Conspiracy vs interference: Diplomatic channels are exactly meant for conveying ‘frank and candid’ messages without the knowledge of the public.

Few years ago, the National Defence University (NDU) invited a known Sri Lankan politician, who was an opposition leader then, for a lecture. When the Sri Lankan government came to know about the invitation, it got furious. The then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister picked up the phone and approached the Pakistani High Commissioner in Colombo. The minister warned of serious consequences if Pakistan did not withdraw the invitation. The conversation the Pakistani High Commissioner had with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister was sent to the Foreign Office through a diplomatic cable. The High Commissioner recommended, despite opposition by the Sri Lankan government, that Pakistan must not retract the invitation.

The idea to share the incident is to highlight how business between states is often conducted away from the media glare. Diplomatic channels are exactly meant for conveying ‘frank and candid’ messages without the knowledge of the public. Imagine if Sri Lanka could warn Pakistan of dire consequences behind the scenes, what kind of discussions Pakistan may be having with other capitals through diplomatic channels.

The only reason there was so much hue and cry over the diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington to the Foreign Office was that its contents were made public. It gave the impression that perhaps for the first time such a candid and open discussion took place between our diplomats and officials of the host country. In fact if some of the diplomatic cables, which of course are classified, from ‘friendly countries’ are made public, many would be shocked to know the language used in them. It was because of this reason that even the Foreign Office on first receiving the diplomatic cable on March 7 did not raise much concern. It wanted to simply use the discreet diplomatic channels to convey Pakistan’s concerns.

But the political situation was such that former Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to use it to his advantage. Of course the contents of the cable did provide him an opportunity to drive a point home. But does that conversation between the Pakistani Ambassador and an American official constitute a threat or provide evidence of a conspiracy? Imran Khan was convinced that there was no doubt the US orchestrated the no-trust move against his government since he was pursuing an independent foreign policy.

The National Security Committee meeting acknowledged that the language used by the American official was undiplomatic and tantamount to blatant interference in the internal matters of Pakistan. Subsequent to the NSC decisions, formal protests were lodged with the US both in Islamabad and Washington. The former PM also advanced this narrative that the NSC had endorsed the conspiracy against his government. But on Thursday the DG ISPR finally cleared the army’s stance and clarified that the NSC statement never mentioned the word “conspiracy”, demolishing Imran Khan’s narrative.

But despite that Imran Khan is adamant that the chief military spokesperson endorsed his stance by admitting “interference”.

People have no or little idea that in diplomatic language ‘interference’ does not necessarily mean a conspiracy. For example there were many instances in the past when the Foreign Office accused other countries of interfering in the internal matters of Pakistan. One such statement was issued by the Foreign Office on January 27, 2020 where it termed the series of tweets by then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as clear interference in the internal matters of Pakistan. The Foreign Office was responding to the tweets Ghani issued in favour of PTM. Similarly, India often terms Pakistan’s comments on the plight of Indian Muslims as interference in the internal matters of India. Hence, to say the diplomatic cable contained evidence of a threat or conspiracy is an exaggeration and an attempt by the PTI to play a victim.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2022.

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