Wikileaks, ‘Fakileaks’ and Richard Holbrooke - Mosharraf Zaidi - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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Mostly, having a 24-hour news culture is a phenomenal advantage. It allows us to stay informed, and to experience, in real time, the diversity of events and personalities that shape public life. Sometimes however, the one thing that an undulating and unstoppable stream of news does is suspend our ability to collate and amalgamate events into coherent blocks of information that might provide more enduring insights into how we can improve the world we are a part of.

In Pakistan, individual news events are often significant enough to generate multiple layers of bipartisan moral outrage all on their own. When the Wikileaks drama began, there was moral outrage at the manner in which Muslim countries’ leaders were being exposed, with some going so far as to claim conspiracies against Muslims as the motivation behind Wikileaks’ revelations. Quite rightly, many also expressed outrage at the duplicity of leaders in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, this necessarily meant highlighting the military’s role in managing Pakistan’s relationships with other countries, most notably, the United States.

Many Pakistanis having an innate resistance to criticism of the military (that is understandable) were keen to look away. But looking away comes at a price. Taken to its logical extreme, resistance to criticism could be stretched to the fabrication of stories to make the military look good. This, despite the fact that there is very clear and plain evidence, even without Wikileaks, that in compromising that elusive and dangerously abstract idea called national sovereignty, the military is not simply in the lockstep with civilian leaders. It is mostly in the lead.

The logical extreme came to fruition with the fake cables purportedly sent from the US Embassy in New Delhi, eulogising Pakistan’s generals and viciously taking apart Indian generals. The fake cables, or Fakileaks, were not a random event. As Azhar Abbas and Cyril Almeida detailed in two excellent articles, these kinds of events are systemic. There is nothing new about the fabrication of narratives that suit certain ideologies and mindsets.

Soon after the embarrassment of Fakileaks, news of Richard Holbrooke’s death came. Holbrooke was a career diplomat about whom a lot can be written. One measure of the man may simply be how widely revered he was in his own country – Republican or Democrat. Holbrooke was an American first, second and last. Holbrooke’s weaknesses and failings were not ignored, and investigative reporters like Jeremy Scahill had a track record of calling them out. But ultimately, Holbrooke was as good a reflection of his country as any: often benign and sincere, mostly effective, but also frequently wrong and needlessly aggressive.

As Pakistanis look back on 2010 and forward to 2011, it might be useful to think about these three things in concert. There are meaningful connections between the realities that Wikileaks has exposed about the role of Pakistan’s military in Pakistani foreign relations, the realities exposed by Fakileaks of fantasy-loving spin doctors in the intelligence agencies, and lessons Pakistani public policy might take from its recent heavy exposure to a generation of exceptional American bureaucrats that are now in their twilight, like the late Richard Holbrooke.

The military’s dominance of foreign policy is possibly as old as Pakistan itself. Its implications however have now exposed Pakistan to a number of malignant hazards to national security. In Afghanistan, colonels and majors managed Pakistan’s relationship with Mullah Omar – that hasn’t turned out too well. With India, it is almost always generals who determine when peace processes – like the one initiated by Sri Vajpayee and Mr Nawaz Sharif – are derailed. With the United States, the military maintains an intimate relationship, whilst publicly positioning itself as somehow aloof and better than the servile civilian officials that ostensibly beg America for money. Ironic, isn’t it? Whatever money is asked for, invariably goes to pay for the military’s overbearing burden on the national exchequer anyway.

To protect the military leadership’s image and to perpetuate myths that fit that narrative, intelligence agencies produce the embarrassment of a Fakileaks fiasco. Other countries have intelligence agencies too, and they all lie. All the time. The only problem is that the Pakistani psyops are the ones conducted ham-fistedly enough that they have to be refuted and rebuked the very next day. The question has to be asked. Is there a threshold for basic intelligence within the intelligence community?

The answer leads from the first problem. Military domination of Pakistani foreign policy is suffocating creativity, ingenuity and problem-solving within the Pakistani state. The new ideas and fresh approaches that civilian leaders may have brought into the system are crowded out by lackeys and toadies of the military (and sometimes the political) elite. Favour, after favour after favour, and our public sector has come to be run by a collective of nephews and nieces. Everybody has a chaacha. Well, this is what chaacha has got us into. Black eye in Afghanistan. Black eye on the pages of The New York Times. Black eye in Kashmir. Black eye in Saudi Arabia, in Dubai and sooner or later, black eye in Beijing too.

The military is a meritocracy for killing machines. And that’s just how we should like our militaries. Soldiers are not programmed for policymaking. The work of national identity construction and nation building is not for the kids who were big, brawny and courageous at school. Those kids should all grow up to be soldiers. The job of big ideas, and their execution in terms of a national project has to be up to the geeks, the nerds and kids who were always too afraid to fight because they were in a rush to get to science class, or because there was a spelling test the next day.

And that brings us to Richard Holbrooke. America and other successful democracies produce a steady stream of both top-shelf generals, and globally competitive bureaucrats, thinkers and doers. Holbrooke was exceptional because he was bureaucrat, thinker and doer all rolled into one. One day, the Indians may be speaking about Shiv Shankar Menon the way Americans talk about Holbrooke. Pakistan is a veritable general-producing factory. World-class generals too. But how many Menons or Holbrookes are on the horizon in Pakistan? I suspect the answer is not nearly as many as we need.

There is a procession of brilliant and talented Pakistanis, make no mistake. But we are so divided and partisan about them, that mere mention of them inspires bitter arguments. Intellectual brilliance over which there is generic consensus? The pickings are slim indeed.

As we shift into a new year, we should not lose sight of why they are so slim. They are slim because the military has crowded out talent and innovation from the beating heart of the Pakistani state. That is the most relevant lesson from Wikleaks, Fakileaks and the passing away of Richard Holbrooke.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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