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.