Washington, Feb. 9: Pakistan’s now-expelled acting head of mission in India may have been the victim of a conspiracy within his government.
Experts here, who are familiar with Islamabad’s modus operandi in India, find it difficult to believe that under ordinary circumstances, money would have changed hands so brazenly inside the Pakistan mission the way Anjum Zamarud Habib told police.
Sources here, who have contributed to intra-government wrangles in Islamabad in order to maintain America’s half century-old client relationship with Pakistan, argue that in the centuries-long history of diplomacy, where embassies collude with subversives in host countries, this is simply not the way things are done.
Those who maintain that there was a conspiracy hatched in Islamabad to create a fresh diplomatic crisis with India are in doubt only on one question: Did Jalil Abbas Jilani know what was cooking in Pakistan and did he willingly go along knowing what might happen'
The real target in the episode which has now led to Jilani’s departure, according to sources here, is Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, who is up against a proxy war waged by his formidable foreign secretary, Riaz Khokar.
The clue to Jilani’s role in the events which led to his expulsion may be found in a dinner in Mount Vernon — which is famous as home to the family estate of George Washington — on March 13, 1999.
The dinner was attended by Jilani, then the third-ranking diplomat at the Pakistan embassy in Washington, Naresh Chandra, the then Indian ambassador to the US, and his then Pakistani counterpart here, Riaz Khokar.
It was a farewell for Jilani, who had been posted to New Delhi but was going through the long wait for his visa, a normal experience for both Indian and Pakistani diplomats posted in each other’s country.
The host of the evening was Pakistani-American businessman Riffat Mahmoud.
Khokar, who made his career from India-bashing instead of any gift of the intellect or diplomatic eminence, is now Pakistan’s foreign secretary.
Dispensing with niceties called for on that occasion, to the dismay of one and all, Khokar said at the dinner that from now on, “we don’t need diplomats — we only need drivers and conductors”.
It was a derogatory reference to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore just three weeks earlier, a journey which led to the Lahore Declaration, which was the product of Khokar’s ultimate boss, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as well.
Sharif prematurely threw out Khokar from Washington because of a succession of statements and actions which undercut the spirit of the Lahore Declaration.
Jilani is on record as having said at the dinner that the advice Khokar gave him on being posted to New Delhi was to “try to be a good (bus) conductor”.
Sources here are certain that Khokar is now facing a challenge on his turf from Kasuri, who is considered soft on India.
Kasuri has been visiting New Delhi as a private citizen. But he has committed the ultimate sin of all: he has spent holidays with Indian diplomats posted in Pakistan, something which makes the likes of Khokar and the Inter-Services Intelligence see red.
Kasuri is aware of the rising tide of resentment against him. Which is why he mentions Kashmir — quite innocuously and without the fire of azaadi — wherever he speaks, even at US secretary of state Colin Powell’s slide and audio presentation on Iraq at the UN Security Council.
He hopes that this is an insurance against his perceived softness on India.
The Americans, too, are aware of Kasuri’s vulnerability in a dispensation where Khokar and other hardliners on India call the shots.
Which is partly why President George W. Bush dropped in on one of Kasuri’s meetings here a few days ago, hoping that it will give the embattled foreign minister a better profile and a boost.
Which is why three days ago, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), under pressure from the US state department, is said to have agreed to extend the deadline for fingerprinting and registering Pakistanis in America. A decision exempting those who have applied for permanent residence from being deported is also said to be imminent.
These two decisions would give the impression in Pakistan that Kasuri’s 10-day mission to the US last month was successful and strengthen him.
But for those like Khokar and the top men in the ISI, who want to nip in the very bud any attempt by Kasuri to even talk about improving relations with India, a new crisis with New Delhi was necessary.
The Jilani episode has achieved just that. Improving ties with Islamabad cannot be on New Delhi’s agenda until the heat created by the episode cools down. That will not be soon.
Those who knew Jilani here are doubtful if he knew that he would be made the fall guy for the nazraana or gift to the Hurriyat. They say he was eagerly looking forward to his tenure as deputy high commissioner in Delhi.
But what is known is that Jilani enjoyed Khokar’s trust and, in turn, he trusted Khokar enough to do his bidding.
Jilani sought the posting in New Delhi because a tenure as the deputy high commissioner there is a stepping stone for Pakistani diplomats.
In that job, some take risks and go places. Others have fallen by the wayside in doing so.
As long as Khokar is in the saddle and the clout of the Islamic parties in Pakistan grow, Jilani will be rewarded for what he has done. But if Kasuri gets the upper hand or if someone like Nawaz Sharif is to return to the helm of affairs in Islamabad, Jilani may well be banished to Timbuctoo.