Saturday, March 25, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial March 25, 2017

Visa furore A veritable storm has been set off by former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani’s article in The Washington Post in which he revealed that he had facilitated visas for American officials requested by the US State Department with the approval and authorisation of the previous PPP government’s leadership. The detractors and critics of the ambassador (and the PPP) have latched onto the revelation to paint a picture as though the ambassador had acted off his own bat and while bypassing the procedures and security clearance required for the issuance of such visas. Two letters are being bandied about by the critics, one from the Foreign Office listing 36 American official visa applicants who should either be refused or given only limited time visas, and another from former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani empowering the ambassador to expedite such visa requests without having to refer every individual case to Islamabad to avoid delays running into months. What has set the house on fire regarding this seemingly routine matter is the further assertion by Husain Haqqani that this facilitation helped the US nail Osama bin Laden (OBL) inside Pakistan. The latter assertion has brought anonymous former military establishment sources into play to assert that despite the presence of the security agencies in every embassy charged with giving clearance to such cases, visas to US intelligence operatives had been issued by our Washington embassy during Haqqani’s ambassadorship without going through the proper procedure, especially sending such cases to the ISI for clearance. These assertions are refuted by Gilani in his press conference on March 24 and in a statement by PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar. The former argues that the letter in question was issued according to the rules of business and expediting visas certainly did not, and indeed could not, bypass the clearance regime. Babar has refuted any suggestion of wrongdoing in this regard and has, along with Gilani, instead thrown the ball into the court of the PPP’s detractors by asking the pointed question whether this non-issue should be the focus of so much attention or the presence of OBL on Pakistani soil next to a major military cantonment for so many years? Both have demanded that the Abbottabad Commission report be made public to clear the air. They have also demanded that if the issuance of visas to US officials is the issue, the issuance regime since 2002 should be investigated to lay bare the truth. They have asked how many US military and other personnel came to Pakistan during the Musharraf years through the Shamsi air base in Balochistan, which the former military ruler had handed over to the US for drone operations. Husain Haqqani has echoed these statements and underlined the proper procedures were followed and the prime minister’s office in Islamabad duly informed of all such cases. He too repeats what he calls the real question: what was OBL doing living in Abbottabad for years (under the nose of the military, literally)? The whole affair seems a red herring or distraction from more important matters requiring the attention of the authorities and citizens. However, if some quarters see Husain Haqqani’s revelations in his article as ammunition to castigate the PPP with, they should perhaps be careful what they wish for. Inadvertently, they risk opening a whole Pandora’s box of awkward questions that have remained unanswered since the US SEALS raid in 2011 that took out OBL and in the process breached Pakistan’s defenses, security, and territorial and airspace integrity. The military leadership of the time owes a vote of thanks to the joint session of parliament convened after the raid to get to grips with what happened in Abbottabad on that fateful day. To the relief of the military leadership, they were let off the hook by parliament and no one was held accountable for this blatant failure of our defence and security regime. It may be for similar reasons, to spare the military leadership of that time further blushes, that the Abbottabad Commission report has yet to see the light of day, a fate reserved for most commissions of inquiry in our history. The murky relationship of Pakistan with extremist warriors imported from all over the world for the so-called Afghan jihad has never been fully clarified. In the context of the above controversy, it is worth asking how many of them came to Pakistan on proper visas. Most found safe havens for decades in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and when that was eventually (and relatively quite recently) denied to them, arguably it set off a chain reaction of terrorism throughout the region and indeed the world when these fighters moved out. For those still not satisfied with the PPP and Haqqani’s clarifications, an inquiry may settle the issue, provided its report is not hidden away from public view too. As to the Abbottabad Commission report, no matter how painful, its publication would allow state and society to learn the appropriate lessons, a wise policy we have practiced in the breach throughout our history.

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