Prisoners of Our Own Narrative

Since the devastating string of terrorist attacks last week which ultimately bore the horror of Lal Shahbaz shrine suicide bombing, the national discussion has been dominated by questions: How did it come to this, and what do we do now? Both of these are very sensitive questions whose acceptable answers are largely limited by how close they come to challenging certain national narratives.

As quickly as security agencies moved against militant bases (begging the question being asked by many why they didn’t go after these militants before they attacked rather waited until after), media warriors were at work winning the battle to control the narrative. Army’s official spokesmen immediately posted on social media once again pointing all blame at hostile foreign powers.

Army broke all diplomatic norms and usurped the Foreign Minister’s power completely by summoning Afghan diplomats to GHQ where they were demanded to take immediate action against militant camps on Afghan soil or else face the possibility of cross border attacks by our own forces. Meanwhile, unofficial spokesmen were busy writing saber rattling articles that promote this official narrative. Two examples are a piece for Dawn by disgraced former Ambassador Munir Akram who claims that ‘We know the ‘hostile powers’ that have sponsored these attacks: the intelligence agencies of Afghanistan and India’ and calls on Islamabad to answer by stepping up support for anti-Indian jihadi groups.

Next is a piece by another former Ambassador Zamir Akram who like his disgraced older brother also sees an Indian conspiracy behind every one of Pakistan’s problems. Ambassador Akram does not mention the Sehwan attack. Actually, it seems that his piece was written before the last week since he awkwardly repeats the mantra that Zarb-e-Azb has ‘broken the back of the al Qaeda while the TTP and its allies are on the run’. Rather his piece appears to have been written with another enemy in mind: Washington Think Tanks critical of Pakistan’s national security policy.

One can be grateful that the former Ambassador was better behaved than his colleagues at the Washington Embassy who embarrassed the country with their own response to a critical think tank report. However even though it is well written, still the facts are the facts and this piece is a better example of the kind of ‘alternative facts’ that we hear so much of these days.

Ambassador Akram complains that these Washington Think Tanks ignore all the evidence that Afghanistan’s NDS and India’s RAW intelligence agencies are responsible for terrorism in Pakistan quoting the case of Kulbhushan Yadav. Perhaps we should consider why that is? If we do, we might remember that none other than Sartaj Aziz admitted that the case against Yadav was weak, telling media in early December that “So far, we have just statements about the involvement of the Indian spy in terror activities in Pakistan” adding that further evidence needs to be gathered. PM’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs later told the Senate that ‘The (provided) material, in our view, was insufficient’. The dossier was shortly handed to Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, but received no attention anywhere. Even Pakistani media reported that same as with previous dossiers, ‘these dossiers were weak in their provision of evidence, and the government knew this’.

There is more evidence against Kulbhushan Yadav than there is to support Ambassador Akram’s claim that ‘it is also possible that their paymaster is the Indian — American lobby rather than the institutions to which they are affiliated’, for which he offers no evidence other than that the report is critical of Pakistan having a confusing policy towards militancy, a reality that is not even denied by state agencies following last week’s attacks. What else could be meant by COAS’s statement, ‘no more restrain for anyone‘? Even the Army Chief admits that the state was showing restraint towards some groups while fighting others. It should be noted that it’s not only American Think Tanks that are critical of our policy towards militancy. Just a few days ago, it was reported that Saudi Arabia has deported over 40,000 Pakistanis out of terrorism fears! Does our dear Ambassador believe that the Saudis are on Indian lobby payroll also?

We can call everyone RAW, fully cooked, or half-baked agents, but it won’t change the reality of how the world, including even our Muslim allies, sees us which is as an increasing hot bed militancy that has gotten beyond our control. If we are going to change this, we will have to first break free from the prison of our own narrative.

The existential threat is not terrorism

Lal Shahbaz

I had planned to write a short piece about this week’s suicide attack, but then there was another one. And another one. And then there was another one. The big one. Lal Shahbaz shrine attacked and close to 100 innocents killed, with hundreds more wounded.

This wasn’t supposed to be possible. Gen Raheel had broken the back of terrorists. Gen Bajwa reassured us, terrorism had successfully been defeated. The war was over. We won. Yes, there were still some acts of violence, but these were acts of sabotage by foreign agencies who wanted to derail CPEC. Or PSL.

A foreign conspiracy could be found for every attack, and we were told that if it wasn’t for world powers fear of our coming rise to super power status, this would be a land of peace and prosperity. But what economic route runs through Lal Shahbaz? What cricket tournament was being hosted there? What sensitive installations were hidden underneath? The only thing there was a crowd of common Pakistanis looking for peace.

Lal Shahbaz blast was a wake up call. The state swiftly responded with promises of ‘no more restraint for anyone’. The nation was now in a state of ‘all out war.’ The words were right, but they were met with confusion. What does this mean ‘no restraint against anyone’? Wasn’t that the National Action Plan that is now two years old? What does this mean ‘all out war’? Wasn’t that Zarb-e-Azb launched three years ago? If now we are done showing restraint, does that mean we have been lied to since before?

What came next left even more questions. Under what authority does GHQ summon foreign diplomats? Is the state really so gullible to allow militants to enter Pakistan if they ‘disavow terrorism‘? Why are we sealing Torkham border when the militants are coming from places like Multan? The state’s response to this week’s terror operations has been to repeat the same old script. Terrorists are foreign agents. We will not rest until they are stopped. Problem is, we have heard it all before. What is new this time?

Many so-called ‘liberal’ writers and bloggers have been criticised for not supporting Army’s efforts against terrorism since the past few years. But is reality ‘liberal’ or is it just reality? On this blog we have warned that terrorism was flourishing despite Zarb-e-Azb. We noted that despite all claims that terrorists werer foreigners, it was always Pakistanis being arrested. We warned that double-standards for different militants was a dangerous policy that would undermine our security. Every time, we are accused of being ‘anti-Army’. But everything we reported was just reality. It wasn’t anti-Army, even if it was critical of national security strategy. If national security strategy is in conflict with reality, isn’t it actually pro-Army to let them know?

Some in our agencies have tried to bend reality to match their national security strategy. It is a complete and total failure, and the damning evidence are the innocent lives lost in this week’s terrorist attacks. Terrorism is not the existential threat to Pakistan. The existential threat to Pakistan is the desire to bend reality to match our national security strategy instead of adapting our strategy to match reality. If we cannot do that, I’m afraid there is not much hope for us.

Bullies and Buffoons: Washington Embassy’s Embarrassing Behaviour

Col Fawad Butt Pakistan Embassy

Think tanks and academic conferences are ordinarily rather dull affairs. Analysts present their latest research and answer questions from journalists and other scholars. It is not uncommon to see someone gently nodding asleep near the back rows, so tea and coffee is often provided to help keep the audience awake. These events are typically gatherings of highly-educated people having a discussion about new research. Often there is some disagreement, but it is usually made respectfully with the point being to add to the discussion or correct some error. Last week, however, Washington Think Tank Hudson Institute held an event that was anything but ordinary moderated by Pakistan’s former Ambassador Husain Haqqani to present a new report on Pakistan-US ties.

Watching a full, unedited video of the event online, one will immediately be surprised by the tone and tenor of the discussion. With our expectations of anything in Washington to be a Pakistan-bashing affair, it is disarming to see that it is actually a polite and civil discussion of serious issues. Yes there are some points to disagree with, but in the era of internet trolls and hypernationalist fake news sites, this event seems like a refreshingly dull affair….for a while.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, once Haqqani opens the discussion to members of the audience to take their questions and comments. There are those who agree and those who disagree, and then at about 58 minutes into the affair it happens. Some unseen person begins shouting from the back of the room while an elderly journalist is politely trying to ask a question. Haqqani calmly asks the shouting man to please compose himself and stop interrupting. At this point, it all comes crashing down. The man, off camera, completely loses it and begins uncontrollably screeching at the top of his lungs.

“YOU ARE A RAW AGENT!!!”

As the man is finally escorted out of the room by security agents, his tirade of senseless screaming is difficult to understand. He appears to be a crazy person who has somehow wandered in to the event from the street, and one can see the analysts and other guests laughing as they are embarrassed for him. Yes, it was embarrassing, but what is one person? Everywhere there are crazy people and certainly this man does not represent Pakistanis.

The discussion continues, but things continue down this embarrassing path. The screaming lunatic may be gone, but the commenters continue to be a steady stream of people planted by Pakistan Embassy in Washington. This is not an assumption – when they are handed the microphone, each person is asked to identify themselves. Two identify themselves, saying, “I am from Pakistan Embassy…” Others claim they are Pakistani-Americans but insisted on pronouncing Pakistan as ‘Pack-is-tan’.

Who were these people? It is normal and appropriate for the Embassy to send a representative to any event where Pakistan is discussed, but this quickly became comedic. Multiple military officers from Pakistan embassy’s military wing reportedly attended including Group Captain Ali Naeem Zahoor, air attache; Group Captain Rashid Siddiqui, Attache Defense Procurement (ADP Navy/Air) and Colonel Fawad Furrukh Butt. It has even been reported that alleged undercover ISI officer Colonel Muhammad Ishtiaq arrived with a van full of civilians recruited to harass the speakers and disrupt the event.

However, the speakers and the rest of the audience seemed to find these agents funny, not intimidating. Col Fawad Butt caused the entire room to roar with laughter when he took the mic and announced, “Thank you very much. As the mic is with me, so now I have the control,” as if he had staged some sort of brilliant coup! His attempted coup was quickly put down, though, when Haqqani jokingly reminded him that things do not work this way as microphones can actually be turned off and then allowed him to carry on with his comment.

Several other Pakistanis, some possibly working under direction of Col Ishtiaq, stood and recited the same points over and over again, usually trying to change attention to India and Kashmir. After one example, Haqqani remarked: “So it comes down to the talking points that everyone was given” and once again the room burst into laughter. However this is not a laughing matter and the Embassy’s antics caused prestigious American analyst Dr Marvin Weinbaum – who had earlier stated that he was an ‘outlier’ in wanting to not reprimand Pakistan publicly – to warn that, ‘Pakistanis must take this report seriously and realise the mood of Washington’.

Watching the entire video, it stands out that it is the former Ambassador Haqqani who allows a constant stream of critical comments while it is the current Embassy staff and its not-so-educated ‘proxies’ who appear dedicated to silencing any criticism. Ironically, one of the well-spoken Embassy officials at the event noted that “there is a need for skilled diplomacy” in Pakistan-US relations. He couldn’t have been more correct. Unfortunately, what took place at The Hudson Institute was the exact opposite of skilled diplomacy. It was bullying buffoonery, and it was a national embarrassment.

World Is Cracking Down On Fake News: Is Pakistan Media At Serious Risk?

After Donald Trump brought the problem of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ to the attention of the world, internet editors have begun to ask questions about the credibility of so-called ‘news’ sources. The latest sign of a widespread crack down on fake news is the announcement that Wikipedia has banned using UK newspaper Daily Mail as a source, terming it as ‘generally unreliable‘. This is a major development because it is banning of a newspaper that was founded 120 years ago, not some shadowy website that popped up over night.

With wide spread concern about the ill effects of ‘fake news’, banning of Daily Mail  may be just the beginning, and Pakistan media may be at serious risk. Since the past several years, dozens of fake news sites in Pakistan have been exposed. The most famous example was blog Cafe Pyala that shined the light on shadowy propaganda rings that appeared close to the deep state including even a Pakistani fake news source called ‘Daily Mail‘! Then last year an APP report may have  accidentally busted another fake news operation with ties to ISI.

Tight control of Pakistan media by Army is already well reported in international media. In 2015, The Guardian published an expose about Army officials threatening journalists and forcing them to self-censor. How can such media be deemed as reliable if it is well known that it is threatened and coerced by Army? These threats have again come under view after a group of bloggers who dared question Army mysteriously disappeared earlier this year, resulting in new global attention to the dangerous turn of censorship in Pakistan.

However, it’s not just censorship that threatens the credibility of Pakistan media as a whole, it is also the number of obvious deep state puppets who dominate the media. There are the obvious jokers like Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid, but there are also the more ‘serious’ journalists like Mubashir Lucman, whose fake news cost ARY millions after being judged by an international court, or Moeed Pirzada who is widely seen as close to the establishment.

As the world makes moves to limit the negative influence of fake news, will Pakistani media find itself caught between the rock of international questions and the hard place of establishment operations to keep tight control over national discussions? If UK Daily Mail is termed as ‘generally unreliable’, what can we say about most of Pakistani news? As the world community takes on the problem of fake news, Pakistani media will be facing a lot of difficult choices.

Arrest of Hafiz Saeed tests state’s credibility

Hafiz Saeed

The surprise arrest of Jamaatud Dawah Amir Hafiz Saeed sent a clear message that military and civilian leaders were serious when they said that extremist groups would be handled with no preferences given. However, as they saying goes, the proof of pudding is in the eating. Having taken the decision to arrest Hafiz Saeed, the state’s credibility is now at stake in how the case is handled.

China, who according to military insiders is the one who pressured for the arrest, will surely be watching how the case is handled. If it is another example of saying one thing while doing another, or if the state has actually turned a corner from differentiating between ‘Good Taliban’ and ‘Bad Taliban’.

Already there are signs that the JUD chief is being given special treatment. Who can forget the infamous raid of Nine-Zero and the treatment of MQM workers by agencies?

Pakistan Rangers raid nine zeroCompare to case of Hafiz Saeed who day after his arrest was releasing videos on social media.

When agencies raided MQM HQ, leaders were taken into custody and remanded for months on end where they were even tortured to death. When Hafiz Saeed was arrested, his own house was declared sub-jail so that he does not face any inconvenience.

Most importantly to note is that JuD has already pulled the same trick that it has always used by getting ‘banned’ to appease some foreign ally and immediately reemerging under a new name while continuing exactly the same activities. Does GHQ believe Beijing is as stupid and blind as America to fall for this trick also?

DG-ISPR officially stated that the arrest was ‘in the national interest.’ This is important because what happens next will speak volumes about how seriously institutions are taking ‘the national interest’ or whether it is nothing but another code word for telling everyone to shut up. So far, there is not much to be hopeful about.