US and UK diplomats

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US and UK diplomats

Lessons (un)learnt

By Humair Ishtiaq


We as a nation happen to be pretty dumb, unable to learn anything at all despite the fact that history has been very kind to us by way of repeating the same chain of events time and again.

THERE is no dearth of cynics in these times of confusion, uncertainty and bewilderment. Statements coming out of various national and international hotspots only lead these cynics to draw more cynical conclusions.

And media reports of foreign diplomats moving about town meeting people who have different opinions are making many wonder if we, as a nation, make our own decisions. Nobody knows for a fact, but in public perception, it is, at best, a case of 50:50 probability. The perception of foreign interference in our internal affairs has always been there. What is different today is the level of intensity and the widespread scale of acceptance. Howsoever hard one may try to rebuff such notions there is enough on the ground to force a few honest concessions. Browsing through newspapers in the past few weeks, one can’t help but confess that words spoken in certain international capitals have caused immediate realignment in the public disposition of key figures on both sides of the national political divide.

Any number of examples can be quoted in this regard, but they are all too recent to warrant repetition. It is more worthwhile, perhaps, to turn back the clock and try to see what we have been doing all these years, and there is no better way to do it than to move away from perception and enter the realm of hard, undeniable, published and uncontested facts.

Declassification of official documents has been a routine practice in the developed world which, unlike its counterparts elsewhere, does not avoid the embarrassment of sunshine. The American Papers and The British Papers (Roedad Khan; OUP, 1999 & 2002) together deal with the period between 1958 and 1973, covering momentous events like the country’s first martial law, the movement against Ayub, the 1970 elections, the war in 1971 and the fall of Dhaka, and the first two years of the Bhutto era.

While almost every single document tells an interesting tale of internal power struggle, shifting loyalties and Byzantine intrigues, together throw up a rather disgusting picture where even the most intricate and sensitive national issues were first discussed with foreigners, sometimes to even their surprise.

Labelled ‘top secret’ and dated just past midnight October 6, 1958, a document from the High Commissioner to London, says: “President told me this evening that with the support of army ... he will declare martial law at 10.30pm tomorrow (Tuesday) ... He will broadcast to the nation at 7am Wednesday.” In fact, there are at least four documents in the book between September 27 and October 6 that directly quote the president on the possible coup.

That was the beginning, but the end was no different. A note dated February 26, 1969, shows British High Commissioner H.A. Twist writing to London about his two meetings with Naseem Aurangzeb, the daughter of Ayub Khan. “... I was more than a little surprised by the question which Naseem said ... she had come to ask me specifically, ‘What the president should do?’ ... When Naseem came to see me again ... her opening question was almost as startling as on the former occasion. This time it was, ‘Do you think the president should throw in his hand soon if the politicians do not agree?’ Naseem helped me over the surprise ... I confessed that I was nonplussed.”

One wonders if the elite of the country have stopped surprising foreign diplomats with their tendency to seek advice from them. Only declassified papers a few decades down the line will tell us if they ever did.

The American diplomatic machinery, however, is not that easily nonplussed because, as the declassified papers show, it moves a bit ahead of time on the basis of the quantum of input that it has at its disposal before taking any decision. A Policy Appraisal airgram dated February 2, 1971, from the US embassy in Islamabad to the State Department in Washington, for instance, talks of a “hypothesis” which leads to the question: “... will the country split into two independent wings, East and West?” The same document later says, “Keeping Pakistan together has now become a major political task ...”

The 14-page appraisal and a few more follow-up papers based on various embassy officials’ meetings with key Pakistani figures led to the National Security Study Memorandum 118, dated February 16, 1971, issued by the National Security Council, advising the State and Defence departments and the CIA that the “president has directed that an immediate contingency study be made of the alternative US postures towards a possible move in the East Pakistan toward secession.” This study was to be completed not later than February 26. All this, mind you, was being actively discussed when the actual event was still a good ten months away!

What goes a step further and causes severe nausea is the number of incidents quoting repeated and continued assurances handed out to American officials by almost every key Pakistani figure of continued allegiance to the might of the US. The anti-US, anti-West stance of the Pakistan People’s Party, for instance, was quite obvious during the 1970 election campaign, with Bhutto and his cohorts going out of their way to condemn what they publicly called ‘US imperialism’. Various notes sent by US embassy staff to Washington, however, show what was going on behind the scene, with Bhutto offering private assurances in this regard to calm down frayed nerves.

One of the notes by ambassador Farland talks of a meeting Bhutto had with him in Peshawar where he had also brought Mustafa Khar and Hayat Sherpao, “who during political campaign was violently anti-US.” The ambassador notes: “He (Bhutto) was quite jovial in acknowledging that Sherpao had been one of my principal vilifiers, adding that Sherpao’s presence in this meeting indicated that ‘that chapter’ had now closed.” Not just that, “Bhutto said that he had asked them to come with him to stress the fact that these two men would serve in their respective areas as the PPP’s principal contact for ‘mutual briefings’ with US officials.”

History repeats itself. It does so, perhaps, for human beings to have more than one chance of learning a lesson if they have missed out on the first opportunity. When what is happening today is seen in the context of the sorry tale these declassified papers tell, it is quite evident that we as a nation happen to be pretty dumb fellows, unable to learn anything at all despite the fact that history has been very kind to us by way of repeating the same chain of events time and time again. We sure have disappointed history on this count.

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