The crisis management test-Dr Maleeha Lodhi

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Like a ship caught in a raging storm in uncharted waters, Pakistan appears to be rudderless. The most telling example of this has been the government’s management of the seven-week old crisis with India, precipitated by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November.

Throughout the crisis, the government seemed overawed by the challenge and projected an image of itself as fumbling and lacking direction. Where sure footedness was required, confusion reigned and where decisive leadership was warranted, an impression of disarray was conveyed.

The crisis tested the government’s understanding and practice of statecraft and found it wanting. If statecraft is construed as making sound and realistic assessments and judging how a threat or challenge has to be addressed in the pursuit of national interests, the government seemed unburdened by such a capacity. This was reflected in confused and patchwork responses, flawed assessments, mistaking means for ends, unenergetic diplomacy, and poor communication and framing of issues. It was indicated, above all, by the absence of a coherent strategy which could determine careful calibration of responses to an unfolding challenge. Instead of taking quick and credible actions and striking a firm posture towards India’s coercive diplomacy, the official response was hobbled by a series of embarrassments that the government brought upon itself by lack of adequate thought and consultation.

The slow and muddled response at the very onset of the crisis was in part a consequence of the ambiguities of a decision-making structure with multiple power centres but no one in effective charge. This hybrid political arrangement, which is neither presidential nor parliamentary, engenders fragmented decision-making, hardly an enabling policy environment for expeditious and coherent outcomes. Also contributing to this are systemic weaknesses of longer standing. A growing problem evidenced over the years is a systemic aversion to relying on expert opinion, in sharp contrast to world wide practice. This has translated into a lack of proper utilisation of expertise available within the relevant ministries and agencies. Compounding these problems is a leadership unversed in how state institutions work or indeed the complexities of international politics. The interplay between structure and personality stymied any effective strategy or coordination.

Four aspects of the government’s crisis management exposed serious flaws in the government’s decision making capacity and approach. First, the mystery surrounding a “threatening” phone call supposedly received by President Asif Ali Zardari from the Indian Foreign Minister. Irrespective of who this call was from, it certainly became consequential as it evoked a panicked response, and signalled very early in the crisis, what appeared to be a singular lack of self confidence. It may also have defined an approach that made questionable assumptions and judgements. The phone call led to a flurry of contacts with senior US officials and shaped the decision to seek international intercession to “avert conflict”.

This decision was also driven by a subsequent assessment based on “credible” indications that India had begun to activate its forward air bases for possible “surgical” strikes against targets in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan. It is unclear if this evaluation factored in the exceedingly high economic, political and strategic costs of such action for Delhi or indeed its international ramifications. What it did suggest was a lack of faith in Pakistan’s conventional means to deter such aggressive action, which appeared to be at variance with conventional strategic wisdom.

Although preparedness for any contingency made perfect sense, the sense of panic and alarm signalled to others unintendedly conveyed a message of helplessness and vulnerability. An approach counselled by fear is quite different from a calm, self-assured course that aims to deter and prevent a military threat for which international help is galvanised, but is premised on the country’s own deterrent capability.

The question this raised was whether the jittery scramble to mobilise international support was well thought out in terms of anticipating its implications and consequences. (On what terms would the crisis be defused by external actors? Where would the weight of international diplomacy lie?) Was consideration given to the fact that every time the country seeks outside help from parties who are far from neutral, there is invariably a quid pro quo.

A corollary of this was the assertion by official spokesmen that among the government’s aims was to “avoid international isolation”. By publicly declaring this, the government signalled a weakness that was not necessarily grounded in reality. This reflected an amateurish inability to distinguish between what should be part of internal deliberations and what should be public.

The second aspect of the government’s crisis management approach that has already drawn much public comment were its flips flops on a number of counts – on the ill-advised offer to send the DG ISI to India followed by a disclaimer, and the tardy and fumbling diplomatic response to the violations of Pakistani airspace by Indian aircraft. The embarrassment caused by such wavering could well have been avoided if decisions had been taken by consultation and in an institutional setting.

The third area of official weakness concerned the relentless Indian effort to define the narrative and reframe the terms of the international debate, by casting the India- Pakistan relationship in terms of terrorism, and depicting Pakistan as the source of all regional problems. This warranted an equally vigorous effort by Islamabad to make the case about the underlying causes responsible for South Asian instability and violence and to highlight the need for a Kashmir resolution. But the government failed to mount any countervailing effort to this campaign or to press the point that the only durable antidote to terrorist violence is to address “root causes.”

This was surprising as Delhi’s aim in this campaign is so transparently to stave off any effort by the incoming Obama Administration to focus on Kashmir. Alarmed by the President-elect’s oft stated belief that the road to a stabilized Afghanistan lies through a resolution of Kashmir, Delhi has been actively trying to dissuade Washington from considering any such role. Echoing the official line, The Times of India wrote in its editorial of 10 January: “The Obama Administration will have to be walked back from what India….(sees) as a dangerous starting point.”

Pakistan’s reactive diplomacy in the face of Delhi’s graduated raising of the temperature was characterised by a remarkable lack of energy. It was neither intense nor continuous, with Mission heads largely absent from the airwaves, a consequence perhaps of the Foreign Office being repeatedly bypassed in the decision-making process. Whatever the reason, it also meant that the public relations dimension of managing the crisis remained inchoate, characterised by poor articulation and framing of issues. Text messages do not add up to a media strategy. Little importance also seems to have been given to projecting Pakistan’s interests abroad with the country’s voice unheard in international forums. Calling an all parties conference marked a good step to rally political support, but little was done to follow this up. The public meanwhile was left to guess much of the time about which direction the crisis was headed.

Finally the most recent unedifying dimension of the government’s crisis management was the chaotic manner in which various officials disclosed that Ajmal Qasab, the captured gunman of the Mumbai attack, was a Pakistani. What should have been a carefully crafted confirmation of his nationality to establish Pakistan’s credibility in the investigations it is carrying out, instead turned into high drama with the sacking of Mahmud Durrani, the National Security Advisor for leaking the information without the Prime Minister’s authorisation. This episode was as much a statement on the strains within the government and its uncoordinated functioning as of differences on how to handle the investigation. And it dented the credibility of both the government and the country.

While there are signs that the Pakistan-India crisis may be easing the diplomatic challenge remains. Delhi seems determined to sustain international pressure lest Mumbai is eclipsed by other pressing priorities on the global agenda. So questions raised about the government’s ability to manage the crisis will need to be addressed going forward.

The government should consider the creation of an institutionalised mechanism for crisis management which can systematically provide inputs and expert analysis from all the relevant agencies. The Foreign Ministry should be accorded a central role so that it can direct a clear and robust diplomatic effort geared to promoting Pakistan’s vital national and strategic interests. Diplomacy and all the other tools of statecraft need to be integrated and used wisely to navigate this and other challenges that may lie ahead.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK.

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