Mr Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, has written to the Foreign Office and the ISI complaining that journalistic and institutional visas to Americans were being denied through the device of withholding “clearance”. In an understatement, the ambassador added that this could “damage” Pakistan’s image. The Foreign Office, of course, can hardly help, given its low profile in such matters, but the ISI must give it serious thought.
The complaint also mentioned “instances where American institutions or journalists were denied visas, allegedly harassed or put under intelligence surveillance”. Islamabad refused clearance to a renewal of visa to the chief of Asia Foundation, the director of the International Republican Institute and NBC journalist Richard Engel. Newsweek photographer Kate Brooks was given special treatment: her visa was cancelled.
There is apparently a “black list” maintained in Islamabad which prevents the issuance of clearance. The ambassador wants to be made privy to this list so that he can know from Islamabad the nature and extent of threat Pakistan is supposed to be feeling from certain categories of American visitors. Clearly, there is a gap of shared information between the embassy in Washington and the security agencies in Pakistan that vet all visa requests.
One very cogent reason for the security agencies feeling nervous is the question of keeping the ongoing operation against the Taliban secret. All wars are protected against deep reporting to deprive the enemy from knowing operational details in advance. But one has also to consider the fact that blocking foreign journalists from the field has never really paid off. In fact, less objective reports sent from local reporters end up doing more damage. Iran has suffered this damage recently.
There could also be the motive of concealing certain facts, and journalists who tend to get closer to the truth are put on the black list. But this too has not worked and in fact arouses suspicion about the real conditions on the ground and usually leads to exaggerated “guesswork”. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why institutional visas should be struck down. What harm can the head of the Asia Foundation do to Pakistan?
Under the circumstances, Ambassador Haqqani rightly feels that the policy in Islamabad and the mission given to him by Islamabad are running at cross-purposes. His job is to keep the two countries close to each other in the prosecution of the war against terrorism. In order to keep Pakistan realistically facing up to the challenge of the Taliban, a meaningful injection of American assistance is required. American support is also required to acquire loans from the IMF to help Pakistan import essential commodities.
It is true that Pakistan doesn’t have a uniformly good press in Washington. But the ambassador is fighting that trend despite the fact that most of what is printed there is pretty close to what is being revealed in the independent media of Pakistan. But secret agencies have never succeeded in producing a good foreign press. Unfortunately, there could be other less noble reasons behind the “black list”: hatred.
The Pakistani media is boiling over with anti-American opinion as the Pakistan Army finally succeeds in pushing back the Taliban to applause from a worried international community. The government denies in vain the claims made in the media that America is inducting mercenary soldiers into Islamabad and is unfairly acquiring land for their housing. Also, that armoured cars are being brought in through Karachi so that a bullet-proof caravan of these hired men may attack Kahuta and steal Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
The ISI is a greatly improved institution under General Ahmad Shuja Pasha but its past keeps hitting it in the face in the shape of its retired personnel like Khalid Khwaja and others who spew hatred against America and worsen the state of objective consciousness in the country. That is why most TV channels ended up producing a patently false picture of what happened after 9/11 on the anniversary of the shocking event.
We hope the visas are not being blocked because of the hatred of America that certain officers feel. Worse still, we hope that this is not happening because of incoherence of policy or lack thereof. The blocking of visas will not benefit Pakistan. It will isolate Pakistan and blacken its image at a time when it is emerging from bad times.