Pak’s Diplomatic Outreach on Afghanistan

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Following the demise of the Ghani regime and the shockingly swift takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, there has been a diplomatic and media uproar around the world with much finger-pointing at Pakistan. India’s propaganda that Pakistan orchestrated the rout of the Afghan National Army that was built by a combined NATO effort (costing around 90 billion dollars), notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan has a total annual defence budget of only 8 billion dollars, seems to have been bought by the Western political circles and media for a large part.
A disinformation campaign about the future of Afghanistan as an obscurantist, repressive and failing state that could again become a haven for terrorists is in full swing as well. The stigma of defeat and failure has forced many in the West to scapegoat Pakistan again, which could hurt Pakistan on many important issues such as FATF, GSP Plus, dealings with the IMF, Kashmir cause and matters within the UN and other multilateral forums. No wonder then that Pakistan has launched a major diplomatic offensive, particularly in key Western capitals, to counter the propaganda, clear misperceptions, and project its viewpoint on Afghanistan. But how is this diplomatic offensive faring so far?
Let’s face it. No diplomatic offensive can succeed until it can suitably influence not just the policymakers in key countries, but also the opinion-makers and the media. The global media is still dominated by the West where policymakers and opinion-makers control the narrative on most important international issues. While from the standpoint of policy, Washington is the key capital, from a media perspective, London is equally important.
So how have some of Pakistan’s diplomatic missions in key Western capitals done so far in reaching out to the right policymakers/opinion-makers and shaping the narrative through interaction with the media?
One cannot help but start with Washington. After all, the US is the only superpower that influences a large chunk of the global print and electronic media. There have been an op-ed or two by Prime Minister Imran Khan in papers such as the NYT, managed by Ambassador Munir Akram perhaps. BBC, Fox News and Foreign Policy Magazine interviews by Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan were a decent start but the political and media outreach is yet to take off in earnes. Unfortunately, no notable interactions have taken place in parallel other than that with Senator Lindsay Graham, a Trump confidante who facilitated interactions between PM Khan and Trump. Having known the envoy well, I expected a more robust endeavour.
If Washington has not met the high expectations, London has not met even the minimal benchmark where High Commissioner Moazzam Ahmad Khan seems to have been missing in action ever since the fall of Kabul, if not before. My contacts in the Pakistan High Commission London share that the envoy is a little wary of interacting with policymakers and notable parliamentarians, and dreads the media. Having gotten used to seeing the projection of Kashmir cause being taken care of by the huge, predominantly, Kashmiri origin Pakistan diaspora with a representation of over two dozen in the two houses of parliament, in the cabinet and mayoral offices in major cities including London, the high commissioner suddenly found himself on his own and faltered unremarkably.
Ironically, a former envoy to the UN, Washington and London, Dr Maleeha Lodhi has been more visible in the international media than the serving ambassadors in the latter two stations and sounds much more convincing.
The embassy in Paris, another major European capital and media centre, is without an ambassador presently. Therefore, it cannot be blamed for a lacklustre outreach and visibility in the media.
Berlin, an equally important European capital that boasts Angela Merkel as the chancellor and globally active media house DW, is temporarily without the services of an ambassador at such a crucial time, since the envoy is doing the mandatory capacity-building course in Islamabad. A missing ambassador at such a critical juncture once again raises many questions about the wisdom of sending a grade 20 ambassador to a grade 22 Mission. Berlin, definitely, deserved an envoy whose capacity was not a work in progress.
In Brussels, Ambassador Zaheer Janjua managed an interview with Euronews but did not sound very convincing. Whereas in Canada, the new high commissioner has only arrived recently and must be in the process of finding his footing.
Of all the major western capitals, Rome has been the exception where Ambassador Jauhar Saleem seems to be setting the standards for what a proper reach out endeavour should look like. Interacting with top politicians, key officials, parliamentarians, think tanks and managing a couple of interviews/op-eds a day in the leading Italian print and electronic media, he has covered almost all the largest circulation newspapers and TV channels with the highest ratings. He also seems to be the only envoy in a major western capital who can receive leading politicians and chairpersons of important committees of the parliament in his own office. Foreign Office circles note that had he been in Washington or London, the outreach endeavours would have been much different. But then again, merit is not the hallmark of our diplomacy.
Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Munir Akram is arguably the most media-savvy envoy Pakistan boasts presently, and it’s a treat to watch his interviews. But at the age of 76, he cannot have the same presence in the international media that he managed some two decades ago.
On the whole, the effort to influence the narrative on Afghanistan by Pakistan’s diplomatic establishment abroad can be graded as a B minus, if not C. Though the foreign minister has been super active himself, he needs to be ably supported by our envoys. Two measures could have improved the situation greatly. First, postings on merit and best use of the best available resources. Second, bringing in a few ambassadors from outside the Foreign Service cadre; envoys of the calibre of Jamsheed Marker and Maleeha Lodhi. After all, there is still a 20 per cent ambassadorial quota available for non-career ambassadors as per rules.