Cable, conspiracy & populism

Published April 16, 2022
The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.
The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.

THE removal of a prime minister through a no-confidence motion is an extraordinary event in the life of a nation. Similarly, accusing the recognised political opposition of treason is a matter of no minor consequence. But the most painful fact in today’s Pakistan is that the nation is deeply polarised and divided.

All these aspects of the political crisis in Pakistan have been analysed threadbare in the media. However, given my background as a Pakistani diplomat, Dawn asked me to provide a perspective in particular on the cable sent by our ambassador in Washington in early March, which is at the heart of the purported foreign conspiracy behind the no-confidence motion. I must admit that my knowledge of specifics is limited to what has appeared in the media.

First, there is nothing sacrosanct about the contents of confidential cables, but their ‘exact texts’ cannot be made public, mainly because doing so can compromise the cipher code. However, if needed, these cables can be seen by responsible persons and their paraphrased version can even be made public. In their autobiographies, many of our distinguished former diplomats have drawn on events and conversations which were once the substance of their official and confidential communications to the Foreign Office.

Second, at times great powers engineer political change in small and vulnerable countries, but do so rarely, discretely and without advertisement. Diplomatic démarches are a common practice to record protests or express anger or unhappiness, and even to convey threats. But if the matter is serious, ambassadors are summoned by the host country’s Foreign Office, and the threat or protest is conveyed in writing or verbally.

So the first basic question is whether our ambassador was summoned by the US assistant secretary or was it during a farewell call by our outgoing ambassador that the conversation took place? It is also reported that the occasion was a lunch organised by our ambassador, which makes it even less formal.

American diplomats are not known for observing diplomatic etiquette and they often explain their offensive undiplomatic behaviour as being frank and straightforward. There is a view that US diplomacy has regressed in professionalism because of heavy political intake. Even US leaders are prone to indiscretion; for example, the 2018 new year tweet by president Donald Trump was abusive and could be interpreted as a threat. In the event, it turned out to be a non-serious slur.

An oft-cited example is, however, the infamous remark by US deputy secretary Richard Armitage that “you are either with us or against us” conveyed to our ambassador and our visiting intelligence chief following 9/11. The Americans do not have a monopoly over such behaviour. I am witness to a warning conveyed by a Soviet vice foreign minister to president Ziaul Haq of “incalculable consequences” if Pakistan failed to sign the drafted Geneva Accords to facilitate Soviet troop withdrawal under UN aegis.

Pakistanis revel in conspiracy theories, and the US is the favourite villain.

On the other hand, Pakistanis revel in conspiracy theories, and the US is the favourite villain. It is widely believed that the US pressured us to halt our advance in Chamb-Jorian sector. We ignore that on Sept 4, 1965, every Pakistani newspaper carried in bold headlines prime minister Shastri’s threat that India would attack on the front of its choosing. As became evident, we were unprepared for a wider conflict. Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whipped up public passions citing the existence of secret clauses in the Tashkent accords which were never there.

The military coups of 1977 and 1999 are believed to be machinations of a foreign hand. And now we are drowning in a debate over a conspiracy to oust a sitting PM with the opposition’s complicity. ‘Exhibit one’ as evidence is the ambassador’s cable from Washington.

To get a perspective on this attitude, I recall my first posting to China which coincided with the last phase of the Cultural Revolution, a period of violent political struggle. The revolutionary vanguard denounced political opponents for their views calling them ‘capitalist roaders’ and ‘revisionists’ but never ‘foreign agents’. Self-assured nations hang individuals for treason, but do not trade accusations of treason in their political discourse.

Read: Foreign interference

In Pakistan, however, foreign conspiracy theories are a staple of popular politics and perhaps a convenient explanation for manifest domestic policy failures. Everyone has a stake in the country, which is not a playfield with adversaries and only one winner.

Populism is hardly ever constructive. The most illustrious example has been Castro’s Cuba which I visited several times between 1979 and 2000. Cuba commanded a revolutionary élan, had achieved universal education and employment, and boasted discos at every street corner where young people could while away their evenings. But the economy was depressed. It remained so even until 2000 when Castro was still alive. Foreign exchange-strapped Cuba had allowed foreign-run five-star hotels all along the 50-mile waterfront from Havana to Varadero famed for its white sand beaches. This zone was out of bounds for common Cubans.

Economic progress demands a leadership with steady temperament and focus; not a Castro but leaders of the quality of Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yu. Only such leadership can plan and steer progress in developing and modernising economy, industry, agriculture, science and technology and education — the backbone of a society.

The Imran Khan-led wave of populism has polarised Pakistan, and further degraded our political culture. His populism has the familiar mix of religion and anti-Americanism. We are witness to the reign of naively interpreted Islam next door in Taliban Afghanistan. Raking up the latent anti-Americanism in society for political gain can advance no national interest. Internationally, we face many challenges including that posed by the US embrace of India as a “natural ally and trusted partner”. But this challenge needs to be addressed with equanimity and not with a jilted anger.

Lastly, the question of an independent foreign policy. All countries have to adjust to changing global circumstances. Pakistan is no exception. But if we look at the consistency of our relations with China, our determined pursuit and maintenance of credible nuclear deterrence and decades of our well-known voting pattern in numerous international forums, we pretty much act on our own and in sync with our national ethos and interests.

The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2022

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