Marketing Pakistan

by Brian Cloughley (South Asia defence analyst and author of ‘A History of the Pakistan Army)

I’m not advocating putting Pakistan on the market as such. There are plenty of countries up for grabs at the moment, but Pakistan isn’t one of them, and let us hope that it never will be. No, the point is to emphasise that Islamabad needs to sell the country’s international image more effectively than what it has been doing. Because, honestly, there hasn’t been any good publicity about Pakistan for a very long time.

America is a very important country for Pakistan, but Pakistan’s relevance to America is at best doubtful. Most Americans couldn’t find the country on the map (or most other countries, for that matter; the depth of ignorance is amazing) but they believe that Pakistan gave sanctuary to bin Laden, and are told by their media, emphatically and repeatedly (the essence of propaganda), that Pakistan knowingly hosts other anti-American terrorists.

There is no point in Pakistan trying to refute these allegations, because argument would require detailed explanation and run counter to what is accepted as incontrovertible fact. Once people are convinced that a story is true, it is almost impossible to persuade them otherwise, especially if they really wanted to believe it in the first place. And this brings me to my main point.

The best way to neutralise a nasty story is to smother it. On the day of the 9/11 disaster in America, the first thought to spring to the mind of a government political adviser in London was that the ghastly affair presented a great opportunity to disguise any government initiative that might be unpopular. So she emailed her grubby comrades that  “it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” This was clever, although nauseatingly callous, and it worked because the media had no inclination to carry other news on that dreadful day.

She was sacked after it became impossible to deny that she said what she did — but this didn’t detract from the effectiveness of her crafty scheme. So the message is that there can be disguise, and even demise of unpopular news, if things are handled with devious subtlety.

Which brings us to Pakistan’s challenge, which is how to present a better image. The first thing to do is to construct and implement a vastly better PR approach, because there have been some disasters.

The recent saga of Sharbat Gula, the 1985 National Geographic magazine cover girl with the startling green eyes, is one such debacle. She was allegedly living illegally in Pakistan and a court sentenced her to 15 days in jail, fined her 110,000 rupees, and ordered that she be deported to Afghanistan

Of all the mindless, idiotic, counter-productive things to do, this one took the cake. Of course the international media went berserk. What a story! The National Geographic’s green-eyed girl was again in the headlines in a big way, and there’s not a person in the world who read about it who thought she was fairly treated. Pakistan’s world standing, such as it is, took yet another hammer blow — totally unnecessarily.

Apart from the fact that deportation was spiteful and stupid, the jail term and fine went against all tenets of human decency. And the whole performance was dismally inept and counter-productive so far as Pakistan’s international image is concerned.

The government should have announced that common humanity dictated its decision to allow the poor woman to stay in the country where she had been for so many years. That would have been a splendid opportunity for Pakistan to be regarded as compassionate and liberal in world terms, and even to stress that it is written in Surah An-Nur 24:22 that we should “show forgiveness, command what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.”

Sharbat Gula should have been released from prison, clad in splendid raiment, flown to Islamabad and met by the highest in the land in the presence of international media reporters, who should have been given notice that a vulgar tear-jerking circus was going to take place. There aren’t many international reporters, now, in Pakistan, but more could have been flown in quickly: “You’ll get your visas on arrival — come to report on our benevolent treatment of the daughter of freedom, the green-eyed goddess of great publicity.”

But no. After being deported to Afghanistan, she was met in Kabul by President Ashraf Ghani and given a house to live in — the whole box of generous dice. Pakistan looked heartless and foolish. And to cap it all, compassionate India stepped in. As tweeted by the Afghan ambassador in Delhi, “the Iconic Afghan Sharbat Gula will soon be in India for medical treatment free of cost. Thank you India for being a true friend!” All right, we know that this is PR garbage, but it plays well on the world stage — and that’s where Pakistan is clumsy and continues to be regarded as a villain.

Then there’s the case of the Indian soldier held prisoner in Pakistan. So why not do the right thing by him — and receive wonderful worldwide publicity — by giving him the sort of treatment that Sharbat Gula should have had?

It seems he crossed over Kashmir’s Line of Control by mistake at the end of September. But it doesn’t matter what he did, because he’s 22 year-old Sepoy Chandi Chavan and after his parents died when he was a baby, he was raised by his grandma, who died of a heart attack when she heard he had been taken prisoner. The Indian newspapers went to town about that, and even more anti-Pakistan sentiment was whipped up day by day.

Sepoy Chandi Chavan is a tiny pawn in the surging hate game between India and Pakistan, but he should be taken to the Wagah border and handed over in a decorous, low-key and media-welcoming ceremony, with a few words being said on both sides about the dignity and duty of military service, and sorrow expressed by Pakistan that the poor lad lost his grandma.  Islamabad should not try to apportion blame for the young soldier’s sadness and drama — the international media would do that in their own inimitable way.

All right, so that’s taking publicity advantage of circumstances. It’s also cynical and grimy in concept. But not only would it be morally proper — like allowing Sharbat Gula to stay in the country — it would send a very good public relations message to the world and especially to India. Then some thought could be given to publicising the Kashmir catastrophe more energetically — and with dignity.

Why not market Pakistan?

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