Message and medium

Message and medium
The Taliban are on the verge of seizing Kabul after having successfully forced – by a combination of military and diplomatic measures – the Western powers to quit Afghanistan after a twenty year-long occupation, and leave the tottering puppet Ashraf Ghani regime to its fate. This imminent defeat has triggered a blame game. The Americans and Europeans accuse Pakistan, an avowed ally and recipient of continuing Western largesse, of playing a “double game”, first by protecting and nurturing the Taliban for twenty years and now by refusing to leverage its influence with them to compel a negotiated peace and power-sharing deal in Kabul. The Pakistanis argue that the very nature of the unthinking Western intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 saddled them with the Taliban problem, exacting huge costs in human and financial terms, and President Donald Trump’s unilateral announcement of a “pullout” before a settlement could be reached, followed by President Joe Biden’s equally unilateral cut-off September date, has robbed everyone, all the regional powers but especially Pakistan, of any leverage to negotiate any peace or power-sharing deal.

If truth be told, there is merit in both points of view, which makes the “blame game” problematic. But at the end of the day, it is Pakistan that is fated to suffer the blowback from the Taliban victory while America can lick its wounds and try to “scapegoat” Pakistan from far away. Indeed, the turmoil and strife in Afghanistan continues to pose the greatest existential threat to Pakistan since independence.

Pakistan is in trouble. Its economy is dependent and ailing. Its political will is disenfranchised and dispirited. Its neighbours are distrustful and alienated. Now its western benefactors, especially America, are turning against it. We say we have a story to narrate but no one is listening to us because we are being “scapegoated” for others’ sins of omission and commission in Afghanistan.

One argument is that we don’t know how to tell our story, that the state continues to depend on “pedestrian ways” to tackle a complex problem. As one respected commentator put it, “the grim reality is that the Pakistani state has no idea how to weave a story around its actions – how to focus on the right audience, in the right language, through the right platform, with the right message, via the right medium – and how to narrate it to those who need to hear it”. In other words, it’s the medium, not the message.

But the truth is more complex and complicated. Regardless of how our state can be tutored to brilliantly fashion Pakistan’s narrative and target the “right audience”, it will still have to contend with over thirty years of distrust and lack of credibility in Western capitals. As General Hameed Gul, that great strategist of the Pakistani state once publicly boasted, “Our ISI has defeated the Russians with the help of the Americans in Afghanistan and now we are going to defeat the Americans with the help of the Americans”. From the parting shots of Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and best friends with our own General Ashfaq Kayani, that the “Haqqani network was a veritable arm of the ISI”, to President Trump’s tweet accusing Pakistan of “lying and deceiving the US while receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid”, and President Biden’s reluctance to make a courtesy phone call to the Prime Minister of a “strategic ally”, no one should be surprised why our “narrative” is not getting any mileage with the “right audience”.

Worse, for much the same sort of reasons of distrust and alienation, our state also has an increasingly serious problem selling its “stories” at home. Thus when our state representatives exhort all “stakeholders to play their part positively … in a whole-of-the-nation approach” in Pakistan, this is not readily forthcoming. There is one main reason for this: the Miltablishment is not neutrally wholesome, it has hoisted an unrepresentative political dispensation that signals the demise of electoral democracy and tears up the social contract between rulers and ruled enshrined in the Constitution and pits most popular mainstream parties against its meddling and engineering. Consequently, an unprecedented attack by the deposed leader of a mainstream political party on the leading lights of the Miltablishment has evoked a “positive” response from a populace whose vote has not been honoured. That is why the trust that glues the organs of the state to the purposes of the people is slowly disintegrating, posing new conflicts and dilemma for the state that defy any “whole-of-the-nation- approach”.
Since the Miltablishment embarked on the politics of hybridity, we have consistently argued that the “era of the tail wagging the dog” – a country for a state rather than a state for a country – was coming to an end because powerful externalities were poised – in the aftermath of defeat in Afghanistan – to overawe traditional internalities just as powerful externalities had enabled the Pakistani state to define and manage internalities for the last seventy years. When America left Afghanistan and Pakistan after the collapse of the USSR in 1989, it ended four decades of aid to a front line state against communism. It then went on to sanction Pakistan for its nuclear program and cut off all aid in the 1990s. But after 9/11, 2001, it returned to the region, with dollops of dollars for the Pakistani state. Now it is exiting again, quite unilaterally, and intends to scapegoat the Pakistani state for “double-crossing” it all these years. Worse, if it begins to think of creative ways to “punish” Pakistan for the perfidies of its state, we are in for hard times. Regional and international isolation can pay havoc with our tottering economy, making it difficult to leash the demons of regional terrorism, religious militancy and nationalist separatism, all of which our state has recklessly spawned over the years.

If ever there was a time and need for national reconciliation to adopt a “whole-of-the-nation approach” to fend off internal and external challenges, it is now. It is a new message rather than the old medium that will count henceforth.


Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.