Saturday, September 1, 2012

US-Pak ties hit a new low as secrets get leaked
Syed Talat Hussain
For decades, critics in Pakistan clamoured in vain for openness in their country’s dealings with the United States. They wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes. Now, finally, there is transparency — but of the kind that is making sober minds wish for a return to the old ways.
Press leaks
These days, when it comes to Pakistan’s relations with the US, it does not remain quiet for long. Press leaks have become so common that diplomats on both sides have almost given up on sticking to their mutual promise of retaining official secrecy. No sooner do their talks end than they begin to volunteer details to the charmed circle of the media. They assume that holding on to what transpired across the table is futile — that it would come out from the other side anyway.
Officials have developed a strange habit of articulating only that side of the story that is embarrassing to the other, conveniently leaving out the totality of the discussion or the common ground that may have been covered in talks.
Diplomacy is reduced to rhetoric and regurgitation of the popular line through unofficial means. Serious bilateral concerns that require deft handling have now become a plaything.
The only recent exception to this dominant trend was the agreement that opened the blocked NATO supplies. This was conceived in a semi-secretive environment and - perhaps because of that — was delivered as a fait accompli to the public.
But then, post-facto details started to emerge as soon as the news of the agreement hit the headlines. This soured the atmosphere. The Americans showcased the agreement on NATO supplies as a success of their no-carrot-and-long stick policy. Pakistan, on its part, portrayed it as a hard-earned climbdown by the US on the issue of not apologising for killing Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan. Reading post-agreement narratives from both sides makes one wonder whether the description is of the same or different events.
Short-term gains
As for the US, anything that can score a candidate or a party some publicity point is kosher for release. Whether the release makes or destroys whatever remains of the mutual trust with Pakistan is not given much importance.
The immediate always defeats the long-term in Washington’s seedy power politics. No wonder then that last May’s raid at the Abbottabad compound that killed Osama bin Laden, which the Pakistani establishment was hoping would disappear from headlines with the passage of time, stands revived. Though not necessarily targeted towards Pakistan, a string of calculated debriefings by different power centres in Washington to the media have nonetheless vitiated an already tense bilateral environment.
David Sanger in “Confront and Conceal” makes Barack Obama look like a giant of a decision-maker who single-handedly took the decision of sending in the raid team. Richard Miniter of The New York Times, in his “Leading From Behind”, tries to prove the opposite. He builds Hillary Clinton’s image as the real ‘man’ in Obama’s inner circle who convinced a reluctant, if not baffled president to sanction the mission. But both agree on one thing: Pakistan is the heart of the problem in anything that goes wrong in this part of the world.
Season of sequels
In this open season of deliberate declassification, even the silent Seals have started to sequel. “No Easy Day” by Matt Bissonnette, one of the Team Six that conducted the May 1 sneak and kill Osama bin Laden operation, promises to be an elaborate account of the event, crediting military leaders with medal-winning courage.
But like the other two publications, this one too is likely to paint Pakistan in all possible shades of black. Needless to say, revival of the bin Laden matter is deeply embarrassing for the Pakistan’s Army, which sees this as part of a sly campaign to degrade its public esteem and drills holes in its image of a reliable fighting force. They hate the American establishment for doing it to them.
Game of projection
This leaking tendency is causing problems on less spectacular but equally important subjects. The statement two weeks ago by CIA chief Leon Panetta on military operation in North Waziristan, the last yet hardest bastion of assorted militants and Taliban, has cut Pakistan’s military establishment to the quick.
Panetta implied that Pakistan’s military high command, by broaching the intended operation issue with the US, was perhaps levelling the ground for a joint operation. As a senior military commander told me, “If Panetta had kept his slanted mouth shut, or had spoken the full truth, we would have been finalising the operational details of the final assault. But now, we are considering the whole operation all over again because his remarks made it look like an American-sponsored effort, which it never was.”
Days later, on the occasion of the visit of General James Mattis, commander US Centcom, a terse press release from Inter Services Public Relations took considerable pains to explain the difference between Joint and Coordinated Operations, ruling out completely the suggestion that Islamabad had any intention to do a tag-team with Washington in North Waziristan.
Pakistan has counter-leaked, but in the manner that is befitting of a small country hobbled by internal strife and not in control of its external environment.
Last year, immediately after the Salala checkpost attack by NATO helicopters, the military high command brushed aside Washington’s proposal for a joint investigation and declared through their own probe that the attack was deliberate with aggressive intent. An unprecedented, first-of-its kind media briefing was conducted in General Headquarters.
So far, there is little evidence to suggest that these leaks are going to be plugged. These are now part of the alternate bilateral diplomacy whose undeclared aim is to trick and trump the other — even at the cost of closing critical avenues of cooperation.
(The author, a Pakistan journalist, is presently associated with ExpressNews)

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