Smugness galore

US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass attends a press conference during the UN Conference on Afghanistan on November 27, 2018 in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

In the wake of a Twitter war


Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent suggestion that an interim setup should hold elections in Afghanistan stirred up a hornet’s nest. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, considering it a blatant interference by Islamabad in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, recalled his ambassador to Pakistan as a mark of protest.

It is another matter that the issue has been sorted out after the Foreign Office clarified that the Prime Minister was quoted out of context. According to the FO, Khan was only referring to Kabul emulating Pakistan by conducting its general elections under a caretaker set up.

The Afghan ambassador is back in Islamabad but the controversy goes on unabated on Twitter, mainly owing to US diplomats seemingly being more upset on Khan’s remarks than the Afghans themselves.

The US envoy to Kabul, John R Bass, sounding like the fictional ‘Ugly American’, created unnecessary controversy by taking to Twitter to ‘school’ Khan on diplomacy. Taking a dig at Pakistani cricketers he accused him of “ball tampering” in the Afghan peace process.

In an earlier tweet, US special envoy for Afghan peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad also criticised the Prime Minister on this very count. Interestingly with the conspicuous exception of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, quite a few federal ministers jumped in the feud with their own tweets.

In her signature abrasive style, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari was not to be left behind, in her habitual US bashing mode labelled the US ambassador a “little pygmy”. Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi tweeted that Bass would never make the list of good ambassadors of the USA with that attitude. Even Asad Umar, who, instead of doing his job as Finance Minister, refused to be left out of the mubarak salamat brigade, harshly criticised the US envoy in his own tweet.

Notwithstanding the intemperate remarks of the US envoy, talks between the US and Afghan Taliban and Islamabad’s role in facilitating the process is too serious and sensitive a business to be conducted on Twitter by senior cabinet members. Qureshi a seasoned politician and experienced practitioner of foreign policy, perhaps quite well aware of the sensitivities involved, kept himself out of the fray.

As for the Prime Minister’s original remarks suggesting an interim government in Kabul, it would have been better if they had not been made

Instead of having a free-for-all on Twitter, it would have been more appropriate if the FO had issued a terse statement in response to the US envoy’s ‘loose ball’.

As for the Prime Minister’s original remarks suggesting an interim government in Kabul, it would have been better if they were not made. It betrayed a certain kind of naivety or lack of understanding of deep sensitivities of the Afghans about Pakistan’s historical role in Afghanistan as perceived by them.

True, Ashraf Ghani is a quisling who has postponed presidential elections twice first till July and later put them off for September this year.

Nonetheless, Afghans on both side of the divide would not be happy about Islamabad pronouncing how they should handle their own affairs. It is the same kind of sensitivity that Pakistan has when India tries to blatantly criticise Pakistani democracy.

Right now, Pakistan is in a precarious situation. Security and foreign policy issues are looming large. The economy by all accounts is in dire straits; despite the all-is-well narrative of the Finance Minister.

To top it all, recently concluded negotiations in Islamabad with the APG (Asia Pacific Group), an affiliate of the FATF (Financial Action Task Force), have not gone well for Pakistan. According to media reports, the APG is unhappy about Islamabad’s alleged lack of compliance in confiscating funds of proscribed organisations, particularly the eight named by the UN.

Come June’s deadline, this could mean Islamabad remaining on the grey list or being put on the black list of the FATF with all its attendant consequences. To complicate matters further Washington is trying to bypass the relevant committee of the UN Security Council to blacklist Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar. Thankfully, China has urged the US to move cautiously on the issue.

Another complicating factor is a complete lack of consensus between the government and the opposition on vital issues. The briefing on the much touted but only partly implemented NAP (National Action Plan) for parliamentary leaders was postponed, primarily owing to a no-show by the opposition.

The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif in a letter to the Foreign Minister said he refused to attend the special session on the pretext that instead the joint session of Parliament should be called and briefed. The PPP has its own reservations pertaining to extending the tenure of military courts and alleges that some ministers from the PTI are in cahoots with extremist organisations.

But the real reason behind the opposition’s recalcitrance is its contention that the government is conducting a witch-hunt against it in the name of accountability. However, Mr Khan and his cohorts brazenly claim that the government has nothing to do with the accountability process.

Prime Minster Imran Khan, while chairing the first meeting of the National Internal Security Committee (NISC), declared a zero tolerance policy for militant groups. But ironically the role of NACTA (National Counter Terrorism Authority)– a virtually stillborn body that was established with much fanfare– was entirely missing from the narrative. Similarly, the complicated issues of those seminaries imparting extremism, alarming rise of extremism and general intolerance in society never came up for discussion– all are part of the 20-point NAP agenda.

In a related development a constitutional crisis of sorts has been created by the government itself, owing to the Prime Minister’s refusal to sit with the opposition for a meaningful consultation regarding names for the ECP (Election Commission of Pakistan). It was left to the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minster to write a letter to the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly informing him of the names proposed by the government.

Shahbaz Sharif understandably promptly rejected the names on the plea that this was not meaningful consultation. In both the cases, pertaining to NAP and the ECP, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was the ruling party’s point man for bringing the opposition on board.

This is not good enough. The Prime Minister should remove his shining-knight armour and come down to earth from his white horse. Regardless of his disdain for most of the opposition figures he should understand that the parliamentary opposition is the vital cog in a democratic dispensation.

Hence both Khan and the opposition leadership should shed ego-driven inhibitions for the sake of democracy. To claim that the opposition is hiding behind its ‘democracy in danger’ mantra does not tell the whole story.