Brand management

Updated October 22, 2016

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MILITARY power is relatively easy to measure by counting the number of soldiers, tanks, planes, ships, etc. Economic might is quantified by readily available data on exchange rate, GDP, productivity, and so on.

But how do we measure soft power? This is a state’s influence abroad through the sum total of its cultural, scientific and sporting achievements, among many other factors. The image a nation acquires in the eyes of outsiders is a nebulous thing, and can be as easily destroyed as a car manufacturer can damage its brand, as Volkswagen did recently by falsifying its emissions data.

Due to its intangible nature, our military and civilian rulers have never really understood the importance of soft power. The recent flare-up in civilian-military ties over the publication of a leaked report on a security meeting highlights this lack of sophistication.


Our image is tarnished, our soft power nonexistent.


Firstly, the security establishment publicly expressed its fury over the leak, and then the government showed its ire by placing the Dawn reporter on the Exit Control List. Nei­ther understood that both reactions sent the wrong signals abroad as the event was widely reported in the international media. Thus, a purely internal spat was needlessly transformed into a big story about the divisions between the military and civilian leadership.

The backdrop here is the declared Indian intention to isolate Pakistan internationally. But Prime Minister Modi is pushing against an open door as we have already succeeded in making brand Pakistan toxic in foreign eyes. For years now, Pakistan has been seen as the epicentre of the global jihad, with foreign Muslim radicals coming to our shores for training and brainwashing.

This is what was apparently discussed in the Islamabad meeting that caused the recent rumpus. According to the Dawn report, the military was asked by civilian leaders to rein in the jihadis that enjoyed its support. The foreign secretary explained that whenever our diplomats raised the Kashmir issue abroad, they had to listen to lectures about harbouring and supporting terrorists.

And this is something the military mind does not grasp: our use of jihadi gangs in Afgha­nistan and India-held Kashmir is simply not accepted in the world. Poli­ticians, pundits and informed public opinion everywhere no longer believe our empty denials.

So when we repeat the mantra that we are the biggest victims of terrorism, we are told to do something about it. And although the ongoing military operation in the tribal areas has pushed back some of these terrorists, suspicion about our support for groups like the Haqqani network persist.

We should not be surprised by this scepticism. After all, militant leaders like Hafiz Saeed openly address public rallies despite the widely held perception that they are responsible for many acts of terrorism. The trial of those strongly suspected of being behind the Mumbai attacks in 2008 drags on.

But beyond the long charge sheet of supporting terrorism, we also have an unsavoury image for intolerance towards those with different beliefs and lifestyles. Our vile treatment of our minorities and women is regularly reported abroad, and men of Pakistani origin in the West often appear in headlines because of their criminal conduct.

Small wonder, then, that our image abroad is so tarnished, and our soft power nonexistent. Pakistan is now widely seen as a major problem, and not part of the solution. Some years ago, Madeline Albright, the then US secretary of state, called Pakistan “an international migraine”.

None of this is pleasant reading for Pakistanis; I am certainly not enjoying writing this column. But before we can solve a problem, we have to accept it exists. After the recent furore over the Cyril Almeida story, I heard a well-known TV anchor speculate aloud over “who was orchestrating the foreign coverage of the story”.

If a TV anchor is unaware of how the foreign media works, I suppose we can excuse our generals and politicians. The reality is that journalists, specially those working for English-language newspapers, get to know their foreign counterparts based in, or visiting, Islamabad. Thus when Cyril Almeida was targeted for doing his job, he had many sympathetic colleagues in and out of Pakistan. So there was no conspiracy as the TV anchor seemed to suggest.

Over the years, I have heard many politicians complaining that our diplomats are unsuccessful in projecting Pakistan’s image abroad. Our generals are equally contemptuous of our foreign service. But they neglect the fact that our overseas missions are no match for India’s soft power.

Indian music, movies, food and fashions are now an integral part of many Western cities. Restaurants owned by Pakistanis are often labelled ‘Indian’ to appeal to a public that might be put off by their true identity. And despite its treatment of its non-Hindu and Dalit population, India is still viewed by many as the land of Gandhian non-violence.

So unless we somehow change how Pakistan is perceived abroad, we will continue to struggle to get our message across.

irfanhusain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn October 22nd, 2016