Anatomy of An Avoidable ‘Turmoil’

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If there is one issue on which Pakistan’s people, politicians and the establishment have been united in the current global strategic environment, it is the indispensability of an effective nuclear deterrent to Pakistan’s security. The credit for the bold and visionary initiation of Pakistan’s nuclear program in January 1972 will always go to Pakistan’s brilliant geo-strategist, the elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In May 1998, despite enormous US pressure to dissuade him from conducting the nuclear test, another elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went ahead with the tests. Also creditable are Pakistan’s successive governments and aligned scientists between 1972 and 1998,who to legitimately yet covertly pressed ahead with Pakistan’s nuclear program skillfully negotiating the minefield of western sanctions and censure. Against the backdrop of this solid national consensus what Pakistanis have experienced ever since the initiation of an IAEA –”triggered internal inquiry of a some individuals linked to our nuclear program was completely avoidable.  

What then triggered this ugly and potentially damaging controversy; essentially mishandling of the issue on the domestic front by the government. On the external front the matter was competently handled. A combined team of the Strategic Planning Division and the Foreign Office met with Iranian and Libyan officials to get first hand information about the allegations. The government then engaged with the Un, IAEA and the US to reassure them that Pakistan remained fully committed to non-proliferation and that would cooperate with IAEA, through investigation on the home front, to determine how the ‘underworld’ of nuclear technology works. IAEA has been convinced that the government was not involved in any attempt, if made, to export nuclear technology to Iran and to Libya. This has been stated publicly by the IAEA chief and the US Secretary of State. Clearly in its competent and credible handling of this Iran-Libya related proliferation crisis the government has reassured a partially prejudiced and partially concerned international community of Pakistan government’s capacity to effectively contribute to restricting global proliferation.  

At home however the handling was adhoc and reactive. Some state institutions erroneously believed that back ground briefings by senior government officials advising journalists to not write about the proliferation issue was an effective way of preventing media debate on the issue. How can the media be expected to hold back on an issue which had promised to hit global media headlines. The fact is that in deference to ‘national interest’ no Pakistani newspaper or news channel discussed the scientists issue until Washington Post, New York Times and Guardian reports on Pakistani scientists being interrogated by national and foreign intelligence agencies began appearing. Those reports had to be lifted by the Pakistani press. In the world of internet where every news paper in the world is globally accessible whether these are lifted or not ,they are widely read. The other important development which did involve the media and which should have been anticipated was, that when scientists were picked up for “debriefing” panicked families would take to the only credible avenue for publicizing non-official concern, the media.  

Media leaks against widely respected scientists also took place. Government’s justification was that scientists who were falsely feeding the media had to be countered. In some cases officials also believed that leaks would help the government take action, if necessary against some of Pakistan’s rightly respected men-the nuclear scientists. All these steps betrayed lack of appreciation in the government on how best this sensitive and politically explosive issue could have been handled in an open media environment where from key capitals governments and various interest groups ( anti-Pakistan, anti-proliferation )media leaks would occur to put indirect pressure on Pakistan.  

Perhaps the most obvious route to handle this issue could have been that a senior government figure could have informed that the public that based on some information provided by IAEA the government will conduct an inquiry of individuals, scientist and security men, to ascertain the facts behind what we have been told. These are our prized individuals to whom the nation will always remain indebted. We will hold a credible inquiry to ensure that no injustice is done. The public should have also been reassured again that Pakistan’s nuclear assets will be protected at all costs. Such an approach may have prevented the turmoil that erupted ever since the debriefings began. Inevitably questions and accusations flowed regarding scape-goating, western pressure and nuclear-roll-back.  

Media and political pressure however did force the government to retrace some of its steps. The government is now better handling the issue on three important scores. One that both civilian and military officials are being investigated that military men are not beyond the pale of accountability. Two that all investigations are taking place by Pakistani officials, according to Pakistani law and in Pakistani institutions. Three, that finger-pointing at Pakistan alone or at the Pakistani government by the international community and the international media is not acceptable. Somewhat belatedly yet very emphatically President Parvez Musharraf made this point in Davos. Significantly immediately after Musharraf’s CNN interview when the IAEA chief el-Baraedi was interviewed he categorically stated that IAEA had no evidence that the government of Pakistan was involved in black marketing of nuclear technology. On the role of individuals the IAEA chief clarified that there were individuals from several European and several Asian  

The political storm over the ‘scientists inquiry’ will now blow over in the coming days. The worst hopefully is behind us. The government will understand the damage leaking stories do to the credibility of any inquiry. Instead the government needs to inform the public in a deliberate , overt and plausible manner of what, if anything substantial was uncovered, in the debriefing sessions and subsequent investigation of both scientists and military men guarding KRL. Government decision to hold back information from the Pakistani public when it is likely to come to the public anyway through US and European newspapers would be ill-advised.  

There are lessons to be learnt from this mishandling of the ‘scientists’ issue on the domestic front. Inter-institutional coordination is critical as is the need to communicate credibly with the public. Effective communication on issues that are potentially politically inflammatory is necessary for confidence building. Crisis of communication between the government and the public will always snowball into crisis of confidence. Against the backdrop of such a crisis all government policy and practice will always be viewed through the lens of suspicion. In Pakistan this crisis of confidence is a recurring problem yet one that the state and the government can hardly afford at this time of both internally and externally triggered change and upheaval. Its time the government recognizes the indispensability of credible communication with the public as a necessary instrument of effective governing. Instead of believing that the domestic upheaval over the scientists question was media-triggered the government would do well to reflect on its won acts of omission and commission that led to this largely avoidable ‘turmoil.’

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