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.