What the envoy said

Published: December 15, 2011
The writer is editor of business and economic policy for Express News 

The writer is editor of business and economic policy for Express News [email protected]

What exactly happened at the envoys’ conference held in Islamabad on December 12th and 13th? We have confusing reports emerging from the whole affair and a final set of recommendations that doesn’t tally up with the initial reports of what the envoys were actually saying.

A report in this newspaper headlined the first day of the conference with these words: “Envoys want less emotion, more strategy in policies”. Some of the contents of that report, sourced to a single anonymous participant, were striking.

For instance, the participant told the reporter that the envoys “urged the government to immediately reopen supply routes for Nato forces” and that “foreign policy should be based on strategy, not sentiment”.

The report goes on to say that the views of the country’s top diplomats “were in stark contrast to the tough stance taken by the government as well as the military establishment in the aftermath of the Nato attacks”.

Fair enough. This is exactly what one would expect foreign envoys to say if you think about it. For many decades now, the foreign office establishment has taken a dim view of the country’s foreign policy, over which they have had very little control. I recall, as a vivid example, a visit by the late Agha Shahi to LUMS in the aftermath of the nuclear tests in 1998, when Pakistan was completely isolated in the world community and bottled up behind a wall of sanctions.

I had a brief opportunity to speak to him directly and sensing the fleeting nature of the moment, I kept my question brief and open-ended. “How long will Pakistan remain isolated, Agha sahib?” I asked. “For as long as we patronise militant groups, for as long as we try to use terrorism as a tool in foreign policy,” his reply began. And then he continued, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here: “We have done this to ourselves, we have followed very misguided policies to pursue our interests and the result is this, this isolation. If we don’t stop patronising extremist groups, we will never escape this isolation”.

I know enough about the foreign policy of our country to know that the foreign office and its envoys and ministers and secretaries and spokespeople have always, privately, chaffed at the role they have to play in the execution of our foreign policy: the role of public relations damage control. Remember the silent outcry of the envoys in the wake of the Kargil disaster? All our ambassadors and high commissioners around the world woke up one day to discover that their country was in the middle of a major conflagration, that their host countries had serious and indignant questions to ask about the whole affair about which none of them had been briefed. They read about it in the newspapers.

I got a glimpse of how this works at a wedding dinner that I was attending in Rawalpindi, in the first week of July 1999. The Kargil war was the backdrop and on every table it was the foremost topic of conversation. I had the misfortune to be seated next to a retired general who asked me what I did and when I told him I was a teacher at LUMS, he went off on how important it was for me to explain to my students what was happening in Kargil, how much it matters to the country and that they should all support the venture.

I argued back that I would do no such thing, in fact, I was doing the exact opposite by holding seminars and inviting speakers to come and talk about how deeply misguided the entire venture was. An argument ensued during which I made a reference to the growing isolation that had become Pakistan’s destiny ever since we embarked on a policy of using deniable militancy as a tool of foreign policy.

“Isolation?” growled the visibly irritated general. “That is the job of the foreign service, what do we have them for?”

“You tell me general,” I said. “What do we have them for?”

“To explain our point of view to the world!” he shouted. “You think that is a tough job?” He went on, “We in the army have to do far tougher jobs than that all the time and we don’t complain, why does everyone else always complain?”

This snippet from the conversation has stuck in my mind because it is extraordinarily illustrative of how captive our foreign policy really is to the mercurial impulses of generals and their deluded pursuit of ‘national honour’. Let them do whatever they please and let the envoys clean up the mess. That is their job!

On the second day of the conference, a set of ‘recommendations’ were issued, which are the diametrical opposite of the concerns reportedly aired by the envoys on the first day. What happened? Was this a case of misreporting, or were the envoys made aware of some ‘ground realities’ of their home country?

Perhaps our envoys should take whatever views they brought with them to the conference and wrap them with fresh flowers into a bright and beautiful wreath to lay on the grave of Agha Shahi, who could probably have told them before they even departed their host stations that they were being summoned to Pakistan to be told what to think, not to be consulted. The flowers will eventually wilt, but Agha sahib’s insights will not.

And, on their way out, they should buy themselves a broom each and prepare to get on with their jobs back in their host stations. After all, securing our ‘national honour’ is hard work, don’t they know that?

Published in The Express Tribune, December 15th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Nadir
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:13AM

    well someone has to look the rest of the world in the “eye”!


  • Noor Nabi
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:14AM

    Let us not forget that the late Agha Shahi was a lead jester in the court of Zia-ul-Haq (the father of religious terrorism).


  • Dec 15, 2011 - 6:48AM

    Excellent, as always.


  • Gahratmand
    Dec 15, 2011 - 9:10AM

    Pakistan is the victim of the bigger game being played between Iran & Saudi Arabia – Islamabad or Sherazad Hotel needs to develop a new alliance pattern to hide behind as US has decided to support Persia – Cut all losses from all sorts of wars being conducted focus on economy and human resource development.


  • Wah
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:10PM

    what a depth and sorrow which rulers won’t feel


  • Ammar
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:18PM

    simply brilliant!


  • wonderer
    Dec 15, 2011 - 1:54PM

    This post should be a must read for all politicians and army officers.

    I never knew such sane advice was available to them. Its implementation would involve a complete U turn but Pakistan has not a moment to lose.


  • Kestrel
    Dec 15, 2011 - 2:50PM

    @Noor Nabi: Agha Shahi served a long career in the foreign service, and resigned after developing differences with Zia ul Haq in 1982. His credibility is intact, unlike Roedad Khan for instance who served the General through thick and thin….


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 15, 2011 - 3:11PM

    @Noor Nabi:

    You are right but Mr Shahi’s words were chilling and insightful.

    Khurram, enjoyable as usual.


  • Irshad Khan
    Dec 15, 2011 - 5:29PM

    How many more Hussain Haqqani are serving in our Embassies? How many untrained diplomats are serving in our foreign affairs? And how many friends and relatives are serving in our foreign affairs and Embassies and relationship is the only qualification available with them. How and which foreign policy is successfully enforced, in case it has been made, revised periodically and is available to all embassies!


  • Noor Nabi
    Dec 15, 2011 - 7:23PM

    @Meekal Ahmed:

    Since Mr. Shahi is no longer alive to defend himself I prefer to only say that may God rest his soul in peace. I wish he had developed differences with Zia-ul-Haq much sooner than he did. The words attributed to him during a lecture at LUMS are indeed chilling and insightful and there is a lesson to be learnt from them. Shahi’s close involvement with the ISI controlled Institute for Strategic Studies, however, leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

    The spirit of Khurram Husain’s article is fantastic and laudable. The military-mullah nexus should not be allowed to turn Pakistan into a pariah state.


  • standard herald
    Dec 15, 2011 - 8:47PM

    @Irshad Khan Hussain Haqqani in my estimation has done a great job for his country here in the US – Yes I watched him in the United States where he is regarded quite highly. Two interviews that are etched in my mind are 1) Ted Koppel with Gaddafi & Christine Amanpour with Musharaf – in both the interviewers talked “down” to their guests – I also recall Charlie Rose interviewing HH & his wife – Charlie talking to them as equals. They presented their country’s point of view well & Kodos to them. The problem with HH I believe is the book he wrote & the fact that the powers that run the show never really wanted him in Washington. Of course we all know of his past – everyone has a past – it’s how you move on that matters.

    As regards the article – no sane person can disagree with the thrust of it.


  • Sajjad Ashraf
    Dec 15, 2011 - 9:46PM

    Shahi was a part of the regime that put Pakistan on the path to supporting extremism and cross border terrorism. He had to leave only because Zia wanted an even more agreeable servant in service to his masters. They become wiser after … and then continued to draw benefits as a chairman of Institute of Strategic Studies. God bless his soul…


  • You Said It
    Dec 16, 2011 - 2:27AM

    If you look at the photos from the 2nd day of conference, you’ll see Pasha sitting next to Khar. That should answer all questions anyone has about the recommendations.


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 16, 2011 - 8:26PM

    @Noor Nabi:

    The MM nexus has already destroyed our country. I don’t know if there is a path on which we can retrace our steps.


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