Magnificent Delusions: Riyadh Summit Edition

Arab Islamic American Summit

It was supposed to be another opportunity for Pakistan to shine on the world’s stage. An international summit in Riyadh attended by world leaders including the American President Donald Trump. We would be standing side by side with other Muslim leaders including our close allies Saudi Arabia and our message would be clear to all. Only, that’s not what happened. We were caught completely off guard. What happened?

The first problem rose during US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi. According to reports, ‘something has gone terribly wrong‘. The reason for the panic? At the ‘Arab Islamic American Summit,’ Pakistan was not highlighted nor given opportunity to present its view. It was a snub felt across the nation, but should it have been so painful?

There are a few things that must be considered. Fifty-five nations were present at the summit. Keynote addresses were given by Saudi and American leaders who did not mention Pakistan’s sacrifices. It is unfortunate, but we must consider the circumstances. The summit took place soon after a series of mob attacks in Pakistan, statements by IHC and the Interior Ministry whipping up religious anger over blasphemy issue, kidnapping and torture of liberal bloggers, and the state’s full attention being paid to tracking down anyone who criticises Army on social media. Meanwhile, TTP is opening offices in KP.

World forums are not arranged by ISPR to promote the state’s narrative. In this case, it may have been better that nothing was said about the state’s actions. However, our frustration did not stop with our not being praised. Our media spit on other nations terming them as ‘minion states’ and even said that ‘Terming India a victim of terrorism was also a deeply painful insult,’ as if we are the only nation that has suffered from terrorists.

According to reports, PM spent hours preparing and rehearsing his speech for the summit, only to learn that he was not designated a time slot. It was a huge surprise to the entire delegation, but how is this possible? The entire affair appears to be another case of our believing what we want to believe instead of looking at the cold hard reality.

It was not just that we were denied the spot light we believed we deserved, policy statements by our allies were completely out of sync with what we expected also. The Saudi King turned the summit into an anti-Iran platform, terming Iran as “the spearhead of global terrorism”. This means that the Islamic Military Alliance led by our own Gen Raheel Sharif is actually a Sunni military alliance against our own neighbor Iran? We were shocked and surprised, but why? Journalists, bloggers, and even some politicians have warned of this since the beginning. Only problem, these were so called ‘liberals’ who were accused of working against Pakistan’s interests. Once again, we allowed ourselves to believe what we wanted to believe instead of looking at the cold hard reality.

Many have blamed the Foreign Office, or what passes for a Foreign Office in this country, for poor diplomacy that led to these embarrassments. But it is not the FO alone that is responsible, it is all of us. As long as we continue to believe that our wishes are reality, and reality is global conspiracy against Pakistan, we will continue to face such shocks and surprises.

In closing, it should be noted that the day after the summit it was reported that the US is considering slashing military and civil aid to Pakistan, and converting what is left to loans which must be repaid with interest. This should be no problem, though, as ex-COAS Gen Kayani has already said that Army has no need for US funds. And, after all, we’ll always have CPEC…

KLF London showcases our desperate situation

Karachi Literature FestivalFor the first time in history, Karachi Literature Festival was held outside Pakistan. Media reports that the event attracted thousands and presented Pakistan’s literary talent and diversity before an international audience note the positive aspects of the event, but these positives are only a mask over an uncomfortable reality. This reality was expressed by Ameena Saiyid OBE, co-founder of KLF and Managing Director of Oxford University Press Pakistan:

“It is not possible to bring the world to Pakistan to savour our literature and cultural creativity but it is possible to take it to the world.”

It is not possible to bring the world to Pakistan. Why? Partly it is because of the desperate security situation, which was observed by visitors during the 2015 KLF.

“It’s not an obvious location for a thriving literary festival, a fact emphasised when I’m met off my flight by a gun-toting guard in an armoured car. It’s barely six months since the Taliban briefly seized control of the airport, and my hosts are understandably wary about my safety en route to the festival. The guard radios in our location all the way along the car-clogged airport road. My initial view of Karachi is through green-tinted, bulletproof glass.”

There is more to the problem, though, which is that we are living in a time when it is not just bullets and bombs, but ideas are also considered national security threats. Hamna Zubair noted something missing from this year’s KLF:

Much of what emerged as being politically and culturally relevant to Pakistan in 2016 was absent from this year’s panel discussions. I was surprised that no session was organised to examine the increasing importance of online activism — its role in creating counter-narratives, its idiom and letter.

A few months later, it is no surprise. Bloggers have gone missing, only to reappear and flee the country fearing for their lives. Accused of blasphemy, there are now stories of torture and abuse of bloggers by state agencies. Now it is not only a few bloggers, but hundreds of social media users that are being investigated and facing arrest on charges of hurting the Army’s feelings.

What kind of literary festival can exist in a country where critical thinking and new ideas are answered with arrests and torture? The sad reality is we cannot bring the world to Pakistan for a free and open exchange of ideas because a free and open exchange of ideas is not possible in this country. Holding literary festivals abroad only showcases just how desperate the situation is at home.

Crackdown on social media a self-defeating strategy

PTI is as famous for its army of social media trolls as it is for its playboy leader. Farhan Virk is virtually synonymous with Twitter bots, and the massive difference of support for the party by online accounts and actual voters has earned the party the moniker ‘Tehreek-e-Internet’. But as much of a nuisance as PTI trolls can be, like other nuisances, we have all adapted and learned to carry on regardless. Now, though, the party that has long been believed to be a baby of the ISI finds itself being nuisanced by no less than the state itself.

PTI leader Fawad Chaudhary has warned that the government is trying to ‘silence’ PTI by raiding their workers offices and arresting members of the PTI social media team. These raids and arrests are condemnable, however, it is not a politically motivated attack to protect the feelings of the Sharifs. What began as a crackdown on alleged online blasphemy against almighty Allah has turned into a crackdown on alleged online blasphemy almighty Army.

Ch Nisar has said that ‘the whole nation is united on national security issues’. It is a laughable claim knowing what we do thanks to Dawn Leaks, but it is also a laughable claim for anyone with internet access. Social media, where anonymity protects the dictator and the dissident alike, is the last place where there is a healthy debate about all manner of national issues including CPEC, extremism, and international relations. If political criticism is permissible, even encouraged, by certain quarters, however there is no room given for criticism of Army and intelligence agencies as has been proven by these latest crackdowns.

If dominating the narrative on social media molded the narrative offline, Imran Khan would have been PM long ago. Army’s reactions on the social media front is a mistake because it shows a weakness in the national security strategy. If agencies arrest, kidnap and torture well meaning critics, it gives an obvious strategy to our real enemies who can create dozens of fake accounts to promote truly anti-Army messages to create confusion and chaos. What will we do then? Will we block all social media? What about blogs? Will we only allow access to approved blogs? What about foreign news websites like New York Times and Guardian that have been accused of promoting anti-Army narratives? What about Pakistani news sites like Dawn and Geo that are also accused? Will we only allow access to Bol and Neo? How long until the internet in Pakistan looks like the internet in North Korea?

The crackdown on dissent on social media is an impossible task. Taken to its logical conclusion, the state’s present strategy means disconnecting completely, which is choosing isolation and only confirming the worst accusations that the powers that be want to disprove. The only way to counter negative propaganda online is to disprove it through positive actions off-line. That means taking the fight to the real national security threat, not critics on social media.

ICJ Verdict: What it says, and what it doesn’t

Pakistan's legal teamThe International Court of Justice has responded to India’s case in the matter of alleged RAW spy Kulbushan Jadhav. India approached the ICJ after Jadhav was sentenced to death for his involvement in terrorist activities in Pakistan. The response has been celebrations in India, and outrage in Pakistan. Neither are warranted by the facts.

Here is the actual order of ICJ. Please read the contents carefully before going on.

ICJ order page 1ICJ order page 2ICJ order page 3 All the ICJ has declared at this point is that Jadhav should not be executed until the full proceedings are complete. He has not been acquitted, and he has not been freed. Obviously, we wanted the case not to be accepted, but this is not necessarily a defeat. Actually, the Court can still find completely in Pakistan’s favour after hearing all arguments which would be a much bigger defeat for India because it would leave no doubt. With that explained, it is worth revisiting some of the details of the case so that we can understand why there is so much confusion.

Let us be honest with ourselves. There have been questions about the way that Kulbushan Jadhav case was handled since day one. The surprise announcement of Jadhav’s death sentence may have been what the country wanted to hear, but it left more questions than answers. As I wrote at the time:

Why was the accused denied consular access per diplomatic norms? Does the fact that the weak ‘video confession’ is being promoted again mean that this is the only evidence we have? If the case against Jadhav was strong, why keep the evidence hidden away in secret military trials and classified ‘dossiers’?

None of these questions mean Jadhav was innocent or that he should be released. But as I warned at the time, the secret nature of the proceedings was going to haunt the proceedings. It is easy for us to accept the obvious, but that is because we have been conditioned to believe that RAW is responsible for terrorism in Pakistan by an endless media campaign by TV anchors, politicians, and military officers. The rest of the world, however, is not so certain.

We can blame the entire world’s inability to see things the way we do on a grand global conspiracy, or we can ask why we see things one way and the rest of the world sees them differently. Right now there is a debate about this going on as some are pointing out what we could have done better in the ICJ.

London-based Barrister Rashid Aslam says Pakistan was ill-prepared and did not utilise the 90 minutes it had to make its argument.

“Pakistan had 90 minutes of argument time but we wasted 40 minutes,” said Aslam. He added: “I was surprised why we finished our arguments in such little time. I think Khawar Qureshi didn’t consume all the time that was afforeded to him.”

He added: “Pakistan had the right to set up a judge there but we didn’t do that. I think Pakistan was grossly unprepared.”

Could part of the reason that we were grossly unprepared be that we believed it was an ‘open and shut’ case based on our own media narrative? If we prepared our case with the assumption that we would actually have to convince a sceptical audience, what would we have done differently? Exploring these questions could help us be better prepared for future global engagements including on issues like Kashmir.

Unfortunately, there is another more popular response that is being promoted. It is the one voiced by retired Justice Shaiq Usmani:

“It’s Pakistan’s mistake to have appeared there. They shouldn’t have attended.”

Rather than do the hard work of convincing someone who isn’t already convinced, we could just turn our backs on the rest of the world. We are already convinced, so why bother trying to convince anyone else. Who needs our critics to accuse us of being isolated when we have retired Justices suggesting that we isolate ourselves?

It is important to remember that the ICJ has not acquitted or released Jadhav, nor is the case finished. Actually, it is only beginning. We still have a chance to present our arguments and evidence. If we want to convince the world that we are telling the truth, though, we need to start by giving up the clever narrative management operations that continue to create confusion when things don’t go the way we are conditioned to expect them to. After all, if we aren’t secure enough to allow tough questions at home, how will we ever be able to answer them in an international forum like ICJ?

Social Media: The latest front of deep state’s national narrative management

social media wars

Social media is coming under intense pressurization. First, government and judiciary began raising alarms over alleged problem of ‘blasphemous content‘ on social media. Now the attention has moved from offending the Almighty to offending the Army. Last weekend, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar declared it unconstitutional to criticise national security matters and related institutions. He has ordered FIA to take action against anyone criticising Army on social media.

However, if Army feels like it is loosing its grip online, it is not leaving it to the civilians to fix the problem. Activities of ISI’s media cell (aka M-Wing) are well known, but there are also ‘unofficial’ groups that are used to both spread messages and remind citizens of their place. In a new piece for Daily Times, Dr Aamir Khan has pointed out the rise of ‘a hidden WhatsApp constituency‘.

No, it is not hyper-paid TV anchors themselves, powerful though they are in shaping public opinion. I refer to some 25 to 30 thousand retired army officers who are daily using social media, especially WhatsApp to forge a formidable group exerting pressure on the highest leadership of our armed forces.

Propaganda rings and pro-Army social media operations are nothing new in Pakistan. For many officers, retirement means a new career in media. ‘Un-official’ new media operations were pioneered by the likes of Gen Hamid Gul and Major Raja Mujtaba, and their legacy is being carried on after them by a new generation.

In the past year, a new ‘private’ venture has launched called CommandEleven.com which is led by Lt Gen (r) Tariq Khan and Col (r) Azam Qadri supported by a cast of ‘analysts’ who came up through the ranks of PKKH and its off-shoots. As usual, this new operation features ‘analysis’ by retired Army officers questioning the patriotism of media and blaming corruption for all the country’s problems (but not all corruption of course).

This new group is also closely watching social media for any criticism of the armed forces. After DG ISPR’s Tweet rejecting PM’s notification on ‘Dawn Leaks’, one of CommandEleven.com’s so-called analysts wrote that ‘domestic and international elements also waged a social media campaign against DG ISPR’, and termed the entire affair as a a ‘classic media influence operation’. The same ‘analyst’ also has written a blog post that tries to paint the conference as ‘mysterious’ and the participants as ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’ in a most typical manner, even though the conference was reported in both international media and Pakistani media and the contents of the conference are actually posted online for anyone to see what was actually said.

The real mystery here is what is the point of these hypernationalist social media operations being run by retired military officers? What used to be the domain of conspiracy-mongers like Zaid Hamid and Ahmed Quraishi is now a crowded room of newly retired Army officers and their young proteges. Is it only a coincidence that this is happening at the same time Interior Minister is threatening action against anyone who critcises Army on social media, or is it an orchestrated part of deep state’s national narrative management?