Twitter Ban: Blind, Deaf and Dumb

This was supposed to be our weekend. President Zardari landed in Chicago and it really looked like he was going to use his fast-approaching-legendeary negotiating skills – the same ones he’s used to keep a relatively stable coalition in the government and to end the stalemate in Pak-US ties – to turn around sinking Pak-US relations. Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman was in the middle of a media blitz, explaining Pakistan’s position on CNN and then publishing an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that outlined steps the Americans could take to help re-start Pak-US relations. Then, the lights went out.

As the NATO summit started its first day, Pakistan was in the dark about what was going on because PTA blocked access to Twitter, the social media site made famous for breaking news and providing real-time insights into what is happening across the world. Twitter played a major role in informing the world about the Arab Spring uprisings. Saner heads prevailed, though, as the Prime Minister ordered that access to the service be reinstated immediately. But for about eight hours, Twitter users were left trying to circumvent the ban by using proxy accounts and other methods.

The decision to block access to Twitter was made in order to protect the emotions of the masses from seeing Tweets that were derogatory toward Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This is the same reason that Facebook was blocked a couple of years ago, and it makes as little sense now as it did then.

Can we be honest about a few things, please? First of all, “the masses” are not using Twitter. There are about 2 million Pakistanis on Twitter – roughly 1 per cent of the population. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly an elite audience – politicians, journalists, bloggers and other highly educated people discussing culture and politics at a high level of discourse, primarily in English.

Worse, the Twitter ban completely overshadowed what our representatives were trying to say, and detracted from our image as a modern global power. Where were all those self-appointed guardians of the national ghairat as a hyperactive minority was actually making our nation look foolish in the eyes of the world?

The bigger issue, though, is that, especially with Twitter, blocking access to the site blocked access to important information about events that directly affect our country. Our leaders were in the US attending a critical summit of NATO to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, and we were cut off from one of the best sources for breaking information. We were also refrained from giving our own opinion and reacting to breaking events. By blocking Twitter, PTA didn’t silence those who would defame the Prophet (PBUH), they silenced Pakistan.

None of these sites requires anyone to look at offensive material. Actually, nothing requires anyone to use any of these websites at all. If you don’t want to see offensive posts on Twitter, don’t follow offensive people. If you don’t want to see offensive material on Facebook, don’t go to offensive pages. If you believe that you can’t control yourself from looking at offensive material on these sites, don’t use them at all. Leave the rest of us alone.

With “Frenemies” Like These…

When a blogger calls himself “Attackerman”, you can imagine what type of writing you’re going to get. So we shouldn’t be surprised by Spencer Ackerman’s latest story for that terms Pakistan as America’s “frenemy” who is basically holding up NATO supplies in order to extort more money out of the American government – up to $1 million per day. Mr “Attackerman” is just living up to his name.

Spencer Ackerman aka "Attackerman"My problem with the piece by Mr “Attackerman”, though, isn’t his juvenile attempt at “Gonzo” style journalism, it’s that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Setting aside his unquestioning acceptance of the US investigation into Salala that conveniently blamed the victim (has any military ever found itself at fault?), Mr “Attackerman” misses the point completely on issues of the economics of war.

One of the key points of negotiations to re-open NATO supplies, as he notes, has been fees for shipping through Pakistan. Transit fees are not unusual and they’re definitely not extortion. If the old fee for shipping supplies really was $0, that’s insane. Oil and gas companies charge fees for transporting resources through their pipelines. So do the countries that the pipelines run through. Trucking companies pay fees, too. All of this is routine economics because transporting goods results in external costs such as pollution and wear on national infrastructure.

BBC reported yesterday that NATO shipments over the past several years have destroyed roads and infrastructure, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages. Does Mr “Attackeman” honestly think that we should have to suffer this loss without any compensation?

Mr “Attackerman” also misses the point regarding the $1.1 billion for what he describes as “services rendered”. What he’s actually referring to are Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that the US promised to reimburse Pakistan and other nations for operation and logistical support of US-led counterterrorism operations.

Reimbursement is the key word. It means compensating for expenses that have already been paid. Much like the damage to roads and infrastructure that NATO supplies cause, we have spent billions on supplies and equipment to support counterterrorism operations. Pakistan is not a wealthy nation like the US – $1.1 billion represents .5% of Pakistan’s GDP but it only represents .00007% of US GDP. This might seem like a small amount to the US, but it means a lot to Pakistan. For the US to withhold this reimbursement appears spiteful. For Mr “Attackerman” to describe it as Pakistan holding out its hand is just insulting.

Mr “Attackerman” is not just an anti-Pakistan agent, though. Don’t give him so much credit. Like I said, he calls himself “Attackerman”, and he doesn’t care who he attacks. He is also happy to attack America’s war against al Qaeda and its counterterrorism strategy, and its top spy agency the CIA. Whoever he’s attacking, though, it usually involves a combination of mischaracterisations and slang words like “frenemy” to make it seem irreverent and funny.

Next week, officials will gather in Chicago to discuss ways to improve cooperation and stop militants from killing innocent people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Guys like Mr “Attackerman” will write blogs making jokes about it without bother to get their facts right because their job isn’t about facts, it’s about entertainment. I guess that’s fine for people far away from the front lines of terrorism. In Pakistan, we don’t really have that luxury.

NATO Invitation a Sign of Success

DCC Meeting

The announcement that an unconditional invitation was extended to President Zardari to attend the NATO summit in Chicago next week represents an important success on the part of the nation’s military and civilian leadership and demonstrates how institutional cooperation and effective negotiating around mutual intersts can result in a ‘win-win’ for both Pakistan and the US.

In the latest rounds of negotiating, neither side got everything they wanted, but each side is getting some of their original demands, and, most importantly, it looks like a new approach to Pak-US relations is finally being put in place. Ambassador Sherry Rehman explained this in an interview with Dawn.

We want this relationship to be grounded in realistic expectations, respect for each other’s sovereignty, appreciation of each other’s legitimate security interests and understanding of each other’s redlines. Similarly, both sides need to be aware of each other’s limitations and constraints.

The Ambassador is not just speaking for herself, either. Media reports that none less than former Presidential nominee US Senator John McCain told a Washington think tank this week that good relations with Pakistan are in America’s interest, but that they must “take a totally realistic approach” and that “we can’t force the Pakistani government and people to change their ways”. He even termed the Pressler Amendment which cut ties with Pakistan in the 1990s as “one of the gravest mistakes in recent history”.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the government’s success. Ahmed Quraishi is upset that we may lift the blockade on NATO supply routes. As usual, his complaint is baded more on emotion than reason. He never explains what we would have gained from continuing to block NATO supply routes. He seems to want to block NATO routes just for the sake of blocking them. At the same time, he completely ignores what we could have lost by being defiant instead of being smart.

I would kindly request Ahmed to consider the recent column by Ejaz Haider – a real analyst – about where Ahmed’s “strategy” would have taken us.

What are Pakistan’s choices? Near-zero. The state’s legitimacy is challenged from inside; the state’s ability to influence events in the region has dwindled to almost nothing; the state has no capacity to project its narrative; the rightwing is working against it by isolating it from the rest of the world; the left-liberals consider it a security state that needs to be reshaped in line with the narrative that comes from the outside.

And now, the commitment trap. If the US doesn’t apologise, GLOC won’t be opened. The US won’t. Pakistan won’t get invited to the Chicago summit. Neither side wants it to get worse. Both are committed to their courses of action. The US has more choices. It can now go solo in Afghanistan and also coerce Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic assets, geography etcetera, are now its liabilities.

Even The News – no supporter of the government itself – agrees that the government has played its hand deftly and developments have unfolded in Pakistan’s best interests.

The closure of the Nato route across our land has been the catalyst for a range of changes. One which will require careful handling is the closer engagement with parliament in the determination of the direction of foreign policy; with specific reference to the USA but, in broader terms, perhaps reading across to all foreign policy making. It is not that the military is any less engaged in foreign policy making, but that the civilian government is more engaged than hitherto; a shift of emphasis rather than power. Then there is the issue of revenue. There has been talk, but no detail beyond some very optimistic figures, of putting in place a per-container levy which would be a welcome income stream for a hard-pressed exchequer. Many thousands of trucks will pass through every month, and if Nato pays a premium for the privilege then so much the better. Any ‘deal’ without such a component would be a poor deal indeed. There is also the issue of back payments to the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). The US has always been dilatory in paying its dues to the CSF, and ceased altogether when the convoys were halted. We need the money if the coming budget is to be anywhere close to balanced and regular CSF payments must also be a part of any agreement.

Politically the reopening without the imprimatur of parliament is somewhat fraught. The opposition parties have all voiced varying degrees of anger at the possibility of a resumption of supplies, but at the end of the day the government probably had little choice but to reopen the roads. There will be some opposition of that there is little doubt, but once the point has been made pragmatism (and vested interests) will in all likelihood prevail. Internationally the Chicago conference and our place at the table is timely indeed. Thus far we have been either sidelined or simply ignored by the Americans working on the post-conflict scenarios in Afghanistan — but it is crucial that we are closely engaged.

After months of hard fought negotiating based on an insistence that taught the Americans that Pakistan was not going to roll over on our own interests, we are beginning to see signs of success. The US knows that it cannot abandon Pakistan to its fate, and it seems that the Americans recognise their past mistakes and do not intend to repeat them. We, too, know that we cannot take a path that isolates us from the rest of the world, and that we must make sure we are present at international forums where issues that affect our interests will be decided.

Those who make their living by promoting isolationism and other failed policies of the past will squawk about the possibility of re-opening NATO supply routes, but these complaints are based on hypernationalist emotions and not a rational plan for what is in the best interest of Pakistan.

The Flawed Decision to Boycott Bonn

Bonn Conference 2011

Ten years ago, the international community gathered in Bonn, Germany to discuss the transitional government in a newly free Afghanistan. Recently, diplomats came together in Bonn again, to discuss the transformation Afghanistan still so urgently needs.

The Bonn Conference in 2001 and Bonn in 2011 could not be more opposite bookends of a tumultuous decade. As the Taliban regime fell, the world had hoped endless violence in the country would be a thing of the past, and Afghans sincerely believed only good days were ahead. But years of mismanagement, misguided policies and a shattering violence have led the world to realize the challenges Afghanistan faces on all fronts require years of continuous struggle – and the international community’s pledged support. And when it comes to the international community, no country has a more important role to play, or a bigger stake in, securing a lasting peace for Afghanistan than does Pakistan.

That is precisely why Pakistan’s decision to boycott Bonn was so unfortunate. Islamabad’s boycott was a response to the disastrous November 26th NATO bombing of a military checkpoint, which killed 24 of our soldiers. The tragedy understandably set off a wave of anger and was seen as a total violation of our sovereignty. Prime Minister Gilani angrily warned the US that “business as usual” would no longer continue. The government immediately shut down NATO supply routes that went into Afghanistan via Pakistan, and demanded Shamsi Airbase in Balochistan, a launching pad for drone attacks, be completely shut down. As of today, all American personnel have left the airbase. And also as of today, the NATO blockade enters its third week, with the Prime Minister Gilani saying this could seriously last for several more weeks. It is clear we have to convey our grief to NATO, and ensure such an incident would never happen again. Our feelings are warranted, as the safety of our soldiers fighting the menace of extremism must always be a paramount concern to the government.

But combining our gripes with NATO with our desires for Afghanistan is a complete mistake. We chose to disengage with the international community, and by doing so have demonstrated a startling lack of leadership. The fact is we didn’t realize then, and don’t seem to realize even now, that boycotting Bonn was to our own detriment. We simply cannot allow resentment – justified though it is – to spill over into completely separate matters. We cannot, as the gruesome expression goes, cut our nose to spite our face.

When it comes to foreign affairs, we have two paths to choose from. The one we seem to be currently following is the United Kingdom’s isolationist stance vis-à-vis the European Union. David Cameron foolishly thought the UK’s veto would weaken the EU, but it has had the opposite effect: England has now lost out on a chance to participate effectively in regional matters. England now watches as decisions that will shape the future of the continent are made without any input from the country.

The other option we have is to model ourselves after Turkey. Turkey has worked with the US and other countries on a range of issues. The result is its ability to influence matters regarding Palestine, something the Turkish government feels incredibly strongly about. The Turks are now in a place to contribute to discussions, and make demands, and is seen as a valuable partner for Middle East peace.

Instead of going to Bonn prepared to engage and demonstrate our commitment to Afghanistan, we have further mired ourselves in distrust with the very nations we must work with, who now must wonder how constructive and reliable a partner Pakistan can even be going forward. If we continue to react in anger and isolate ourselves from the world – especially when the issue at hand is of such supreme importance – we may soon find ourselves shut out of those discussions, and see decisions made without our input. We cannot take ourselves out of any conversation so intricately tied to our own future.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan is significant to Pakistan. That’s just the fact. We don’t have the luxury of pretending otherwise. Instability in Afghanistan continues to spill over into our borders. Ongoing violence threatens to increase the flow of refugees into Pakistan, and create even more security concerns across our already porous border. Ten years and unaccounted billions of dollars later, we still see that military operations in Afghanistan are not tied to any clear plan to bring cohesion between tribes and the federal government. When American troops leave Afghanistan – which they are slated to do by 2014, these problems will become our problems. Apart from Afghanistan itself, Pakistan has the most to lose if our neighbor isn’t stabilized, and the most to gain if it is.

We have a stake in improving Afghanistan’s economy, not only because it can help improve our own, but also because we can be a key voice in promoting regional economic interests. We should be interested in the idea of the “New Silk Road” – a regional approach to Afghanistan’s economic development – which can only work if both Iran and Pakistan sign off on it. Bonn concluded with glowing recommendations for this approach but there was no concrete plans to move it forward.

That is a shining example of something we could have been a part of, even led on. By skipping the conference, we also passed on a golden opportunity to present ideas. We hurt our own strategic and economic goals.

Suffice to say, we lost considerable leverage with the international community, and perhaps most of all with Afghanistan. Our anger at the NATO attack is a wholly different subject and should have been jumbled up with the talks at Bonn.

Significant discussions took place on the transfer of security responsibilities from ISAF to Afghan forces – something vitally important to us. Debates were held on whether or not reconciliation was a viable option –something that cannot realistically happen without Pakistan’s involvement. And long-term aid and training deals were outlined. A comprehensive Pakistani delegation would have had the chance to articulate our interests in those areas, and furthermore, share our opinions on the policies and projects worth pursuing.

We should have been at the table.

Instead, we decided to sit out. At best we are seen as making a serious mistake in judgment, and at worst, we are viewed as obstructionists to progress. The entire region has a critical stake in the outcome of such talks, but who more so than Pakistan? Our contributions would have been invaluable. By not going, we have diminished the successes Bonn could have achieved, as well as our own image as a serious partner. We can only hope cooler minds prevail in such events going forward, and strengthen our role instead of so erroneously weaken it.

Life After the Salala Bombings

NATO protest

The recent NATO airstrike on two Pakistani military outposts near the village of Salala have triggered yet another flash point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Officials in Islamabad have reportedly confirmed that at least 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by strikes that involved both NATO helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

The cross-border incident has already claimed its first victims, as the U.S. subleased Shamsi airbase—a launching pad for drones flying over the tribal areas—and the crucial supply routes through Torkham to Western forces in Afghanistan have been sacrificed at the altar. Details of the strike are still shrouded in mystery however, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern over the ramifications the attack will have on the future of an already tumultuous relationship.

The United States and Pakistan have coped with crisis after crisis all year, from the Raymond Davis episode to the raid that killed Usama bin Laden. However, the recent air strike has brought Pakistani anger to a new apex especially since Pakistani blood now stains the soil. Some in Pakistan insist that this is the last straw and that rhetoric should be reinforced with action, implying the immediate severing of ties. But the partnership—as frustrating as it is—is durable and will remain firm into the foreseeable future. Essentially, after the smoke clears and the public diatribes are over, the U.S. and Pakistan will undoubtedly return to business as usual.

Given the Pakistani public’s rampant anti-Americanism, it is standard procedure for Pakistani representatives—both civilian and military—to publicly berate the U.S. when relations hit a critical point in order to preserve their domestic political support bases. Behind the scenes however, the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledge that they have vital overlapping interests including the neutralization of al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the survivability of the CIA drone program. Indeed, these are the nuances of the relationship that nullify the prospect of a full-blown amputation of cooperation between the two.

Both Washington and Islamabad share the ambition to once and for all eliminate al Qaeda from the South Asian region. The terror network, while at first focused mainly on the disillusion of Arab autocracies had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state until former president Musharraf pledged his unflinching support for the U.S.’s War on Terror. Left with no choice but to categorize Pakistan as a kafir state, al Qaeda began engineering the ideological cultivation of Pakistan’s tribal areas after it sought refuge there following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.1

Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella term used to represent a phalanx of radical Islamist militant groups sworn to destroy the Pakistani state and replace it with a system heavily influenced by Sharia law.2 The al Qaeda affiliated TTP is responsible for notable attacks such as the Marriot Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left 54 dead, at least 266 people injured, and a gaping crater sprawled out in the street, and the siege of Mehran Naval base in Karachi earlier this year. The South Asian Terror Portal has also linked the group to a slew of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

It is hard to believe that Pakistanis would shed a tear if the al Qaeda affiliated TTP were somehow dissolved. Indeed, the CIA’s drone program—operating out of Shamsi—located near the town of Washki in southwestern Pakistan—is tasked to do just that. In a deal forged during the Bush Administration, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. drones to operate on its soil since it would assist in the killing of mutual enemies. These included senior al Qaeda members such as Sheikh Essa and TTP leader Baitullah Meshud, who was later incinerated along with his wife in 2008 by a Hellfire strike from a Predator. The U.S. was quick to accede and Pakistan has benefited from the vanquishing of its adversaries. In short, the Pakistanis want the drone program just as much as the U.S. does as long as it does not disrupt the operations of militants on the ISI payroll like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir. In essence, the Pakistani security establishment knows that the country needs the drones for its own security.

There is also little to fear from Pakistani demands for the CIA to vacate Shamsi and the subsequent closing of the cross-border supply routes. According to Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations, the squeezing of U.S. assets does little harm to U.S. operations in South Asia. It is reasonable to assume that given the nadir of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after JSOC’s foray in Abbottabad that the CIA has prepared for a possible eviction and will wage its drone war elsewhere with Pakistani approval. Naturally, the Pakistanis have demanded the CIA leave the base, not end the drones.

Tom Gjelten at National Public Radio (NPR) also reports that the U.S. is exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of routes from Europe across Central Asia that enter Afghanistan from the north, all avoid running through Pakistan.13 The NDN if successful, would help remove a critical piece of Pakistani leverage over the U.S.

Ultimately, while the death of Pakistani soldiers is tragic, the NATO attack on Salala is but a minor hiccup, leaving the crisis-laden partnership unscathed given the need for mutual cooperation on the counterterrorism front. In the coming days, a series of diplomatic meetings will likely cool Pakistan’s temperature and restore the alliance back to what it once was. Nonetheless, the U.S. and Pakistan are destined to experience these mishaps again and again.

1 Shahzad, Syed S., Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban, London: Pluto Press (2011) p. 8
2 Abbas, Hassan. “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” CTC Sentinel 1, No. 2 (January 2008)

The author is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is currently working on a project detailing the history of US foreign policy towards Pakistan.