Visa leaks: A political strategy that backfired?

Nawaz Sharif

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been five years since PMLN dominated the polls and Nawaz Sharif returned for a third term as Prime Minister. Elections are not expected for one more year, however it seems that election season has arrived already. That is the best explanation I have been able to think of for the sudden return of the old visa controversy.

There are several theories about what is behind the leaks of documents related to Husain Haqqani’s time as Ambassador. Cyril Almeida believes it is to remind the civilians of who’s boss, but I have my doubts this time. The usual Army proxies are unusually silent. Not only this, but whoever is behind this whole drama hasn’t thought it through very well.

The first leaked document was a letter granting Husain Haqqani greater authority in expediting visas for some US officials without first sending requests to Islamabad for clearance. What first seemed like a smoking gun turned out to be nothing but dust when Haqqani himself noted that this was nothing new and had actually been reported long ago.

It was the next document that really gave away the incompetence of the conspirators, though. A memo from the Foreign Office marked as ‘Confidential’ directs Missions not to issue visas to a list of 36 alleged CIA agents. There are three major red flags with this leak.

  1. Obviously, we do not know if visas were actually issued to any of these people.
  2. If this list is authentic, it is unlikely that our agencies would want it published because it will cause serious problems for our own intelligence agents who are working undercover. There is a tradition of agencies respecting each other and not exposing the other sides agents except in extreme circumstances. Publishing a list of undercover agents would risk upsetting the very delicate balance of trust with foreign agencies and put our own agents at risk of being exposed.
  3. This is the biggest mistake: Whoever leaked overlooked that the list of alleged CIA agents includes a hand written request for their visas signed not by Husain Haqqani or Asif Zardari but by the Defence & Army Attache who is himself now a Corps Commander!!!

Defence Attache visa request

Husain Haqqani has insisted that ‘military was not bypassed. period‘. Even if the Ambassador was granted authority to issue visas without review by Islamabad, there has never been any evidence that visas were issued without full cooperation and review of Defence agencies located withing the Embassy. Till date there has been no evidence that any visas were issued without the approval of agencies stationed at the Embassy. In fact, this latest leak suggests that Defence officials were fully informed. Just as publishing lists of foreign agents is not in our own agencies interest, also we should ask if publishing documents that show the Defence officials who reviewed and approved visa requests is in our national interest.

If the boys are not behind this one, then, who is? To find the answer we should look at the narrative that is being promoted. It is not just Haqqani who is being targeted, it is PPP leadership. The former President Asif Zardari and PM Gilani are clearly in the sights of the leakers and those who are pushing the narrative that PPP government went around the military to help US agents. It was Khawaja Asif who called for a full investigation, apparently having forgotten that there already was one, and that if anyone wants to get to the bottom of things they can simply release the full contents of the Abbottabad Commission Report.

Until someone comes forward and admits being behind the leaks, this will all be left to speculation. However, it is hard to see how any of this benefits the boys at this time. Much more likely is that someone in PMLN got too clever for their own good and decided to start campaigning early by knocking out PPP by re-introducing old civil-military divides. This was both unnecessary and counterproductive. Unnecessary because PPP is too busy making their own bad decisions to be a real political threat, and also because it sppears that someone within PMLN leadership is trying to drag the Army into politics. 2018 is looking good for Nawaz Sharif. As this drama shows, he needs to make sure it is his own people who don’t bungle it!

‘Zardari TV’ won’t restore People’s Party or media freedom

Zardari Bol TVAsif Ali Zardari has become the second former president to find a new career in media after Gen Musharraf was announced as having a new show last month. Just like when the former military dictators show was announced, the civilian politician’s announcement was also met with jokes on social media.

Some PPP supporters were not impressed with the move.

Others are making the more obvious point about Zardari joining none other than the controversial Bol TV.

However, this last point may be the point completely. Pakistan media has been under extreme pressure from GHQ which has only increased since arrival of new COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa. What better way to counter allegations of Army censorship than to have someone like Asif Zardari appear on a channel allegedly supported by agencies? Surely no one can accuse Zardari of being an establishment stooge.

It is true that Zardari is no establishment stooge, but it is also true that the former president is well known as an excellent politician who knows ‘the art of the deal’. PPP has seen its fortunes steadily sinking since its historic losses in 2013. Since that time, the party has been grasping as any opportunity to reinvent itself away from ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makaan’ to some sort of generic political party with a broader middle class appeal. Bilawal was rebooted as Kashmir mujahid, party leaders came out in support of military courts by blaming civilian institutions, and the party that has stood strongest for religious minorities has shown weakness on important issues like forced conversion. Zardari is no stooge, but does seem like PPP leaders have been taking some very bad advise and now are once again trying to be overly clever by taking the opportunity to get on TV in exchange for providing cover for Army’s media managers.

Whatever the true reasoning is impossible to know, and those who actually know will never tell it. What we can be sure of is that the antidote for military media managers is not political media managers. In this era of ‘fake news’ and media manipulation, it is becoming harder and harder to know what is true. The solution is to increase the number of professional journalists who are investigating and reporting the facts without ideological bias. Adding more politicians to the mix only adds to the confusion, which is something neither People’s Party nor media cannot afford.

PPP: Liberal Politics or Confusing Messages?

After the 2013 elections, PPP appeared to be wandering aimlessly. It was unclear who was advising, and what the party would look like after taking a drubbing in the polls. For some time, it was not even clear whether there were one or two PPPs. Recently, though, things seem to have changed and the People’s Party looks like it has settled on a particular strategy. However, looking at what has been going on is in some ways more confusing than before.

Let me start by clearing up one thing. Confusion doesn’t mean that there are lies or attempts to fool anyone, but it does mean there are questions. For example, there is the recent issue of PPP officials tellingi media that Zardari was ‘invited‘ to Trump’s inauguration, something that the American government denied.

Trump Swearing In Diplomatic NoteThis was followed by another media report, that actually someone gave Trump $1 Million so that Zardari and Sherry Rehman could attend. What is the truth? Were PPP leaders invited on their own, or were their ‘invitations’ bought? Or is there some other truth somewhere in between? These are questions that hang over the entire affair, and someone needs to come up with an answer for them.

However these questions only raise further confusion. It seems like the PPP leadership has been in America more than Pakistan this year. Last month, news reports were suddenly filled with photos of Zardari and Sherry Rehman taking dinners and meetings with American officials. Most recently, Bilawal has been in Washington giving speeches warning Donald Trump against any attempt to ban Pakistanis from entering America or else to face ‘a host of hostilities’.

This all might have made sense when PPP was in power, but since the past three years PPP has been a minority opposition party. This begs the question who has sent them to America, and what are they trying to accomplish there? Are they working as messengers for the government? Isn’t this what the Embassy and the entire diplomatic corps led by our Ambassador are for? Sherry Rehman resigned her Ambassadorship in 2013. What is she doing in Washington instead of Islamabad? If PPP isn’t representing the government overseas, are they representing themselves? Are they trying to curry favor with the Trump administration for some reason?

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto often sought international support for restoration of democracy, which was sensible because in times of dictatorship, international pressure helps getting a free and fair election from a dictator. Mohtarma Bhutto’s lobbying worked in 1988, 1993 and 2007 in securing international pressure for fair elections. Now that Pakistan has had successive fair elections and transfer of power within our constitutional framework, the real task for the PPP leadership is to win an election at home and define its political positions. The PPP has generally tended to back off from liberal positions under the slightest pressure within Pakistan. What benefit, then, would good PR in Washington with right wing American politicians do for the PPP if it cannot project itself as the party of liberals in Pakistan? American officials, a handful of elected representatives and former Congressmen might meet a former Pakistani President and his children along with a former Pakistani ambassador out of politeness but that is hardly the path to political success for an embattled political party that has significantly lost support outside Sindh.

There are no easy answers, but the questions cannot be denied. If the party was split a few years ago, it seems to have come together, but it is unclear whose advise is being taken and where exactly it is supposed to lead. PPP remains the standard bearer for a liberal progressive democracy, but it is mostly by default with MQM in complete disarray under pressurisation and Nawaz’s unwillingness to sever ties with Chaudhry Nisar and his sympathies. Even if PPP is the liberal standard bearer, though, there is not much sign that they will be effective by taking this strategy of attending expensive dinners in America instead of building the party at home.

 

Farrukh Saleem: Political Scientist…or Politicised Scientist

Farrukh SaleemFarrukh Saleem’s latest column includes a startling claim. He says that “the estimated amount embezzled over five years of PPP rule” is Rs8.5 trillion. TRILLION. Such a sum amounts to 8.5 percent of GDP during the five year period that PPP was in power. According to the author, this was not only due to the corruption of PPP but also could not be stopped because “Our entire anti-corruption infrastructure is designed and structured to protect corruption“. Farrukh Saleem knows the solution, though, and unsurprisingly it starts and ends at GHQ which if it is not allowed to succeed will result in “wholesale nation-wide disappointment“.

There is not much in Farrukh Saleem’s piece that is surprising. He has been a long-time supporter of the military taking over more and more of the country. What is surprising is the massive number that he is throwing out. Where did this come from? I know it is fashionable to accuse Zardari and Co. of looting everything they put their eyes on, but over 8 percent of GDP may be taking the “Mr 10%” smear a little too far don’t you think? But Farrukh Saleem…excuse me…DR. Farrukh Saleem is a respected political scientist writing for one of the largest media groups in the country. Surely some fact checking was done before this was allowed to be published.

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The Road To Military Rule

Gen Raheel

PPP finds itself being squeezed rather tightly lately. Sadly, the squeeze really comes as no surprise. When Pakistan Rangers first raided 90 earlier this year, the writing was already on the wall. Today, PPP leadership is crying foul over being targeted, but in some ways their troubles are a result of their own doing. When it became obvious that Army was going returning to operations against political parties, the PPP took the strategy of trying to cozy up in hopes of weathering the storm. Did they really think that it would work?

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