Red herring debate

Updated 02 Aug 2020

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE ongoing debate about the dual nationality or permanent resident status abroad of the prime minister’s special assistants (SAPM) has claimed two scalps, if the reason cited in the letters of resignation are valid.

SAPM on health Dr Zafar Mirza, who took early retirement from the WHO to join the prime minister’s team at a ministerial level, cited the tone and tenor of the debate as one of the reasons for his resignation. Dr Mirza, who has led Pakistan’s Covid-19 battle since the virus reached our shores, also said he came to join the government with aspirations of reforming the country’s decrepit public healthcare system but was disappointed that bureaucratic hurdles ruled out progress.

It was not immediately clear if Dr Mirza, though he cited the (often hysterical) debate, as a reason for stepping down did indeed possess dual nationality or if at all he was a permanent resident of another country. It was strange that he was leaving office midway through a pandemic he was leading the fight against.

Tania Aidrus cited the same debate as the trigger for her resignation and lamented that her dream to deliver a digital future to the country remained unfulfilled. Both SAPMs had impeccable educational backgrounds, international experience and exposure in their fields.

It’s unfair to suspect dual nationals’ patriotism.

Despite the debate of several days, Islamabad journalists claiming to be well informed seemed to learn on the day that two senior cabinet-level SAPMs were resigning. There were suggestions the two were pushed and did not jump. In fact, the two resignations were accompanied by leaks, speculation of improper conduct in office for which no evidence was presented. So it appeared to be score-settling. No political observer had any doubt that the concerted campaign against the ‘unelected’ SAPMs was fanned by ‘elected’ members, including some ministers, of the governing party.

In Ms Aidrus’s case a leak from the Prime Minister’s Office seemed designed to underline the dramatic fall from grace of the erstwhile PTI titan Jahangir Tareen. It was reported his arch-rival, the prime minister’s principal secretary Azam Khan, summoned the woman Tareen had poached from Google and told her to resign. Her request for a meeting with Imran Khan was denied.

Who knows if this internal fight will stop here or escalate, claiming more casualties? What’s clear is that pressure is still being exerted on other SAPMs and, ludicrously, their patriotism and commitment to Pakistan are also being questioned by sections of the media.

Bizarrely, these very commentators did not appear to raise an eyebrow when the custodians of the country’s national security secrets, including the nuclear weapons programme, namely the former army and intelligence chiefs, took up significant jobs to serve foreign governments very soon after retirement.

If government officers have to wait a certain period after retirement before they can even run for parliament and hold political positions in the country surely questions must be asked if former army and intel chiefs take up jobs with foreign governments immediately on retirement.

Nobody is questioning their patriotism or expressing a fear that national secrets would be compromised. The question is, whether it is appropriate for a senior official privy to information that perhaps a handful are at any given point should opt for work abroad so soon after leaving office.

The law allows dual nationals or Pakistanis with permanent resident status abroad to be SAPMs. This should normally be enough to settle a debate unless someone is pushing an agenda.

In this particular instance, the PTI is a victim of its own past rhetoric when its top leadership wanted not just the dual nationality bar enforced on those running for parliament or disqualification of elected representatives but also advocated that anyone desirous of government office should be a Pakistan national only.

It is a ludicrous assumption on the part of the media or anyone else that dual nationals’ patriotic credentials are suspect. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a dual national myself.) The Gulf emirates were built entirely by different nationalities who were true to the jobs they were undertaking, from a construction worker’s to the airline chief executive’s.

People should be judged on their expertise and performance rather than on the basis of holding an additional passport or resident card. International exposure brings added value in today’s globalised world. It is unfair to deride professionals on unfounded assumptions about their loyalty and not performance.

After all, a former intel official who, according to US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, walked into the US embassy in Islamabad, shared information about Osama bin Laden’s location, collected a $25 million reward and won relocation to the US, informed a foreign government rather than his own. He was only a Pakistani national then.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2020