in his favour.No effort is made to hide the double standard.

If a president or prime minister or an army chief meets a US assistant secretary or ambassador or a UK foreign secretary or high commissioner, someone, somewhere pipes up with a snarky remark about ‘protocol’ and ‘dignity’.Yet, if a Saudi intelligence chief huddles with our leaders — as happened this week when Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud met President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, among others — the coverage is largely positive.

The wise Saudi king is counselling our errant young bucks through his brother and everyone should be grateful, at least if the media is to be believed. And what was the message that the prince brought? Well, he had advice on everything from Pak-India relations to the situation in Fata to the economy to political instability in Islamabad and Punjab.

Anne Patterson must be sulking somewhere; what she wouldn’t give for the US ambassador to get a slice of the goodwill extended towards the likes of Prince Muqrin.

There are other aspects to this double standard. DG ISI Gen Pasha has been excoriated for defending the Taliban ideology as “freedom of opinion” but a subtext of the criticism has been the fact that he gave the interview to a German newspaper, Der Spiegel.

Why is our spy chief giving an interview to a newspaper, some have asked in anguish. Never mind that a clue was in the piece itself (Pasha “lived in Germany for a few years in the 1980s, taking part in officer training programmes”); what riled many of the would-be sticklers for propriety is the fact that it was a western newspaper. Had the interview been granted to the Khaleej Times or some other Arab newspaper, the criticism would have been muted.

Personally, more than who is coming for dinner at the presidency or Raiwind, what worries me is the calibre of politicians our foreign interlocutors have to brave.

Ever wondered what happens after the obligatory smile and handshake for the cameras, once the media is shooed out and the doors are shut?

David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, has published an account of one such meeting between PM Gilani and President Bush. I can do no better than quote his account; the wretchedness of the encounter speaks for itself.

“Washington’s sanguinity was not increased when Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, arrived in Washington over the summer for what turned out to be a disastrous first visit. Gilani, as the country’s first civilian leader in more than a decade, was under huge pressure to show he could bring the intelligence agency, and the country, under control. He couldn’t — a brief effort to force the ISI to report to the civilian leadership was quashed — but he thought he had better show up with a gift for President Bush.

“Gilani wanted to tell Bush that he had sent forces into the tribal areas to clean out a major madressah where hard-line ideology and intolerance were part of the daily curriculum. There were roughly 25,000 such private Islamic schools around Pakistan, though only a small number of them regularly bred young terrorists. The one he decided to target was run by the Haqqani faction of Islamic militants, one of the most powerful in the tribal areas.

“Though Gilani never knew it, Bush was aware of this gift in advance. The National Security Agency had picked up intercepts indicating that a Pakistani unit warned the leadership of the school about what was coming before carrying out its raid. ‘They must have called 1-800-HAQQANI,’ said one person who was familiar with the intercepted conversation. According to another, the account of the warning sent to the school was almost comic. ‘It was something like, “Hey, we’re going to hit your place in a few days, so if anyone important is there, you might want to tell them to scram.”’

“When the ‘attack’ on the madressah came, the Pakistani forces grabbed a few guns and hauled away a few teenagers. Sure enough, a few days later Gilani showed up in the Oval Office and conveyed the wonderful news to Bush: the great crackdown on the madressahs had begun. The officials in the room — Bush; his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and others — did not want to confront Gilani with the evidence that the school had been warned. That would have required revealing sensitive intercepts, and they judged, according to participants in the discussion, that Gilani was both incapable of keeping a secret and incapable of cracking down on his military and intelligence units. Indeed, Gilani may not even have been aware that his gift was a charade: Bush and Hadley may well have known more about the military’s actions than the prime minister himself.”

Yes, the outside world barges in because we leave our doors wide open. But, invited or not, they come because we are an awful mess and send a shudder down the collective spine of the rest of the world. Reading Gen Pasha’s assessment that “we may be crazy in Pakistan”, our foreign friends would probably nod in agreement, though they may dispute the general’s assertion that we aren’t “completely out of our minds.”

The problem is that we’ve slipped so far from the norm that we can’t figure out what the fuss is all about. Amateurs masquerading as statesmen has been our lot for a long time. While it’s true that this isn’t the only country in the world to have suffered such a fate, what worries the international community is that our amateurs punch above their weight, buoyed by the possession of the most lethal toys a state can dream of.

Big toys, small men — don’t expect the world to look away.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 16/1/2009

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