Bitter But Truth is Only Way

Indian Express, June 16, 2004

The Director General of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Shaukat Sultan, has reportedly urged the Pakistani press to avoid basing reports and analyses on ‘‘baseless propaganda by the foreign media against Pakistan’’. His passionate appeal for Pakistanis to avoid ‘Pakistan-bashing’ reminded me of an incident that had a major impact on my life.

On the morning of December 16, 1971, my late father shared with his children the bad news he had heard on the BBC. The Pakistani Eastern Command had agreed to surrender ‘‘all Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh to Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C of the Indian and Bangladesh forces in the eastern theatre’’.

Stunned, I refused to believe him. ‘‘This is baseless propaganda by the foreign media against Pakistan’’, the 15-year-old son shouted at his father, who had once been a military officer himself. Only four days earlier, Radio Pakistan had announced that no Pakistan troops had surrendered in East Pakistan. ‘‘The question of any surrender is ruled out because our troops are determined to lay down their lives.’’

Only in the afternoon of the 16th, and around the time the surrender ceremony was being held at the Paltan Maidan of Dhaka, did ISPR release a 27-word statement. It read, ‘‘Latest reports indicate that following an arrangement between the local commanders of India and Pakistan, fighting has ceased in East Pakistan and the Indian troops have entered Dhaka.’’

But still, things were sufficiently normal for President, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, to schedule an address to the nation to announce his plans for a new constitution.

I learnt two lessons from the episode. First was, of course, the personal one of deferring to superior wisdom and hard facts. The second lesson relates to realising that public relations and accusations of ‘‘propaganda by foreigners’’ are not a substitute for analysis of ground realities.

Having worked in government, I am aware of the tendency of Pakistan’s rulers to consider critics as enemies. In actual fact, sometimes the critics and the harbingers of bad news are the only true friends of the nation and the state. Those pretending that ‘‘all is well’’ or that decisions made in the national interest need no explanation beyond the assertion of their being in the national interest are often proven wrong.

Civilians are not soldiers and therefore do not turn on the command of a superior officer. They have to be persuaded and reasoned with. In the age of multiple sources of information, they also have access to the historic record.

General Musharraf’s military regime often claims credit for Pakistan’s free media but the relative freedom of the media in Pakistan is as much a product of changed times. In 1971, for example, my father had access to BBC radio only for one hour each in the morning and evenings and that too on short wave. The government could ban all foreign newsmagazines and newspapers. Now, the government cannot afford to limit access to 24-hour TV news and the Internet.

At his briefing on June 11, General Sultan described pro-Taliban Pashtun tribal militant Nek Muhammad as ‘‘a petty local facilitator’’ who has been hiding foreign militants for ‘‘small financial gains’’. He may be right. But on April 24, Lt General Safdar Hussain had garlanded the same ‘‘petty local facilitator’’ in the glare of ISPR-facilitated publicity. If he was so petty, why depute a Corps commander to shake hands with the man? If he is important enough to be greeted by a Lt General, why describe him as ‘‘a petty local facilitator’’?

Similarly, the government announced that it had bombed a compound used by Al-Qaeda financier Abdel Hadi al-Iraqi. But that person was reported captured in January 2002.

The problem is that admitting mistakes interferes with the establishment’s design of ruling the country indefinitely. When voices like mine in the media point out the internal contradictions of the establishment’s grand design, we should not be accused of Pakistan-bashing. The establishment is not Pakistan, though it wants to think that it is.

When Image is Truth and Truth is an Image

Indian Express, June 10, 2004

The problem with pretending to be a nation’s saviour is that one has to create an image larger than life. And to create it, one must either be economical with the truth or very selective with it. Brigadier A R Siddiqui, who served as head of the Pakistani military’s public relations arm ISPR, has written an entire book about the absolute devotion of politically ambitious generals to image-making.

According to Brigadier Siddiqui, Pakistan’s general-presidents tend to focus on ‘‘sustained image building’’, preceding and following coups d’etat. ‘‘After the seizure of absolute power in particular, military image building becomes more blatant and intensive. A sort of image craze grips the top military echelons, which they seek to gratify by any means; by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary,’’ he writes in his book The Military in Pakistan—Image and Reality.

According to Brigadier Siddiqui, the focus on image has produced ‘‘self-love’’, ‘‘self-righteousness’’ and ‘‘self-complacency’’ among Pakistani generals, which is ‘‘suicidal for the military profession’’. This may be the reason that Pakistan has done less on the battlefield according to independent analysts than the nation has ever been allowed to believe.

During the 1965 war, the nation was led to believe that it had won the war against India though in fact the war had ended in a stalemate. Pakistan occupied 1,600 sq miles of Indian territory, 1,300 of it in the desert, while India secured 350 sq miles of Pakistani real estate. But the Pakistani land occupied by the Indians was of greater strategic value, located near Lahore and Sialkot and in Kashmir, a fact that was not revealed to the Pakistani people at the time.

When field marshal Ayub Khan met Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent in January 1966, he agreed to swap the territory seized by either side. Brought to believe that the war had ended in a Pakistani victory, the public found it difficult to understand why ‘‘objective reality on the ground’’ had forced an ‘‘unfavourable’’ settlement on Pakistan. The Tashkent agreement made no mention of Pakistan’s demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir either, which made people wonder why Pakistan’s ‘‘military victory’’ did not bring it any gain in territory or at least the promise of a future favourable settlement.

Field marshal Ayub Khan’s critics claimed his ‘‘political surrender’’ at Tashkent converted a military victory into defeat. Later, when detailed accounts of the war came out, other explanations were given for the failure of the war objectives. Among the explanations: ‘‘The Army had been ‘misled’ by civilians in the foreign office to believe that the international community would not let India widen the war’’; ‘‘The infiltration of guerrillas into Kashmir known as ‘Operation Gibraltar’, which caused the war in the first place, was masterminded by civilians led by foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’’; ‘‘The US let Pakistan down in the war and the Soviet Union misled it in the peace settlement’’.

The one thing that was not done was to acknowledge that, having taken over the reins of power, Ayub Khan and other generals were responsible both for the war and the peace settlement that followed. After all, the field marshal wielded absolute power and should have accepted responsibility for his decisions and their consequences. The role of any advice or encouragement given by civilians, or foreign allies, in those decisions was a secondary matter.

Since the 1965 adventure, Pakistan’s generals have maintained a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in public relations about military matters. According to this virtual SOP, ‘‘The Pakistani military wins every war it fights and Pakistan’s generals make no mistakes. Any blame for failure lies either with civilians or the Americans.’’

In case of the 1971 debacle, when Pakistan was bifurcated, the same SOP was followed in detail. General Yahya Khan, who ran the country, was absolved of most blame, even though he was the president and in normal countries the buck stops with whomsoever holds the highest office. The generals accused of strategic delusions, debauchery and many other things by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, which conducted an inquiry into the debacle, all went home on full pensions and even got the last salute at their burials. The generals’ image was protected under the guise of national security. The truth, and any lessons that it might have brought, was ignored, at least in popular mythology.

Nowadays the protection of General Pervez Musharraf’s image is as important for national security as was the building of Ayub Khan’s image in 1965 or covering up for Yahya Khan and his kit and caboodle after 1971. General Musharraf was the mastermind of the military embarrassment called the Kargil War of 1999. A brilliant tactical plan, this military incursion had no strategic component and as in the past did not take into account the resolve of the adversary to roll it back. More important, it undermined the India-Pakistan peace process started only a few months earlier.

Instead of anyone taking responsibility for Kargil, the image machine of the Pakistani military was put into service and the SOP devised after 1965 and Tashkent was implemented once again. ‘‘The military incursion was initiated by the civilian government’’; ‘‘It was a military victory but was transformed into withdrawal because the civilian prime minister lost his nerve’’. That the two explanations are contradictory was not important to the image-makers. If the civilians initiated the operation, which was a military success, then any glory from the operation should go to the civilian government and the men who did the fighting. The general who did not initiate the operation or the subsequent withdrawal would then get neither credit nor blame.

But in the Pakistani system the generals are always right. And when they want to, they can have it both ways. The civilians have since been blamed for starting the war that undermined a peace process they had invested so much into, as well as for transforming ‘‘a brilliant military victory’’ into defeat. The general commanding the Army at the time (who has since also commandeered the nation) remains a hero for the ‘‘brilliant military victory’’ but has no responsibility for anything else.

Hence the press release that began with these words, ‘‘General Anthony Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the US Central Command, has disclosed that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the withdrawal of troops from Kargil following a US offer of a meeting with President Clinton as a face-saving to the Pakistani leader’’.

But what General Zinni says in his book Battle Ready is that General Musharraf was the one who got the prime minister to agree to the withdrawal. Following are General Zinni’s words: ‘‘I met with the Pakistani leaders in Islamabad on June 24 and 25 and put forth a simple rationale for withdrawing: ‘If you don’t pull back, you’re going to bring war and nuclear annihilation down on your country. That’s going to be very bad news for everybody.’ Nobody actually quarrelled with this rationale. The problem for the Pakistani leadership was the apparent national loss of face. Backing down and pulling back to the Line of Control looked like political suicide. We needed to come up with a face-saving way out of this mess. What we were able to offer was a meeting with President Clinton, which would end the isolation that had long been the state of affairs between our two countries, but we would announce the meeting only after a withdrawal of forces. That got Musharraf’s attention; and he encouraged prime minister Sharif to hear me out.’’

Considering that Kargil was a blunder to start with, there was nothing wrong with the decision to withdraw. The problem is, can General Musharraf afford to admit that he was party to something he has painted, at least among military and militarist circles, as the real mistake of Kargil?

In the ‘‘generals are always right’’ mode that has persisted in Pakistan since 1965, truth is less important than the image. But as Pakistan has learnt at great cost, nations have to live with the truth long after the generals have had their ceremonial burials.

History’s Warriors

Indian Express, June 3, 2004

General Pervez Musharraf has publicly acknowledged what most informed Pakistanis have known all along. The attempts on his life late last year involved junior members of Pakistan’s armed forces, some of whom apparently share the ideology of the global Jihadi movement that General Musharraf says his military government is now committed to rooting out. According to Pakistan’s General-President, there is no cause for moderate Pakistanis to worry. The individuals involved in the conspiracy were just a handful of misguided individuals ‘‘brainwashed’’ into believing that killing General Musharraf would be an act of faith.

The terrorists seeking to kill General Musharraf are the same people who kill Shias in mosques and believe that everyone other than their small band of believers is part of a conspiracy against Islam and Pakistan. That Islam and Pakistan are under constant threat and the global system functions under some grand conspiracy of the yahood-o-hunood (Jews and Hindus) is believed by a large segment of Pakistan’s population. The Pakistani education system and the Pakistani establishment’s conventional wisdom are partly responsible for this collective state of mind. When so many people are convinced that only ‘‘enemy agents’’ block the renewed glory of Islam, it is easy to persuade some of them that the country’s current ruler may be one such ‘‘agent’’. If General Musharraf is truly concerned about the danger extremism poses for Pakistan, he must look at the real source of extremist thinking in Pakistan’s political culture.

For years Pakistan’s establishment has fed a fictitious account of history to its people. Young Pakistanis are taught not to question cliches about their nation’s greatness. Alternative world views are discouraged. The result is general ignorance about causes and effects and a tendency to believe in an ‘‘only if’’ approach to life. From ‘‘Only if the British had not patronised South Asia’s Hindus’’ to ‘‘Only if the Americans would keep their commitments and help Pakistan get Kashmir’’, simplified formulae obstruct analytical thinking.

The simplifications and self glorification has been an essential ingredient of the establishment’s strategy for controlling Pakistani society. Unfortunately, it also has unplanned consequences especially when the establishment is forced to make a U-turn in policy, as has been the case since September 11, 2001. At least some of those brought up to think that soldiers of Islam can’t be defeated except through the treachery of their own are applying the notion to the establishment itself.

Although General Musharraf has reacted to the brainwashing of his would-be assassins, he has given no indication that he understands how this brainwashing is a product of the lack of free discourse in Pakistan. Not long ago, General Muhammad Aziz Khan, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee said in a widely reported speech that Muslims have never been defeated in history except through the treachery of some within their own ranks.

This historically incorrect account matches the version of events in Pakistani textbooks, which convince junior school students that the British defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal in the battle of Plassey in 1757 was made possible only by the defection of another Muslim Nawab, Mir Jaffer of Murshidabad. That the British might have had superior armaments and that Jaffer’s decision to support the British might have been the result of their military superiority rather than the other way round is not held out as an option.

Ironically, the British Indian army that defeated Siraj-ud-Daula’s forces was the predecessor to the professional army that Pakistan inherited from British Raj at the time of independence in 1947. But the military’s role as Pakistan’s institution of last resort has necessitated a certain image building of the Pakistan army. Although military regiments routinely trace their origins to British times, Pakistani people are told to support the army as soldiers of Islam and not as a professional force.

From the battle of Plassey to the surrender of Pakistani troops at the end of the 1971 war, none of the major events in the history of Muslim India is openly discussed for fear that it would somehow jeopardise a fragile national identity. Brigadier A R Siddiqi, a well known columnist and former head of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has documented the military’s image building exercise in his book The Military in Pakistan: Image and Reality. Among other things, the book recalls the efforts at intellectual regimentation undertaken by the Bureau of National Reconstruction (BNR) created by Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The BNR, writes Brigadier Siddiqi, was ‘‘a most skillfully designed instrument of brainwashing through a combination of public relations and intelligence’’.

As a result of the establishment’s brainwashing, every defeat in South Asian Muslim history is blamed on external factors, not on bad strategy. Take the widespread anti-Americanism as an example. Most Pakistanis believe that the US let Pakistan down by not fulfilling its commitments under the bilateral defence treaty of 1954. The feeling can be traced to the 1965 war with India, when the US suspended supplies of weapons to both belligerents instead of coming to Pakistan’s assistance. But the historic record, now available in the form of declassified papers (some of them edited by Roedad Khan in the book The American Papers), shows that the US had objected to the use of American supplied military equipment during the Rann of Kutch war in April 1965. If the US was unwilling to let its equipment be used against India in April, it was unrealistic on the part of Pakistan’s generals to expect American support when they embarked on the adventure in Kashmir in August 1965. But instead of facing the realities of international relations, the Pakistani establishment continues to fuel anti-Americanism.

History is not the only sphere in Pakistan where genuine information has been replaced with tendentious accounts. Pakistani public opinion is routinely mobilised on false expectations in relation to Afghanistan and Kashmir. Conspiracy theories demonising Hindus and Jews are widespread even after General Musharraf has publicly announced his desire for good relations with India and for the possible recognition of Israel.

Some of General Musharraf’s closest aides have privately expressed the view that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could not have been the handiwork of Al-Qaeda and may have been undertaken by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. General Musharraf still periodically claims that there was nothing wrong with Pakistan’s past support for the Taliban. Pakistan’s disenfranchised people are fed a regular diet of slogans, rhetoric and fantasy. General Musharraf’s recent ultra-nationalist statement that the Commonwealth should be proud to have Pakistan as its member is one recent example.

Pakistan cannot become a modern, functional state until its culture of rhetoric and brainwashing is replaced by genuine pluralism. Pakistan’s establishment brainwashes its people in an effort to foster a top-down religious nationalism, arrogates to itself the right of defining Pakistani identity and national interest, and describes its critics as foreign agents. In such an environment, why is it surprised if some extremists go a step further and consider some of the establishment’s top guns as ideologically impure?