PCB must tread carefully

September 19, 2021

Pakistan needs to protect future tours, not attack the Kiwis

PCB must tread carefully

New Zealand have gone home. They left behind disappointed, bewildered and incensed fans, players and the government. More than that, scattered in the debris of this cancelled tour are doubts whether Pakistan is safe for English-speaking cricketers to return. Surely the Kiwis didn’t intend to cause this damage; their decision to tour after 18 years was a validation of their faith. But damage is now done.

So far, the reaction in Pakistan has been entirely predictable. Just days as Chairman PCB, Ramiz Raja, has a cricket, financial, diplomatic, security and political crisis to manage.

Except he will soon learn that to lead effectively, he will have to portray calm, not anger. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid – the civilian point man for security – not unexpectedly relied on political rhetoric to spin the catastrophe. Pakistan is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and Sheikh sahib is a master in that dark art. Relying on conspiracy theories buys him time and more importantly, it pivots the discussion from the main point: What really happened?

I would also caution venting anger against the Kiwis or calls to boycott them. Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern prioritised her fellow Kiwis over cricket. She is answerable to five million Kiwis not to Pakistani cricket fans. A terrorist attack would not only have cost lives but also put at risk thousands of Pakistanis who call New Zealand home and destabilised her government which is already under pressure to support Afghans fleeing the country. Also remember the Kiwis didn’t tour for 18 years because a terrorist attack targetted their hotel in Karachi. Public memories may be short, but such acts become institutional memories.

The international context is also critical. The sudden takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the chaos that ensued rattled the international community. Some 3,500 Kiwis served in Afghanistan over 20 years and fought against Al-Qaida and the Taliban. The mission cost Kiwi lives and only ended four months ago. Immediately after Kabul fell to the Taliban, governments whose troops served in Afghanistan raised their threat levels. The Kiwis would have been no different. Chaos and a soft target in a friendly neighbourhood are ideal conditions for a payback attack.

The regional context is also important. The Kiwis have limited intelligence and diplomatic presence globally. They rely heavily on long-standing and time-tested intelligence-sharing arrangements with the US, UK, Canada and Australia. This Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance – which began during the Cold War – has worked because Al Qaida, ISIS and similar outfits have failed to attack New Zealand or harmed Kiwis abroad. It is a system they trust. And it has worked for them.

Surprisingly the Kiwis also do not have diplomatic presence in Pakistan. Their embassy in Iran is also accredited to Pakistan. It means they rely even more on more established western diplomatic and intelligence missions based in Pakistan for threat assessments. Intelligence gathering and acting on it are difficult to begin with; the task is harder when relying on others.

As much as Ardern made what she thought was the right call, Pakistan also did the right thing to escalate the issue to the highest level. Except, and not surprisingly, Ardern chose to believe her team than assurances from Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pakistan has a global trust deficit and when it comes to security, it is a work-in-progress to overcome.

PCB must tread carefully

So where do we go from here?

First, it is important to establish facts. Was there a genuine threat? Was it a hoax? Was it an intelligence operation by a state or non-state actor? Did the Kiwis get played? The Kiwis arrived in Pakistan on 11 Sep and trained at the Rawalpindi Stadium daily. They were entrusted with Presidential level security, the highest level in the country. What changed hours before the match? It is the Pakistani government’s job – ideally someone independent – to determine the facts and work with their international counterparts, discreetly if needed. The goal is to establish facts, not a blame game.

Second, the PCB’s strategic objective is to ensure teams continue to tour Pakistan. The PCB and the ICC have worked hard to bring cricket back and there is genuine support for it from other cricket boards. Ramiz’s job is to ensure that capital is not squandered in a fit of anger; in fact, he needs to add to that capital and build sympathy for Pakistan. As far as the Kiwis go, Pakistan is justified to ask for an explanation, but it is important to retain good ties with them and ensure they return to Pakistan for a tour.

Simultaneously, Pakistan and the ICC need to launch an inquiry by an independent and credible third party. For this and previous tours, the ICC has leaned heavily on their own security assessment and independent security contractors, in addition to the host security setup. Clearly, the turn of events underscores catastrophic gaps in the chain of decision-making as well as a possible lack of trust and credibility between the parties involved. A thorough review will ensure those process failures are fixed and future tours are not jeopardised.

Hasan Jafri is Singapore-based Managing Director of a political risk firm and public policy firm, and he also writes about cricket. hasan.Jafri@hjadvisory.com

PCB must tread carefully