By Jon Boone
15 Jan 2018
In recent times Pakistani social media activists of a liberal, secular persuasion have been abducted by agents of the state, tortured then released after a few weeks. Invariably they then give up the blogging business: they stop criticising the country’s military establishment, or the militant religious groups long backed by the army as proxy warriors.
Last month saw another abduction of a peace activist in Lahore. A Marxist professor was found dead in Karachi yesterday.
And last week, Taha Siddiqui, an outspoken journalist, narrowly escaped the most brazen kidnap attempt yet. He was roughed up, in broad daylight, by several armed men who had stopped the taxi he was travelling in on a busy Islamabad road. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that his attackers were military personnel. The army had already made clear its annoyance with his outspoken journalism.
Britain has had nothing to say about this growing assault on free speech, even when it involved a journalist who contributes to British media outlets, including this one. But there were no public condemnations. Not even the meekest expression of concern.
Readers of the official Twitter feed of the British High Commission, or the personal feed of Thomas Drew, Britain’s top diplomat in the country, will struggle to find mention of Siddiqui, the bloggers or anything else of substance. They will only see a stream of inane babblings about various public relations initiatives promoting Britain and soft news stories about Pakistan.
Unfortunately for liberal bloggers, despised religious minorities and other disfavoured groups, the Foreign Office has deliberately positioned itself as Pakistan’s cheerleader in chief.
Pakistan, it is thought, is too important to upset. Britain’s spooks particularly prize the intelligence-sharing relationship. All Boris Johnson appeared to want to talk about during his recent visit to Pakistan was a future, post-Brexit trade deal. The British reflex to pander to Pakistan will likely be reinforced by the tough new approach of Donald Trump. The US president has started talking very frankly to Pakistan, demanding it end its decades-long support for the Taliban. For more than 10 years the UK has remained silent about the immense damage Pakistan has done to British efforts in Afghanistan. The UK has preferred to believe the endless promises of successive army chiefs that, this time, things really are going to change. They never do.
At times the UK seems keener to challenge negative international perceptions of Pakistan than the Pakistani government itself. Foreign journalists are presented with a “narrative” of a country on the up. It is not Britain’s job to shill for Pakistan. And it is a highly contestable claim. While terrorist violence is sharply down, it has been achieved in a way that is unlikely to be sustainable: a campaign of illegal abductions and killings rather than root and branch reform of an incapable police and broken judicial system. The business environment remains unreformed and the country never far from its next economic crisis.
Even if Pakistan had turned a corner Britain should not be blind to the problems that remain, or afraid to raise its concerns publicly. The UK is deeply involved in the guts of Pakistan’s internal affairs. The Department for International Development, for instance, spends more money in Pakistan than anywhere else, and is a key player in reforming the country’s school system.
The concern for education is laudable. But Britain should be equally concerned about a campaign to silence the military’s few critics. It appears to be part of a broader plan to manipulate and undermine democracy that saw Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thrown from office on a technicality last year. It is not at all clear whether Pakistan will have elections as scheduled this year. British diplomats actually make the problem worse by conducting diplomacy with army generals in their headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi, further undermining the authority of elected civilians.
The lavish aid programme and the sheer size of the British-Pakistani community means the UK has serious clout in Islamabad. Public disapproval from the UK would impose some cost at least on a deep state running amok. As it is, the Pakistan army has correctly concluded that it can abduct off-message journalists with impunity. A pliant local media did not even need to be told to avoid covering Siddiqui’s abduction. The generals can live with a few bleats of admonishment from international rights organisations.
Pakistan is one of the few country’s where the public displeasure of the British high commissioner might have a useful effect.
• Jon Boone is a former writer on Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Guardian