Is it a case of an honest mistake, over-zealousness on the part of the writer, or a calculated plant by a section of our establishment? The publication of the fake WikiLeaks story has not only raised questions about the editorial controls within media organisations, but also about the “powers that be” and their apparent shortsighted objectives.
Mohsin Baig, head of the Online news agency, has sacked the agency’s editor, charging him of “fabricating the story”. But, Makhdoom Babar, the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail newspaper that actually printed the report first, says that he stands by the story and defends every word of it. Babar accused those involved in printing retractions as being on the payroll of Indian intelligence agencies. These allegations are not new; the powers behind such act have been making such allegations in the past as well. The fact remains that so far the Daily Mail, or anyone else who is defending the cables, has not been able to present a single original cable.
“It is quite clear that some people did try to manipulate the information to save their skin. But it was done in a very crude manner and they were caught with their pants down,” says Mushahid Hussain, Secretary General, PML-Q.
The fake story is not an isolated incident. Political and security observers believe a concerted effort is once again being made to encourage and promote a typical extremist mindset. Some analysts-cum-anchors have re-emerged from quasi-oblivion. Many journalists and analysts are briefed and encouraged to take an aggressively anti-West, especially anti-US, stance. Experts, who ‘preach’ extremism in disguise, are encouraged to participate in talk shows.
“When such a mindset is promoted from the top echelons of power, its intensity is bound to increase when it spreads down the ranks,” said senior security analyst and writer Zahid Hussain.
“They have not learnt from their past mistakes,” Zahid said, adding, “It is because of our flawed policies, especially of the 1980s, that we are still suffering.”“The most ironic thing is that the right wing leaning of our establishment is again apparent and in fact the patronisation of such forces has once again started,” Zahid said.
Many analysts point to the shortsighted policies of our successive governments, especially true for our military rulers, who have led us to the disastrous situation of today. Unfortunately, even after suffering so much, especially in the last few years, there is still no realisation that using people in the name of religion will backfire once again. “It is not a water tap or an electric switch that you can turn on and off whenever you want. Once put in motion, it acquires its own momentum and is very difficult to control,” a former security official said.
However, senior analyst and Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and UK, Maliha Lodhi, believe that there is a realisation. “There is acknowledgement in private about mistakes made in the past. But it is not translating into a long term strategic plan,” Lodhi said.
Just two years back, the Army was successful in wresting dangerous advance to the capital Islamabad by militants from Swat. This was done in part because of widespread public support it gained due to the extremists’ actions but also due to help by the progressive segment in the media. However, in the process, the Army marginalised the right wing.
It is no secret that there were those in the media and clergy who openly opposed the Army’s campaign against the militants in Swat and tried their best to put the armed forces’ objectives and intention in doubt.
Cajoling the same elements from the right, for short-term tactical objective against our eastern neighbour or to ward off a mounting US pressure to act decisively against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the country’s western backyard is certainly fraught with dangers.
Such moves are seen as a setback to the momentum that was generated after soldiers bravely battled and vanquished the Taliban in Swat and later dismantled a greater Taliban threat in South Waziristan. The battle is far from over and Pakistan can ill afford the return of inconsistency in its policy to deal with militancy as witnessed in pre-Kayani era.
Some people in the establishment are of the view since the Americans are losing the war in Afghanistan, they are trying to shift the blame on Pakistan in order to use it as a scapegoat. “It is quite obvious now that the US is fast losing its grip in Afghanistan,” said a senior security official, adding, “It is easy for them to sell the story back home that they are losing the war because of Pakistan. Unless Pakistan stops cross-border incursions and supporting militant organisations like that of Haqqani, the US cannot win the war.”
The argument may be entirely true. There is no doubt that the pressure on President Obama is increasing. He has to decide whether to improve the domestic US economy or to continue the war in Afghanistan.
Some analysts believe that there may be a change in the US approach towards Pakistan after Richard Holbrooke’s demise. It would be interesting to see who will replace him and what President Obama will decide after the Af-Pak strategy review to be announced on Thursday.
“Richard Holbrooke was a major interlocutor inside the US policy making body. With his death, we have lost a friend who had used his influence in the past to diffuse seriously tense situations between US and Pakistan,” said a senior diplomat.
The fundamental division in US foreign policy is between use of force and use of diplomacy. Some foreign policy analysts believe that in the post-Holbrooke scenario, the balance may shift towards use of force rather than diplomacy.
If the US President Obama decides to move in that direction, things may get out of control. Army Chief General Kayani’s 14-page letter to President Obama, apparently tried hard to convey the ground realities of Pak-Afghan situation. Senior diplomats who have seen the letter say that the letter gives the US president some new and better options to resolve the Afghan conflict, as compared to the ones provided by his own military commanders.
However, analysts expect more pressure from the west in the next few months. “For the US administration, it is their last shot, if they don’t deliver now, things may get out of control back home,” said a senior diplomat.
The recent aggressive statements against Pakistan by the German and French leaders are just an indication of the growing pressure.
“The response to growing diplomatic isolation in the west is for the Pakistani leadership to revisit and to take a more assertive position rather than hide behind public opinion,” Maliha Lodhi said.
She further said, “Unfortunately, Pakistan’s external policy, instead of being a chess game, is played like checkers.”
The ability of our Foreign Office to counter this pressure may be weak, but the way our establishment tries to orchestrate an anti-west mood is a tactic that is old and flawed.
We should be clear that giving space to elements sympathetic to militants would squeeze space for those who genuinely support efforts to eliminate the extremist forces in the country. If pro-Taliban elements are to be pampered and used as a tool to influence the United States to come to term with Pakistan’s legitimate interest in post-US Afghanistan, it may have a reverse effect.
Apparently, not realising this, a misplaced nationalistic and patriotic theme is being propagated. It may be an easy sell in the short term, but the impact at the strategic level will be disastrous.
Oscar Wilde probably put it best: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” In Pakistan, terms like ‘patriotism’ and ‘national interests’ are being used and abused by successive governments and the establishment like nowhere else.
Instead of comparing ourselves with others on the basis of level of education and health conditions and state of the economy, a false sense of nationalism and patriotism has always been propagated.
The exposures by WikiLeaks have once again brought this discussion to the fore. Misplaced patriotism, conspiracy theories and national pride and honour are being used as an argument to counter the shameful character of our leadership (both civilian and military).
But, instead of coming up with some new and innovative style, the same old tactics of promoting the right wing mindset and anti-western feelings are being used, selling the idea to the people that Pakistan is once again a target of a conspiracy.
Some analysts, apparently close to the establishment, are also defending the fake WikiLeaks story. At least one pro-establishment campaigner had the audacity to say that if the western papers had a right to propagate, Pakistani journalists also had the right to exaggerate, even if it were not true. Many such analysts actually believe that this episode is a conspiracy against Pakistan and the Muslim countries.
But analysts such as Mushahid Hussain think otherwise. “Wikileaks is the best thing that has happened to the world in the recent past. It has exposed the double-faced, hypocritical rulers of not only the Muslim world but more importantly the western countries,” he said.
Intelligence agencies around the world have used the media, by flooding it with ‘concocted’, ‘fabricated’ or propagandist information. The American CIA has often been cited as the top player in this game. However, no intelligence agency had ever done it with such crudeness as in the fake WikiLeaks case, which stood exposed within a matter of a few hours, leading to international embarrassment.
The question again is whether they have at all learnt any lessons from their mistakes. Perhaps not, because the apparent move to bring back to the centre-stage some known pro-extremist elements, suggests that the same old game has once again started. Some may even argue that it was never abandoned, and was only put on hold.
Noticeably, the state-run television gave full live coverage to a news conference addressed at the National Press Club in Islamabad last week by some affected families and their lawyer who talked about the loss of innocent lives in the US drone attacks in North Waziristan. Who was behind this first-ever effort to highlight the victims’ feelings while the drone attacks have been going on for the last few years with tacit approval of the Pakistani leadership as exposed in Wikileaks.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it is happening with the concurrence of our government and establishment, but public posturing is different.
“Our policy on the drone attacks is very clear and I don’t think there is any change in the policy, though for public consumption the government and the establishment will continue to oppose the attacks in the media,” said Mushahid Hussain.
Lodhi is even more critical of this style of policy. “No government can afford to have a covert policy of cooperation and overt position with the public, which is at odds with that policy,” she said.
But the big question is: Is it really a tactical move? Or is this the main strategy and the fight against extremism merely a tactical diversion?
Although, the intelligentsia, including media persons in Pakistan, are quite divided along ideological lines, WikiLeaks’ exposes are further crystallising this tendency. But the most disturbing aspect is the way Pakistani power brokers are trying to promote a particular mindset.
Many observers believe that in the days to come, one should again expect a rise in the extremist mindset. This will not just be restricted to the print media or TV screens, but will be visible on the streets of Pakistan as well. It may be a welcome sign for those who wanted it as a tactical move. But the coming months and years will tell us how flawed a move it is. General Zia is not here to see the monster he had created that had devoured hundreds of innocent lives. His policy has divided and damaged our society almost beyond repair. The current policies will only make the situation worse for Pakistan.