ISLAMABAD: Outgoing Prime Minis­ter Imran Khan’s move to use a diplomatic cable for shielding himself against the opposition’s no-confidence motion did not work, but has left behind deleterious consequences for the foreign service that will be felt for a long time to come.

Mr Khan had at a public rally on March 27 claimed that the move to topple his government was the result of a foreign conspiracy. He later named that country as the United States and it turned out that his allegation was based on a cable received from Ambassador Asad Majeed in which he had reported about a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu.

Asad Majeed had reportedly said that Donald Lu warned that Imran Khan’s continuation in office, who was facing a vote of no confidence, would have repercussions for bilateral relations. The US was said to be annoyed with Mr Khan over his ‘independent foreign policy’ and visit to Moscow.

It was interpreted by the government as a threat.

The government’s decision to go public with it put the Foreign Office at the centre of the controversy. But diplomats serving there are not happy about it.

FO corridors currently seem muted, but a few officials spoke to Dawn on condition of anonymity.

One ambassador posted abroad said the “cablegate has seriously impacted the working, but it was hard to quantify”. He further said Mr Khan might have tried to get some political advantage from that, but he skewered the principle of secure and confidential communications, which is at the heart of diplomacy.

How will it affect their working?

Cables sent from missions abroad contain crucial information about developments of interest to the country and insights about the thinking of the leaders in the host countries. The diplomatic reporting includes analyses of complex foreign policy issues. The cables may also suggest options for advancing national interest, sometimes in difficult situations.

Another ambassador said: “Some of us work in hostile environments, we will now not name our sources in our reporting for fear of that becoming public”.

The major concern, therefore, is that the reporting officers would become very cautious and generally more reticent.

The cables have very restricted circulation with very few having access to them. This gives the ambassadors a sense of security that it’s safe to share unvarnished truth with their government about what’s happening in the host country. They, it is worried, will at least think twice about reporting something controversial.

This would affect the decision-making at the FO, which requires blunt and candid reporting.

Another fallout of this episode could be that foreign governments could become wary of trusting Pakistani diplomats. This will reduce the effectiveness of the outreach of the diplomats and make the acquisition of information difficult.

“The consequences of this ‘cablegate’ will go well beyond what is being discussed now as it could hurt sensitive relationships and make open exchanges more difficult,” a diplomat posted abroad said.

His opinion was that foreign officials meeting Pakistani diplomats provide a window not only into the affairs of that particular country, but their insights are often an indicator of the sentiment in international politics. “I’m afraid those officials may no more be willing to share frank views with us. If that happens, those sources will be greatly missed, especially in times of crisis,” he added.

A retired foreign service official said that it was Pakistan’s distinguishing feature that “we did not pull foreign policy controversies into domestic politics”. But, he regretted, that was no more the case after this episode.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2022

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