Monday, March 27, 2017

Business Recorder Column March 27, 2017

Red herrings and all that Rashed Rahman Once again we have demonstrated our inexhaustible penchant for kicking up the dust of unnecessary and time wasting controversies. An article by former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, in The Washington Post roused our sleeping defenders of the faith and ‘national interest’ to tilt against some more windmills. The offence to these self-appointed gatekeepers was caused by Haqqani’s mentioning in the article the fact that under instructions from the leadership of the then PPP-led government, the Pakistan embassy in Washington had been empowered to expedite visas for US officials requested by the State Department. A letter containing these instructions by then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is being bandied about to ‘prove’ that the previous PPP government allowed Haqqani to issue visas wholesale while bypassing the necessary procedures, especially security checks. These wild accusations are not new. In the past too, particularly around the time of the memogate controversy, Haqqani came in for stick on that issue as well as the alleged visas breach. The accusers and their tribe seem oblivious of, or deliberately choose to ignore, the procedures and protocols in place in every embassy regarding issuing visas. Amongst the staff of every embassy, defence and security personnel are posted. Without their explicit clearance, no visa can be issued. Yousaf Raza Gilani has clarified this in a press conference. PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar has also weighed in, echoing Gilani’s question whether this is not a red herring or a storm in a teacup when the real conundrum is how Osama ben Laden lived in Abbottabad for so many years under the nose of the military academy and cantonment a stone’s throw away. These, however, have been the relatively rational and measured PPP responses to the furore. Disappointingly, the rest of the PPP leadership seems only interested in peddling furiously in the water to distance themselves from the ‘taint’ of Haqqani and even declare him a ‘traitor’ (PPP’s Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah) or someone whose utility has expired (Asif Zardari). What these grey eminences of the PPP seem unaware of is the possibility that their very ‘denials’ would create further embarrassment for them without any outcome. Getting drawn into useless controversies is an occupational hazard of politicians in today’s world because of media hype. For that very reason, politicians should be more careful with their words and think things through before opening their mouths. Having said that, what exactly is the real subtext of the whole controversy? Some background is required. After 9/11, then military dictator Pervez Musharraf succumbed to Washington’s threats to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if it did not cooperate in the war on terror. However, while ostensibly saying ‘Yes sir!’ to the demand, Musharraf wreaked his revenge by allowing the Afghan Taliban fleeing their country in the face of the overwhelming military might of the US invasion of Afghanistan safe havens on Pakistani soil. They were thus preserved to fight another day, which they continue to do till date. In the melee to get out of Afghanistan and escape the wrath of the US, Osama ben Laden too made the precarious journey across the Tora Bora Mountains on the Pak-Afghan border and then ‘disappeared’ inside Pakistan. The US-led hunt for Osama ben Laden occupied Presidents George Bush and his successor Barack Obama. The latter administration was only able to crack Osama ben Laden’s location after their intelligence operatives were facilitated by expediting their visas through all the proper checks being carried out in the Washington embassy, rather than referring each individual visa application to Islamabad, a process that took months, sometimes a year. Every such visa was issued with advice to the Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad. So what is the problem? The visa issue is a complete red herring. The real problem with the PPP’s (and Haqqani’s) detractors is the discovery and elimination in a raid in Abbottabad of the al Qaeda terrorist chief responsible for 9/11. In the process, the raid laid bare the manifest failure of our defence and security regime. That failure was glossed over in a subsequent joint session of parliament that let the military leadership of the time off the hook. No one was held accountable for the debacle. The PPP should be shouting from the rooftops that it helped eliminate the biggest terrorist of modern times inside Pakistan. Instead, we are witness to mealy-mouthed, apologetic efforts to save the PPP leadership’s hide while being quite prepared to throw Haqqani to the wolves (who have already been snapping at his heels for years) despite the fact that he was acting according to the PPP government’s instructions, as he was bound to do. What then explains the PPP’s desperate attempts to dump all the dirt on Haqqani if they can while preening as ‘innocent’ themselves? This cowardice reeks of fear of the establishment, the PPP’s bĂȘte noir of long standing. A similar smell of fear emanates from the second approval of military courts. The PPP of course is not alone in this (second) betrayal of democracy, the constitution, and an acceptable judicial system. The entire political class has unashamedly sold its soul (twice) to the devil. Raking up the diversion of visas serves the purpose of distracting attention from the real, serious issues facing the country. Terrorism is being countered largely by military means. The weakest component of the counterterrorism campaign is the intelligence-led police operations to weed out underground cells of terrorists throughout the length and breadth of the country. The so-called combing operations in the big cities being conducted largely by the military may net a large number of suspects, including those allegedly picked up under the umbrella of ethnic profiling, but whether this will get to the entrails of the terrorist network to eliminate it root and branch appears uncertain so far.

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