Diplomats have good reason to dislike modern communications. In the days when the secure transmission of sensitive information involved messengers, boats, horses and the occasional pigeon, there was a far greater need for diplomats’ services. Because as government representatives posted to far-flung capitals waited for official instructions, they could take the initiative and improvise. The slow passage of information created an opportunity.
Today it’s all very different. A diplomat facing a dilemma is no longer expected to resolve it. Rather, he or she must refer the question back to their ministry and await a secure email telling them what to do. Actually, it’s even worse than that. Prime ministers and presidents can now simply pick up the phone and talk to each other. What need for an ambassador when the principals can resolve matters directly?
And yet the age of diplomacy is not quite over. Because however many bytes fly around the world, there is still a need for trust and understanding. By building up sustained relationships with key decision-makers and by understanding their personal, political and legal constraints, diplomats can still perform a useful function. How come then that after five years of activity in the various cases relating to the MQM, which insists on its total innocence or non-involvement in all of them, there is now such a high level of mutual distrust and misunderstanding between London and Islamabad?
Of course, hardly anyone in Pakistan ever believed that the British would allow any of the cases to go to court. And as soon as the bail conditions on Altaf Hussain and others were dropped last month, Pakistan’s cynics congratulated themselves on their far-sightedness in correctly predicting the duplicity of the British. But most of these critics have remained unaware of the legal constraints in the UK especially when it comes to handling evidence that originates in Pakistan. After all, detaining suspects in the Imran Farooq case without charge for years and letting one of them reportedly die in custody is not exactly international best practice.
The MQM case has led to mistrust between UK and Pakistan.
The question is whether all of this has been a deliberate result of cunning statecraft — the conspiracy theory — or whether it’s down to sheer incompetence, otherwise known as the good old-fashioned cock-up.
First, the cock-up side of things. Throughout the whole process London and Islamabad have demonstrated a consistent ability to misunderstand each other. Pakistani officials have shown an astonishing lack of knowledge of the British legal system and have been incapable of using the correct terminology when requesting British assistance.
For their part British investigators have shown little understanding of how decisions are made in Pakistan, failing to appreciate that, for example, the ISI might have one agenda and the FIA and interior ministry another. London’s awareness of the political sensitivity of the cases has led to an ultra cautious attitude and the rigid application of stifling protocols that have rendered clear communications between the two sides impossible.
The UK has failed to behave in a politically astute way. To give one example, the entirely predictable strong reaction to the dropping of bail conditions last month reportedly took the Met by surprise.
And now the conspiracy theory. It relies on the widely held view that both sides, for different reasons, have reasons to obstruct the cases.
From the UK’s point of view Pakistan has handled the MQM file with deliberate unhelpfulness. Within days of the murder of Imran Farooq back in 2010 the Pakistani authorities had detained three men who made confessions that could and should have been tested in court. But far from sharing the information, the Pakistan authorities, keen to hold onto a lever with which they could apply pressure on the MQM, kept the story secret.
There is a significant chance that Pakistan will continue to be as unhelpful when it comes to extraditing the main suspect in the case. The problem appears to be that Pakistan is sulking about the fact that it went to the trouble of arresting three people and it turns out the UK only wants the extradition of one of them.
But Pakistan also has it grievances. Officials claim that had similar cases involved jihadis the British authorities would have handled them very differently. In those circumstances the British Foreign Office would have been on the front foot, indignantly demanding Pakistan’s full cooperation. Instead the British Foreign Office has been lukewarm about the investigation, privately predicting that the police would never get anywhere.
So perhaps it is unfair to argue that the diplomats have failed. Maybe Pakistan’s deep state never wanted to destroy the MQM and British officials always wanted to hold on to a channel of influence in Pakistan. If that’s what has been happening then the art of diplomacy might just be alive and well.
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2016