NGOs: conduits for external agendas?

That the state has lost part of its national operational space to the US since 9/11 has been highlighted by some of us since that time. Unfortunately, the gains, such as they were, have been transient while the costs have been more devastating and long lasting. However, it appears that we have yet to move towards reclaiming this lost space, although a beginning has been made with the commencement of dialogue between NWFP and one of the militant groups.

There are some in our urban elite who find any form of dialogue with militants unacceptable, but they are simply revealing their own intolerance and bigotry. Perhaps if one pointed out to them that states like Britain also shifted to dialogue with the same “terrorists” who had carried out killings of their soldiers as well as of public figures like Mountbatten, not to mention the innocent who fell victim to the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, our westernised elites may find dialogue between the extremists and the state in Pakistan more acceptable! In any case, the bulk of the Pakistani populace wants peace within through dialogue and accommodation.

Unfortunately, while at one level some positive moves are being made to gain control of our external environment as well as our internal one, at another level there is a bizarre trend that seems to be privatising foreign policy. This is the unchecked activities of certain NGOs who are being funded by external players. As discussed in an earlier column, we saw Pugwash trying to distort the dimensions of the Kashmir dispute as well as seeking to forward the Indo-US/NATO policy of pushing an Indian ingress into Afghanistan.

Where the US agenda unfolds one can be sure loyal Britain will follow. So one saw a Pakistani NGO, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT) — it is all big business for NGOs here with scant regard for national priorities and interests — hold a conference on “Dialogue between the Muslim world and the west”. Such a value-laden title should have shown what was in store for the participants. If there was no hidden agenda or subjective labelling intended, then surely there should have been a dialogue either “between the Muslim world and the Christian world” or “between Muslim states and Christian or secular states” or “between Muslim civil societies and Christian civil societies”, and so on. And are there not Muslims in the “west” – whatever defines this vague entity at any given time? Yet to delink Islam from the west is to deny the existence of large and increasingly marginalised Muslim minorities living there.

More damaging is a workshop that it held on April 22 — again funded by the British government. At first glance it appears to be an excellent initiative – a bilateral workshop of Pakistani and Afghan parliamentarians. The German stiftungs in Pakistan only recently brought a team of Afghan academics to Pakistan. But the problem with the Brits is that they have hidden agendas. That is why, despite knowing the Pakistani state’s sensitivity on Afghanistan and on Indian efforts to ingress into that region – only recently we protested the Afghan defence minister’s visit to the disputed territory of Indian-occupied Kashmir – the British government pushed to have an Indian parliamentarian give one of the main speeches in the closing session of this supposedly bilateral workshop.

The fact that the Indian participant, Dr Najma Heptulla, is known to Pakistanis primarily for her rabidly anti-Pakistan utterances is not the main issue. The point is that this is yet another effort to have an Indian ingress into the Pakistan-Afghanistan equation, that has been more elaborately discussed in the column on Pugwash. But what is most disturbing is why a Pakistani NGO would undermine the Pakistani position by playing to Indian-US/NATO designs? Why would it seek to bring India into the Pakistan-Afghan interaction? Certainly ignorance or naïveté cannot be the reasons in this case. Who will hold NGOs accountable, or are NGOs in Pakistan going to continue to have the freedom to do exactly as they please even in the sensitive external policy issue area, where their actions undermine Pakistan’s position?

Incidentally, when we talk of democratic India as a reference point, let it be remembered that not only did they prevent Pugwash from holding its conference in India last year, they even prevented Pakistani schoolchildren from attending an NGO activity in India last year. And for many years now, India has not allowed the International Crisis Group a presence in New Delhi which is why their Pakistani chapter was recently converted to the “South Asian” chapter!

One absurd explanation given by a Pildat member was that the Indian was there to “teach” the Pakistanis and Afghans from the Indian experience. But why couldn’t the donor have provided an example from their own country knowing Pakistani sensitivities and the political implications? In any case, Pakistan and Afghanistan have their own unique circumstances and the idea surely was to get the two countries parliamentarians together to facilitate better understanding – and here the Indian presence certainly has no role to play.

While it would be pertinent to have the state lay down some basic ground rules for NGOs, especially those working in sensitive security and foreign policy issue areas, one reason why the Pakistani state has been unable to do so is because it has itself been losing space in these areas to external actors since 9/11 – be it the war on terror or the A Q Khan issue. Even presently, we are seeing foreign governments’ officials coming to Pakistan and conducting relations with different political entities on their own, independent of the state institutions and processes. It is not the meetings per se that are the issue but the manner in which certain foreign officials conduct them. They seem to assume that they are above the diplomatic norms in their dealings with Pakistan?

It is in this context that we need to take note of the statement made by that diehard Indophile, the former US ambassador to India, Blackwell, who has suggested that India and the US needed to evolve a joint strategy to deal with Pakistan which he feels has a “highly uncertain” future. Although Pakistan’s high commissioner to India has given an official response to this intrusive remark of Blackwell’s, the reality on the ground is that the US along with its allies is already intruding all across Pakistan’s internal and external space and seeking an Indian ingress into the same is one of the agenda items. That is why we need to reclaim our space assertively and create some distance between ourselves and the US.

There is nothing uncertain about the state of Pakistan, which has shown a greater resilience than most states in a similar situation. But if the state continues to allow its space to be infiltrated by external actors, how can it prevent NGOs from also seeking to move into this space? Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has stated that we will not be “blackmailed by militants”; equally, we should not succumb to the psychological terrorism and threatening agendas of more powerful external actors and their domestic conduits.

By: Shireen M Mazari
Director General, Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
Published in The News on April 23, 2008


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