A khaki Re-think
The Pakistan Armed Forces need a deep introspection in order to realign their tasks and priorities so that they can continue to play their assigned role in the service of the nation.
Thus far 2011 has not been a good year for the Pakistan Armed Forces. Public confidence in what is generally acknowledged to be the most stable and effective of all the state institutions, has once again dipped. That confidence had been in large part re- stored with the successful operation to recapture the Swat valley from the Taliban; and the valiant rescue and relief work carried out during the 2010 flood disaster. Six months later and with the humiliation of the Abbottabad raid on May 2nd which saw the death of Osama bin Laden, and the raid on PNS Mehran which saw Pakistan’s anti-submarine and maritime surveillance capability effectively wiped out, the Pakistan military machine is looking distinctly careworn. For the first time the military has been criticized publicly by the media, and by parliamentarians who generally take a ‘hands off’ approach to matters military. There are credible reports that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani has come under sharp questioning from within the officer cadre, and a normally quiescent civil society has found its voice and wondered openly if the people of Pakistan are getting value for money from the military.
With the souring of relations with the Americans post Raymond Davis affair and the bin Laden raid has now come a suspension of military aid worth $800 million by the Americans – much of which was owed under agreements within the Coalition support fund (CSF) and which America is substantially in arrears of payment of. The ‘ Pakistan needs to do more’ mantra is the accompanying mood music as arguments rage about the use of the Shamsi airbase and bilateral intelligence sharing is undergoing a substantial overhaul as Pakistan adopts a more assertive posture.
The challenges faced by the Pakistan army in the short term are substantial – and not purely military. The success of the Swat operation was partial rather than complete, and many of the top Taliban leadership including Maulana Fazlullah evaded capture and have regrouped on the Afghan side of Pakistan’s northwestern bor-
ders with Afghanistan. From there they have been mounting an increasingly effective series of raids into Pakistan, allegedly in company with elements of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan moved in midJuly to strengthen border defenses in the vulnerable Upper and Lower Dir areas as well as Mohmand and Bajaur tribal agencies. The Chitral valley is vulnerable to attack from Afghanistan and difficult to defend. And no matter what defeat may be inflicted on armed Taliban or extremists, unless there is an alternative narrative, a rethink of ideology in those who support them, then the battle is never going to be won.
In this the civil administration clearly have a lead role, but there are signs in Swat that they are slow to take over from the army and unwilling to move back into positions of civil administration. There is a danger that the Taliban will find a way back if the civil power is unable to assume effective control – in which case the army will have to fight them all over again.
A challenge which the army is being forced by circumstance to confront is that of extremism within its own ranks. Entities such as armies are microcosms of the societies that they draw their recruits from. If society has become radicalized and has moved towards an extreme position, then it follows that the pool of recruits is going to contain radicalized men and women who will join the army with an agenda very different to that of the recruiting sergeant.
Radicalization will also have been going on within existing members of the forces, and there will be sympathizers if not collaborators within those who are in touch with extremist elements. This was rumored though not yet proven to be the case with the attack on PNS Mehran. Zia’s children are in the ranks and the officer cadre – detecting, disempowering or re-educating them is a job that only the army can do for itself, but a job that must be done if the most effective (for all its faults) organ of state is not to become debased.
The army is currently stretched by the necessary support it offers for the civil power. Forces remain in Swat and elsewhere that there has been fighting, and they cannot remain there indefinitely. The military was pre-eminent in rescue and relief operations during the 2010 flood. It will be called on again in the future as that event is unlikely to be isolated and large-scale flooding will be a feature of the future problems faced by any government. As has been the case in the past (2005 earthquake for instance) the public profile and standing of the Pakistan armed forces rose almost in synchronicity with their relief efforts. In that sense a battered image was quickly and easily restored, in main because the Pakistani collective unconscious has a famously short memory. If the army is going to continue in this vital role it is going to need the resources and training to deliver the service the government and the public expect of it – and that may mean a realignment of tasks and priorities at a time when budgets are tightening everywhere.
And there lies both the rub and the greatest challenge for the military of Pakistan as well as the military establishments of many other countries, including those in the developed world. Armies are expensive everywhere, and war fighting is ruinously expensive as the EU is discovering yet again in its air campaign against Libya. Soldiers are paid and bullets bought with taxpayer’s money, but in a country like Pakistan where the taxpayer is a tiny fraction of the workforce and of that tiny fraction an even tinier fraction actually pays its taxes. The state generates insufficient revenue to support even the most basic of functions for a population that is growing far faster than is sustainable. How much of a military machine Pakistan will be able to afford twenty years hence when the population may almost have doubled; is a question that military planners need to be asking themselves now, not ten years hence.
‘There is a greater need for the elected government’s visibility
in national security policy formulation and decision-making.’
- Maj. Gen. (R) Salim Ullah, former Director General, ISPR and former Ambassador to UAE
Would you say the image of Pakistan Armed Forces has been impacted negatively as a result of certain recent events?
What are the factors that have contributed to this corrosion in public perception?
There have been several contributory factors, the foremost being
complacency. Pakistan Armed Forces have traditionally enjoyed a positive public perception. Notwithstanding avoidable periodic forays into the political arena, the Armed Forces have been generally respected as a disciplined and professional institution. In the present context, the military labored hard to re-establish its image against heavy odds and tempting provocations. As a national institution it lent unqualified support to the elected government and helped stabilize a fledgling democracy.
In the context of the war on terror the military stood solidly behind the political government in building a national consensus to eliminate the scourge of religious extremism. At great cost to itself and the nation, it recaptured space lost to extremism through sustained political expediency. Re-taking of Swat and South Waziristan in quick time and at low cost surprised even the insurgents. Some actions, including the brigadesized heliborne operation at an un- precedented scale and altitude, are now a subject of study in some military schools in the West.
The Great Intelligence Debacle of Abbottabad has stunned the nation. While the matter is under investigation by a national commission and the military separately, the intelligence agencies must clean up their own stables too. Being the prima
donna of the intelligence opera, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has far more to explain. Complicity or incompetence cannot be condoned regardless of the level. Over time, the agency had established its pro- fessional credentials and earned recognition, often grudgingly, from its overseas competitors too. In the war on terror its track record in bagging the largest number of ranking Al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders remains unmatched to date, even by CIA. The disillusionment was thus re-doubled; all its past feats stood dwarfed by the OBL debacle. CIA’s failure on 9/11, MI6 failure on 7/7
or RAW’s failure on 26/11; none can silence the critics who are baying for blood. The OBL debacle was replayed at P.N.S. Mehran within 20 days with matching frustration. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), CID or other civilian intelligence agencies remain largely unaccountable as little intelligence is expected of them anyway. Also, their mandate is politico-administrative rather than strategic.
The deafening disconnect by the establishment - both civil and military - for over a fortnight after the OBL fiasco added fuel to fire. It was generally expected that the Minister of Information, with DG ISPR in attendance, would hold a comprehensive media briefing. Although the Parliament was briefed in camera by the DG ISI in keeping with the democratic tradition, the people at large remained in the dark. A joint briefing would have corrected misperceptions and nipped unfounded rumors. Protracted official silence made matters worse. The media briefing by the Chief of Naval Staff ruling out a security lapse in the Mehran Base disaster was ill-advised and counterproductive. The negative perception kept on thickening.
Inadequate transparency in corrective action against meddlesome operatives has been a common source of negative perception. Complaints of arm twisting, intimidation and interference, at times for personal chores, by some intelligence officials attracts flak upon the agency.
What steps should the Armed Forces take to improve their image?
There is a greater need for the elected government’s visibility in national security policy formulation and decision-making. The Troika meetings to oversee security management are a welcome measure. However, closer institutional integration is called for between the security establishment and the government at various constitutional tiers, viz, DCC, the Parliamentary Committee on Security, JCSC etc. In supreme national interest, as indeed in the interest of the Armed Forces, the centre of gravity must be relocated where it rightfully belongs.
The military must integrate the relevant ministry in media projection. Important briefings and media dissemination should be timely and held invariably under the Ministry of Information. ISPR and other relevant federal/ provincial ministries should be represented at appropriate level for professional input. The recently organized media conference on terrorism by ISPR in Swat on 5 July 2011, addressed by the Prime Minister and the COAS, is a step in the right direction and should go a long way in correcting the misperception. However, the Ministry of Information must be in the fore-front of such initiatives.
The military must
integrate the relevant ministry
in media projection. Important briefings and
media dissemination should be timely and held invariably under the Ministry
How far do you think media has influenced the thinking of the general public?
Greatly. The electronic media in Pakistan witnessed unprecedented mushrooming during the Musharraf era. Liberalization of licensing controls brought in scores of new channels over night. Media’s proclivity for the hyperbole - man biting dog syndrome - is universally accepted. The new entrants competed in sensationalism crossing all limits of media ethics. ‘Breaking News’ became the buzz word to attract audiences, quality or credibility regardless. News channels seldom cross-checked authenticity in the race to be the first to break news. The famous dictum of Lester Markel (18941977), “What you see is news, what you know is background, what you feel is opinion”, was flagrantly violated. It is still difficult at times to discern news from the opinion of the anchor or the media group.
The new breed of journalists that emerged soon started enjoying proximity to institutions and interests with their slanted reporting. Serious panel discussions descended into shouting matches which became the hallmark of some channels or anchors. Barring honorable exceptions which continue to be popular among the intelligentsia, most channels or anchors have lost serious viewership. Rather than promoting enlightened
awareness, the new trend spreads demoralization. The Establishment and incumbent political leadership has become popular punching bags, the security establishment topping the honors list.
With the Global War on Terror (GWOT) conflict reporting has become the new genre of journalism. The challenge and glitter both are too tempting to resist. The advent of embedded journalist in Iraq and later in Afghanistan has put paid to independent reporting. Closer at home, young fixers roam hotel lobbies boasting elite contacts and relishing generous retainers. Some others have become genuine supporters of one ideological cleavage or the other. Media reporting thus has become murkier. Like a senior media personality remarked,” It is difficult to identify friend from foe.”
On the positive side, however, the honorable exceptions in both print and electronic media continue with their objective reporting. Liberalization only seems to have fortified their resolve in promoting healthy journalism. They do not pull punches where it is necessary and unleash constructive, unbiased and mature criticism for course correction.
How can media play a more positive role in safeguarding the national interest?
Media is the first line of defence of a nation’s core interests. Like an ever alert watchdog, it monitors encroachments from within and without and fires off the first salvo in defence. Indeed, the media strengthens the government’s position in negotiations by lighting up red lines in advance. An illustration here may be in order from across the eastern border where the media is regularly briefed before bilateral meetings and scrupulously projects the line given by South Block. To be able to do so effectively, however, the media needs to be frequently educated by the Establishment on the core national interests and nuances thereto.
It is heartening to see that a Media Code of Ethics has been developed unanimously by CPNE, APNS and PFUJ some time back. Its implementation, however, leaves much to be desired. The code needs to be revisited and a mechanism evolved to monitor violations and initiate corrective action. Likewise, senior media leadership had jointly and voluntarily evolved an informal code of DOs and DON’Ts with the ISPR in 1996. The code was followed by most media groups in letter and spirit and a healthy media-military relationship prevailed till November 1999.
The media’s role as the nation’s all-weather ombudsman must be duly recognized. It has served as, and must continue to be, the permanent NAB for all walks of life, not least the Establishment. Any misappropriations of the tax payer’s money or wrongdoings must continue to be unearthed. No holy cows need be spared unless they are holy.
What steps should the Armed Forces take to counter attacks on its good image in the future?
It must be remembered that the attacks had been directed from the Western media and were mostly inspired through leaks. The national media lifted these attacks and forewarned. The pressure should have been expected since the Raymond Davis affair, if not earlier. The need for the Armed Forces was to be proactive and take guard. Let the onus of proving OBL’s death lie with the U.S. administration who may time its disclosure to make a final ‘kill’ in the presidential elections. Meanwhile, we must plug loop-holes in our network.
Insurgency and the low intensity Mehran carnage may not be the end of the menu: more incidents of coercion should not be ruled out.
The need for integration of all intelligence resources, civilian and military, can hardly be over-stated. There is a need for a National Intelligence Cell to pool in and task all intelligence assets for the war on terror. IB and CID must be tasked to cover the rear areas and revamped. This will enable ISI to divert its efforts to strategic intelligence and counter-intelligence which is its primary domain.
Is the ISPR playing its due role in promoting the image of the Armed Forces in the correct perspective?
The ISPR has acquitted itself well by and large, given its diverse handicaps. There is always room for improvement, however. But it is a gigantic task. Being a national cause, it should be a national response. Besides necessary capacity building, ISPR needs unreserved support from other state organs, the Ministry of Information in particular. It is the Ministry which should coordinate and articulate the response. Various media organizations, media groups and NGOs need to extend their support to this national cause, political inclinations notwithstanding. Let there be an AMAN KI AASHA for Swat and FATA.
In the present times image building is a specialized, highly skilled and softly managed task. It is conceived, architectured and executed by professionals. There is a subtle line defining image promotion from propaganda. If crudely done, it can be counterproductive. To this end, ISPR would be well-advised to seek professional consultation.