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.

Water Wars and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Rivers of PakistanWater is a basic building block of life. Without water, we cannot live. For this reason, water security is an existential issue for any country, and Pakistan is no different. In fact, issues of water management and water rights between Pakistan and India have been ongoing for decades. With the release of a new report by the US government, ‘Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the issue is again making headlines.

What is disappointing is that, rather than working towards a viable solution through improved infrastructure and regulations, we are once again a parade of paranoid conspiracy theories. According to The Nation, President Pakistan Economy Watch Dr Murtaza Mughal said on Sunday,

The Indus Waters Treaty has failed to settle water disputes between Pakistan and India therefore, it needs to be revisited and made to order, he said. Otherwise, he warned, nothing will forestall a war between two countries. It’s in the interest of US and the international community to take measures to avert a possible water war. He said that United Nations was also supporting Indian conspiracies by pumping huge funds in such controversial projects. He lamented that resolution of such important issue has been left at the mercy of few bureaucrats as politicians remain busy in their favourite hobby of mudslinging.

Leaving aside the obvious irony of accusing politicians of mudslinging while doing the same thing, it is pathetic that the only response Dr Mughal can think of is to repeat anti-Indian conspiracies. This is the same excuse that he gives for both textile industry and also Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. With an entire think tank at his disposal, you would expect him to come up with an original thought every once in a while. What is worse, though, is how Dr Mughal uses the threat of war like a common extortionist by suggesting that if the US and the international community do not intervene, we will attack India.

Pakistan Observer published an article by Dr Raja Muhammad Khan that also repeats anti-Indian conspiracies, then, quite humourously, requests the US to intervene and negotiate for Pakistan’s interests.

Pakistan appreciates a very timely and realistic assessment of the US Senate Committee report on the likely future wars in South Asia over the water resources. However, Pakistan would appreciate any US role for bringing India to a negotiating table for the result oriented talks between both countries over all the disputes, water being one of them.

This is the same Dr Khan who in December accused the US of having only nefarious intentions towards Pakistan!

As far as Pakistani interests are concerned, U.S has never supported those. It never desired that Pakistan to attain economic self-sufficiency. Similarly, it has not been a reliable military partner. It provided military hardware to Pakistani Armed Forces once U.S required for its own assistance and thereafter stopped their supply and spare parts too. For years, U.S has been after the nuclear programme of Pakistan.

Why would the US honour the request of a man who spits in their face? Actually, this is quite typical of the conspiracy brigades. They will accuse the Americans of being satan himself when it suits them, then beg them for help when it suits them otherwise. For all their talk of ‘honour’, they seem to have none at all.

But let us set aside the blatant hypocrisy and examine the underlying claim of all of these articles – that India has hegemonic designs on Pakistan and is using access to water as a weapon. Each of the commentators refers to the same US report, but it is not clear that any of them actually read it. Consider the following passage from the report:

The drive to meet energy demand through hydropower development is also occurring in India and Pakistan, two countries that lack sufficient access to energy. This is particularly true with respect to India, which faces a rapidly expanding population, growing economy, and soaring energy needs. To meet growing demand and cope with increasing electricity shortages, the government has developed plans to expand power generation through the construction of multipurpose dams. India has 33 projects at various stages of completion on the rivers that affect this region.

The number of dams under construction and their management is a source of significant bilateral tension. Currently, the most controversial dam project is the proposed 330-megawatt dam on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. While studies show that no single dam along the waters controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty will affect Pakistan’s access to water, the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season. In the difficult 60-plus year bilateral relationship, water has not yet been used in this way. However, staff met with some experts that argue the treaty’s long-term stability is threatened by a lack of trust between these two countries. Any perceived reduc- tion in water flows magnifies this distrust, whether caused by India’s activities in the Indus Basin or climate change.

As the report makes very clear, the problem is that India is acting in its own interests without considering the impact on Pakistan, not some hegemonic conspiracy against Pakistan. Obviously this does not excuse their actions, but it means that the solution is not to be found in threats, but in dialogue. The report even emphasises that the real obstacle is a lack of trust between our two nations.

This situation can be compared to what is known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Obviously, the best solution for both prisoners is to cooperate. However, if the level of trust is low between the two, both will defect and they will each be worse off. In the same way, Pakistan and India must cooperate to minimize the impact of what is an increasingly limited supply of fresh water in the region. If either country puts their own interests above the interests of the region, both countries will lose.

The US Senate report also references a 2009 report of the Pacific Institute that “indicates that local and subnational conflicts are increasing in severity and intensity relative to international conflicts.” Since the convergence of Pakistan’s rivers occurs in Punjab and then flows down through Sindh, it seems that the threat of water scarcity can easily become one of provincial competition over the resource as well. This is also something that must be avoided at all costs, and the only way to do so is to develop a regional water policy that ensures effective managements and efficient distribution to all areas.

Rather than making threats against Indian conspiracies, our best and brightest minds should be working to develop improved water management techniques that ensure a diminishing resource can be used more effectively and efficiently, and distributed more equitably to all regions of the country. It is truly shocking that so many articles are referencing this US government report on water scarcity without even mentioning the pages of policy recommendations that could help solve this looming problem. Rather it seems too many of our so-called ‘analysts’ are only interested in taking a swipe at India. Using the word ‘hegemony’ does not excuse intellectual laziness.

While our conspiracy corps wastes time and money, our diplomatic corps should be engaging in discussions with their counterparts in India that build consensus around solutions that meet the growing needs of our region as a whole. According to the findings of the report, “transboundary waters by their very definition require international cooperation to avoid conflict”. The only way forward is through cooperation, not competition. Sensational conspiracy theories and threats of war will only exacerbate current problems, ultimately making us less secure.