Unending Onslaught

Normally it is calm in the eye (center) of the storm, not where Pakistan is concerned. When we are not sitting astride two or more storms at one time, we seem to be hopping from one storm into another. As if Dr AQK’s escapades in nuclear proliferation were not bad enough, a blissfully ignorant vast majority within Pakistan is increasingly skeptic and either (1) believes or (2) likes to believe, that he was framed, the man in the street truly taking AQK to be “a fall guy”. True to the vocation of every known Parliamentary Opposition in Pakistan’s chequered democratic history, i.e. opposition for the sake of opposition and damn the consequences for the country, the Opposition is running wild in the media (but failing in trying to in the streets) ascribing all sorts of motivation on the part of the President, the Government and the Armed Forces. They sense a weakness and are homing in on it.

To add to our problems, military operations in South Waziristan to hunt down Al-Qaeda has raised the specter of the possible capture (primarily) of Osama Bin Laden, (secondarily) maybe even of Mullah Omar, as event that is certain to evoke emotions in the streets. The US military operating on the Afghan side of the Durand Line is complaining that when cornered terrorists have been crossing over to Pakistani sanctuaries in the Tribal Areas, they have nevertheless refrained from engaging in “hot pursuit” in deference to Pakistani wishes about the sanctity of its borders. Pakistan has been only somewhat successful in “search and capture” operations, with judicious use of the carrot and stick, and the help of tribal lashkars formed by the Tribal Jirga. This delicate situation has been further complicated by a dozen or so innocents killed by mistake when a bus tried to force a military checkpoint. Good fighting units pay a lot of emphasis on “fire control”, the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) must be extremely careful about innocents being caught in the crossfire. This incident will give grist to the detractors to pursue the well honoured “politics of coffins”, i.e. using poor dead innocents for their own ulterior political purposes.

While the “damage control” exercise launched by the government has had some effect, it has not been effective enough to extinguish the blaze, this has the potential to go out of control. The world at large tends to presently accept the version of the international media and the domestic opposition, respectively anti-Pakistan and anti-government. As the nuclear proliferation fiasco continues to unravel, it is increasingly clear that AQK presents only the “tip of the iceberg” as per the earlier statement of the IAEA Chief Dr Mohammed El Baradei and that a whole network existed with very tenuous links to AQK, yet the world happily focused on AQK as the prime nuclear proliferator. However making the government come clean on AQK is a surefire Catch-22 method of tightening the noose around AQK’s neck as more evidence unfolds. With no real love lost for AQK except using him as a convenient whip to flay the government with, the government’s domestic detractors are keeping the nuclear fiasco alive by their “kiss of death” defence of AQK. The opposition is also partly engaged in a cover-up of their own deficiencies while in power, given that AQK’s “export-oriented” activities started only after 1988 when the first civilian government came into power after the Zia period 1977. The present government may want to wish the AQK scandal away, this will continue to proliferate unless the regime takes the bit within its teeth and advises the parliamentarians in a closed door session about the actual facts, laying out the evidence without compromising national security. The icing on the evidence cake would be a complete dossier on AQK’s personal accounts and assets, and efforts to recover/confiscate these thereof. Without evidence being laid bare a skeptical public will not accept that their hero-turned-villain acted on the inducement of money, they will continue to believe his sleight of hand explanation of a higher Islamic cause as his prime motivation. Off course, it would be interesting to listen to AQK’s theory as to when the North Koreans got converted to Islam.

Pakistan’s image and credibility continues to erode rapidly, the President has lately been hard put to shore it up. Beset both at home and abroad, one wonders how much more the country can take as a responsible and mature sovereign entity before becoming a failed-state, in world perception if not in actual fact. Whenever to the attention of the ruling elite, they readily accept the rapid decline as a looming disaster that needs to be tackled and do not shoot the messenger bringing bad tidings -” but then they proceed to do nothing about it. It is not for me to outline how to go about restoring the country’s image and credibility, that is the job of specialists, the strategising thereof should be for the most part kept as confidential as business permits. One cannot understate the value of propaganda, there are direct methods and there are indirect methods, the thing that is certain is that it is necessary. Take the US primary elections, a Democratic Party aspirant for nomination for election as President, Governor Howard Dean became the early frontrunner, building up a war chest of US$ 35 million largely through a enthusiastic band of young volunteers and their innovative use of the internet. But by the time the first primary had finished in Iowa, his money had been spent, mostly on TV ads. Suffering a surprising loss to Senator John Kerry, Dean never recovered, primarily because of the lack of money for TV spots he soon became a spent force. Gen Wesley Clark, had vowed to carry on till the end, again he could not survive because of a paucity of funds to spend on the electronic media, even the relentless fresh-faced Senator John Edwards had to give up, partly because of a depleted war chest but mostly because further competition could have messed up his chances to be on the Democratic ticket as a possible Vice President candidate. The biggest problem facing Senator John Kerry? Having foresworn Federal matching funds, he is facing a confident President Bush duly armed with an election year war chest of US$ 135 million. Already expensive countrywide Republican ads are extolling the virtues of “continuing with the stability President Bush has given” even though the Bush team may have made a major mistake by airing wages of 9/11, the politics of fear?

The government has to seriously put aside a budget for world-wide “public relations”. Part of this budget has to come from the advertisement budget of our major private and semi-government corporations, most of it must be earmarked as an expenditure allocated from government revenues. A good amount has to go into the print and electronic media but a substantial portion must go into Public Relations (PR), particularly targetting the intelligentsia and members of the fourth estate to visit Pakistan and see for themselves that this is not the theocratic State it is universally taken to be. We have to develop an effective counter to people like Sandeep Waslekar of Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, who make Pakistan out to be potentially a crazy “Mullah-cracy” in every forum that he addresses, and he addresses quite a few receptive audiences. With the rhetoric emanating from some of our leaders, one is sometimes rendered speechless. But why should we remain on the defensive and play catch up? What can be a better manifestation of the misinformation/disinformation campaign against Pakistan than the “nuclear support for Nigeria” story, for at least 24 hours on ether and in print it was the day’s top story all over the world till Nigeria officially denied it.

We have to continuously do “damage control” while involving ourselves in “constructive engagement”, dispelling doubts by deeds, not by words alone. The only way to defend ourselves against the continuing media onslaught is to lay out a defensive barrage of our own and go quickly on the media offensive. The truth has no use if it cannot be disseminated, in this world there are many means and methods for subjective dissemination provided we have the intelligence (and commitment) to use these means and methods judiciously.