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A diplomatic journey

Nicholas Barrington was an extraordinary diplomat who served in what were extraordinary times in the countries where he was posted. His engaging memoir, ‘Envoy’, takes the reader on a breezy diplomatic journey through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt, where he spent a third of his 37-year career.

Few Western diplomats enjoyed the access he had in Pakistan and the wide circle of friends he made in his two tours of duty here – in the 1960s and as Britain’s high commissioner from 1987 to 1994. He retired in 1994 but the friendships he forged in Pakistan endured much beyond.

I met him as a journalist during his second assignment although I had heard about him from my parents who knew him and his high commissioner in his earlier tenure. Barrington owed his effectiveness as a diplomat to his ability and keenness to develop a deep understanding of the social and political dynamics of the country which he was accredited to.

He assiduously followed the advice he gave newcomers to his mission – learn the local language, absorb as much as possible about the country’s culture and history and make friends in all walks of life.

But it was his reverential attitude toward the ‘other’ that distinguished him from colleagues and some of his successors. Never patronising or disrespectful about another culture, he saw diplomacy to be fundamentally about “understanding other points of view”.

When I met him in London in 2003 after a gap of many years, I found him surprisingly well informed about Pakistan and greatly interested in discussing the latest developments in Afghanistan. But when our conversation turned to Iraq, I discovered how strongly he felt about his country’s Iraq policy. He described the US-British decision to invade Iraq as a disaster, which the book’s final chapter deals with at some length.

Barrington became a vocal opponent of his country’s “ill-considered and dangerous” Iraq policy, writing letters to The Times, speaking at conferences and circulating a paper of 146 points explaining why the invasion of Iraq had “put us all at more risk”.

Not only was this action wrong, he argued, but it also diverted attention from Afghanistan, where the job was still unfinished. The invasion and occupation of Iraq would be seen as an “attack on Islam” as well as set off Shia-Sunni tensions.

“Wrong judgments” are often made “when other people’s points of view are not appreciated”, he writes, and adds that currently western leaders are not very good at this.

Almost half the book is about Pakistan, which Barrington says he knew best after nine years of close association. He discovered early on that one of the clues to understanding political allegiances in Pakistan were family links and relationships.

This urged him to assemble a compendium of Pakistani family trees focusing on senior political figures. He called this ‘The 100 Families of Pakistan’ with a subtitle, ‘Relations not Friends’. More families were added later.

But he was discouraged from publishing this, leaving the text in manuscript form. “An interesting snapshot of relationships at a certain period of time”, he asks in his memoir if this is still worth publishing. The answer is yes, as I frequently told him.

Barrington’s stint as envoy coincided with a series of dramatic events in Pakistan – General Ziaul Haq’s death in a plane crash, the transition to democracy, Benazir Bhutto’s assumption of power and Nawaz Sharif’s first stint as prime minister. His account of these and other developments is spiced with interesting anecdotes and his impressions of prominent figures whom he interacted with.

He writes admiringly about Ayub Khan and describes Sahibzada Yaqub Khan as a “legend”. As for General Zia, he was “sly and comfortable in power”. His hero was Akhter Hamid Khan, but he also writes approvingly of how Imran Khan inspired young cricketers.

In his first meeting with Benazir he found her “remarkably devoid of bitterness for the treatment of her beloved father, which she had observed at first hand and for the…. rough treatment to which she had been personally subjected”. But he also recalls a later meeting in which she walked out on him when he raised widely circulating allegations of corruption about her ministers

In her second term, Benazir was decidedly “cooler” towards him as she thought he had been too supportive of Nawaz Sharif. Drawing a comparison between the two, he found Benazir was “extrovert and cautious while Nawaz was shy but decisive”.

But Nawaz also “tended to be influenced by the last person he spoke to”. While in opposition both, however, ignored his counsel to appoint a shadow cabinet, which in his view would have helped to emphasise policies rather than personalities.

On issues, Barrington’s view of Kashmir was reflected in the valedictory dispatch he wrote before leaving Islamabad. The Muslims of Kashmir, he wrote, were almost irreconcilably alienated from Delhi and the situation remained dangerous. For that reason the international community, including his country, needed to do more to resolve India-Pakistan differences.

Being in Islamabad when the Kashmiri uprising began in 1989, Barrington became convinced that Kashmir was an “unexploded time bomb”. On reflection, he writes in his memoir, he might have “contested more strongly the official British line of washing our hands over Kashmir”. He saw “no logic” in India’s insistence that Kashmir was part of India and felt that the UN should have done more when the two nuclear powers were confronting each other.

Barrington iterated this in a letter to The Times in May 1998, in which he said “the situation is now too serious to be left” to the two countries alone. He held firmly to the view that a solution was “not impossible and worth working for”.

On Siachen too, his views were clear. He writes about the deal agreed between prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, under which military forces were to pull back to positions held at the time of the Simla agreement.

“The Pakistanis argued, with justification, that the Indian action was against the principles of Simla: (that) neither side will seek to alter the Line of Control unilaterally”.

He acknowledges that political and military opposition in India led Delhi to later insist on “formally registering” existing positions. This scuttled the deal. And without a Siachen agreement, Benazir declined to visit India at Rajiv’s invitation.

Afghanistan inevitably “intruded” on Barrington’s time in Pakistan where he frequently met the colourful array of mujahideen leaders. He recalls how they were organised and recognises Pakistan’s “generosity for Afghan refugees”. Much later, Hamid Karzai was to remind him of what he had once said about Afghanistan. The country “had a great ability to defeat empires, but no ability to create institutions’.

Barrington refers in the book to a missed opportunity for peace after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan and Najibullah’s government subsequently collapsed. This related to the potential role of unifier that King Zahir Shah could have played.

But “the Americans, suspected of being hostile to the idea of monarchy in principle, discouraged the Pakistanis from allowing the King or any of his close relatives, to come to Pakistan” to mobilise support.

On how the situation evolved in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the Western military intervention, he writes that the West “fell down on economic development and building institutions”, failed to distinguish between Al Qaeda and the Taliban and then chose to neglect Afghanistan in favour of Iraq. Also ignored were the lessons of history that “we were unlikely to win a long, drawn-out engagement”.

Among the many take-aways from the book two are particularly instructive. The first is a simple observation, which defined Barrington’s own approach to diplomacy: “Friendships do not solve international problems but they provide a basis for good communication and trust, which is an essential first step”. And the second is that activism and engagement, not benign neglect, were essential to solving disputes in areas of tension. Nicholas Barrington, 2014, Envoy, A Diplomatic Journey, (London: IB Taurus).

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK. Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, "A diplomatic journey," The News. 2014-07-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Political leaders , Religious issues , Armed forces , Foreign policy-Iraq , Al-Qaeda , Diplomacy , Democracy , Journalist , Corruption , Muslims , Islam , Taliban , Sunni , Shia , PM Nawaz Sharif , Rajiv Gandhi , Nicholas Barrington , Zahir Shah , Gen Ayub Kha , Imran , Khan , Benazir Bhutto , Gen Zia ul Haq , Pakistan , Afghanistan , Kashmir , Iran , Egypt , Iraq , 9/11