For Holbrooke, Pakistan 101

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Ghazi Salahuddin

Figuring out Pakistan in the context of its ground realities has never been easy. And what you decipher as ground realities can serve as loose pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. Turn it a little and the picture will completely change. Then, it becomes hard to explain or interpret a particular image. Try Swat. Or the pompous line-up of federal ministers in a cabinet meeting.

Well, President Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke was here for three nights this week for a crash course on the reality of Pakistan. He landed in Islamabad on Monday and said: “I am here to listen and learn the ground realities of this critically important country”. This he sought to do in a breathtaking schedule of engagements. All his encounters, one can be sure, were carefully minuted by the staff that accompanied him.

But I wonder if he had time to look at the English dailies on three mornings that he spent in this country. It is fair to assume that these newspapers were available on his breakfast table and that he gave them a hurried look. This could be the basic course in his study of a “critically important country”, some kind of Pakistan 101. (This, 101, is the number of the first, beginning-level, course on any subject at colleges and universities in the United States.)

Hence, reading my newspapers on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I thought about the stories that may have caught Holbrooke’s attention. After all, his capacity to grasp the details of a situation must be astounding, considering the reputation that he has as a diplomat and negotiator. It is not for nothing that one source in the US media called him the “diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb”. Does this mean that his involvement with Pakistan-Afghanistan is going to be highly explosive?

At this initial stage, however, he has to do a quick recce of this treacherous region. The newspapers, when he had the hard copy, would obviously be a source of some information. Now, he may not have been distracted by editorials and opinion pieces because they reflect views that are very familiar and must have reverberated in his conversations with high functionaries, politicians and well-known analysts. He would, perhaps, be more interested in the news – including in items that are buried in the inside pages.

So, did he find this item headlined: “MPA claims he got fertilizers at gunpoint”? According to the report published on Wednesday, this admission was made in the Punjab Assembly and the excuse was the non-availability of fertilizers in his constituency. Reports about the bombing of girls’ schools in Swat would not be surprising, considering that the number of such schools has come close to about 200. Ah, but there was this single-column headline: “Taliban torch boys’ school in Swat”.

Some reports may have intrigued him because they demand a certain perspective or background. For instance, take this short letter to the editor in this newspaper about the number of ministers in the Balochistan cabinet. It said: “Barring the doorman at the entrance to the provincial assembly, just about everyone is a minister”.

In the same vein, someone not initiated into the mysteries of our bureaucratic government would find it hard to follow the significance of this headline: “Finance secretary yet to relinquish post”. Yes, it is somewhat useful to read that “the finance division has seen changes at the top four times since the Pakistan People’s Party came to power in March last year”. Similarly, explanations would be required to grasp this latest reference to a running saga: “Farah Dogar case: plea dismissed”.

Considering the importance of the status of women in a country, there was a report datelined Lahore: “‘Unbelievable’ violence against women”. Its intro: “Violence against women in Punjab has risen to ‘unbelievable levels’ in the last months of 2008, according to a report issued by Aurat Foundation here on Tuesday”. Figures have been quoted in this media study.

More scary in its implication was this Hamid Mir exclusive in this newspaper on Wednesday: “Taliban threaten attack on Islamabad”. It said: “The local Taliban leadership has decided to send its fighters to Islamabad as a reaction to the operations in Darra Adamkhel and Swat Valley and in this regard chalking on the walls of Islamabad is already appearing, forcing the Islamabad administration to whitewash these messages quickly”.

This Taliban story may be called speculative but Holbrooke may have noticed a three-column picture published on Tuesday, his first morning in this country. Without attempting to describe a chilling image, let me just reproduce its caption: “The picture, released by the Taliban, shows Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak before his beheading at an unknown location”. On Wednesday, a report from Warsaw quoted Polish foreign minister’s assertion that internal divisions within Pakistan’s government hampered efforts to save the life of the hostage.

So much more can be gleaned from the English newspapers that Holbrooke could possibly read when in Pakistan. At one level, there were numerous reiterations of subjects and issues that have almost become the staple of our journalism. Political statements constitute a separate category. There are the usual crime stories, generally devoid of the necessary human angle. Also, the mandatory declarations by the government about what it wants to do. Just one example: “Govt considering to change Thana culture: PM”.

As if to underline another major issue that Pakistan is sometimes identified with, there was this headline in a daily on Tuesday: “Man kills teenage sister over karo-kari”. But the reporting of these matters is usually quite perfunctory and the stories are poorly drafted and displayed as if nothing shattering has happened when a man is persuaded to kill his own sister.

Finally, Holbrooke perhaps checked the reporting of his own engagements. He was obviously all over the media. In one instance, however, he made news for his visual absence from two news bulletins on the official television channel. I am not sure if he saw this report published in a daily on Wednesday: “PTV official suspended over ‘mistake'”.

The report, quoting inside sources, said that director news, PTV, was suspended from his position. Why? His “suspension occurred…in the background of crucial mistake that took place in the bulletins of 6 and 7 pm…Actually in these two bulletins some visuals of Richard Holbrooke’s meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani were slipped”. And the report added that “the presidency took serious notice of the gross mistake”.

A “gross mistake”? Holbrooke may not have had time to judge the professional standards of the Pakistani media and whether it provides sufficient coverage to major events and issues with expert analyses and interpretations. But he should be told about the great photo opportunities that he provided for our rulers.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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