Selig S. Harrison: using a table to seem reflective
So full of bollocks is his piece - written breathlessly like a breaking news story - that it is hard to imagine who could possibly ever take it or Mr Harrison seriously. The basic thrust of the op-ed is that Pakistan has covertly handed over the Gilgit-Baltistan region to the Chinese, a "fact" that it seems only Mr Harrison is privy to and thus he becomes the Chosen One to reveal it to the world. In fact, just hearing about this was enough for me to dismiss the story and move on. I mean, you have to ask yourself, despite our longstanding security ties with China, given Pakistan's national psyche, is such a thing even possible? Could such a development actually happen without anyone knowing about it? Or a hue and cry arising about it in at least Pakistan's anarchic media? (And please don't bring in that sliver of land called Aksai Chin into this, as far as I know nobody lives in that remote desert.)
But now that the Pakistan Foreign Office was forced to issue a rebuttal, I thought I would go back and actually read the piece. And woe is me. Mr Harrison begins with the kind of ominous foreboding that would suit a Tom Clancy thriller, and had it been a film rather than a printed article, would have surely included a menacing dhen dhen dhen soundtrack...
"While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged Indus River valley, a quiet geopolitical crisis is unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China."
Unfortunately, having set up his thriller, he almost immediately puts his foot into his rather large mouth by making factually ridiculous claims:
"The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency."
Does Selig even know anything of what he writes about? Gilgit-Baltistan is closed to the world??? Has he ever heard of European trekking and mountaineering expeditions? Or Japanese and Korean tourists visiting Buddhist relics? Or the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme that has international consultants coming in and out of the region with more regularity than he probably goes to the loo with? Or has he never read international dispatches from Muzaffarabad during the earthquake or from the site of the recent Attabad landslide lake in Hunza? Yes, foreigners do need a special visa to go into these areas, partly because Pakistan officially considers them disputed areas and partly because of security concerns. But not only does Pakistani media reach these areas but most newspapers have permanent correspondents based there and report regularly from there. But of course, this fool gives his hand away by comparing it to the "media access that India permits" in Indian-administered Kashmir (which foreign correspondents also need special permission for.) You have to be either totally blinkered or totally corrupt to make the case that media access in the Valley of Kashmir is greater than in Gilgit-Baltistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Mr Harrison then adds:
"... reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers reveal two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army."
Aah, the "simmering rebellion" hypothesis, so favoured by Selig. You might go: what? where? How come I didn't see it in Skardu? But then you probably have not followed Mr Harrison's career. Here are two takedowns of his earlier claims, the first from an excellent blog on all things Central Asian called Registan, the other from the Pakistan Policy blog. Registan's post, evocatively and correctly titled "The Inexplicable Longevity of Selig S. Harrison" begins thus:
"Selig S. Harrison has a curious relationship with reality—that is to say, not much of one."
And that in essence is all you need to know about this former hack.
Incidentally, the People's Liberation Army soldiers? Apparently Chinese civilians who have come with flood relief goods and those helping the rebuilding of the Karakorum Highway, which if you recall, was built with Chinese assistance in the first place and has been severely damaged by the recent floods. Harrison in fact admits that most of the Chinese are "working on dams, expressways and other projects." But he also questions some "mysterious tunnels" that he believes could be used for laying oil pipelines and to hide missiles, and plans for railroad and road links that China could use to "transport cargo from Eastern China to... Gwadar." Oh wow. Damn those nefarious-minded Asian types, trying to do things for their own benefit.
By the way, doesn't everyone know about Pakistan's longtime collaboration with China on security matters? And why shouldn't Pakistan collaborate with China to build its infrastructure or even as a military counter-weight to India? And why would the Chinese do it unless they see something in it for themslves? Isn't 'strategic national interest' the very foundation of international state relations? But Mr Harrison sees something sinister in this. Why? Basically because:
"Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.” Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement."
By the way, I have no clue what he means by the second part, regardless of his imaginary "nascent revolt" repetition. So, reminders that the Kashmir issue remains outstanding is a problem for you Selig?
But of course Mr Harrison can't leave it at that. He must earn his lobbying funds (ok, I have no proof of this, but I would be dumbfounded if the following bit of Indian establishment fantasy were being repeated without any quid pro quo):
"Media attention has exposed the repression of the insurgency in the Indian-ruled Kashmir Valley. But if reporters could get into the Gilgit-Baltistan region and Azad Kashmir, they would find widespread, brutally-suppressed local movements for democratic rights and regional autonomy."
I have news for you Selig. People all over Pakistan desire democratic rights and regional autonomy (as, dare I say, they do in vast swathes of Moaist insurgency-wracked India) but nowhere in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir will you find the kind of brutal military-backed suppression of local movements that you will find in the Valley. To draw equivalences there is the height of ignorance, of cynicism or devious attempts to deflect focus.
And of course no two-bit "expert" on South Asia (or any third world area) can go without attempting to stoke sectarian / ethnic fires through sweeping generalizations:
"When the British partitioned South Asia in 1947, the maharajah who ruled Kashmir, including Gilgit and Baltistan, acceded to India. This set off intermittent conflict that ended with Indian control of the Kashmir Valley, the establishment of Pakistan-sponsored Free Kashmir in western Kashmir, and Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit and Baltistan, where Sunni jihadi groups allied with the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims."
Yes, of course, he has to bring in the Shia-Sunni angle as well, as if his main aim is to protect the Shia of Gilgit-Baltistan (shades of neo-con "experts" wanting to protect the Shia in Iraq, the women in Afghanistan etc). Yes, there are sectarian tensions in parts of the area (Gilgit city for example) which have existed for decades and periodically erupt into violence. But he is obviously confusing areas like Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) - where Al Qaeda backed militants have terrorized Shia populations - as part of the Northern Areas. I have yet to hear of any overt jihadi outfits operating in the Northern Areas. But when your agenda is something else, geography is the least of your concerns.
Selig Harrison goes on:
"Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions like the ones imposed on Free Kashmir, where the elected legislature controls only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction of a “Kashmir Council” appointed by the president of Pakistan. India gives more power to the state government in Srinagar; elections there are widely regarded as fair, and open discussion of demands for autonomy is permitted."
That "democratic activists there want a legislature" must certainly come as news to Northern Areas elected chief minister Mehdi Shah and his elected cabinet. I guess Selig was sleeping when the Northern Areas elections were held. He is right that there is resentment about how much real power the legislatures of Azad Kashmir (which have their own president and prime minister) and Gilgit-Baltistan actually enjoy but do keep in mind that unlike India, Pakistan does not claim to have incorporated the region into the country and, at least accepts their position as regions whose status is yet to be resolved. The bit about elections in Indian-administered Kashmir being "widely regarded as fair" would be laughable (at least as far as the Valley is concerned) if only there were no daily military-enforced curfews and large-scale protests every day there by ordinary Kashmiris demanding independence (no, Selig, they are not demanding "greater autonomy" within India, but nice of you to at least concede that all is not hunky dory there).
Notice also that he never once points out that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan do not consider themselves historically part of Kashmir and their strongest demand has always been a de-linking of their status from that of Kashmir. Why? Probably because it goes against the Indian establishment narrative.
Nevertheless, Mr Harrison provides his prescription for what the US should do with (to?) Pakistan:
, Pakistan should focus on getting Washington to stop aiding the insurgency in the Islamabad and to give Kashmir Valley a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan. Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to New Delhi , the China , United States and India should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed, like Pakistan , by the Chinese behemoth." Tibet
So, India should be "pressed" to resume talks with separatists on autonomy (kind of like the US presses Israel to resume Middle East talks?) even as its claims to Kashmir as a part of its union are accepted, while Islamabad gives New Delhi "a formal commitment" about keeping Gilgit and Baltistan in limbo? Oh, I understand Selig, it's because what is important to the US (and you) has nothing to do with the people of GB per se or what they want but with the United States' own strategic interests vis a vis keeping China at bay. And yes, we should all work together to make sure GB is not overwhelmed by China (a patently manufactured scare in the first place), since the only sort of overwhelming that is kosher is by the US. What Selig is basically saying is, if you want to be overwhelmed, Main Hoon Na. Thanks for clearing that up.
Tailpiece: You might have wondered what the Center for International Policy is all about, because any organization that has someone as clueless or mealy-mouthed as Selig Harrison as a director, well what can you really say about its credibility? Well here's what Wikipedia has to say about it's history:
"The Center for International Policy (CIP), located in
, was founded in 1975 by diplomats and peace activists in the wake of the Vietnam War. On its website, the Center describes its mission as "Promoting a Washington DC foreign policy based on international cooperation, demilitarization and respect for human rights."" U.S.
How the mighty have fallen! At least they are keeping up the "promoting a U.S. foreign policy" bit.