Collective Failure

By Usman Sadozai

Pakistan’s War: The government must take its case directly to the people of Pakistan, bypassing the hindering media

Pakistan is at war. Yet the nation is not clear about much to do with this war. They are not sure about who or what the enemy is, or what the objectives are or should be. This would be a set of objectives that, if and when achieved, would define and determine victory. Many think we should not be at war at all. But I, for one, will not blame the people. I believe no more in the concept of ‘collective crime’ than I do in that of ‘collective punishment’. I have little respect for so-called leaders – really pygmies – who blame the people, i.e. the electorate, for what is their own fault or failing.

They have either led them down a garden path, or into a hole without so much as a ‘by your leave’, or failed to lead them at all. The first would be a case of bad or wrong policy usually sold to the people by lying to them. The second is a case of failing to build consensus, while the last a case of total abdication of responsibility. I believe what is seriously letting down the war effort in Pakistan is the dangerous combination of democratic abdication, media religiosity and military hubris.

Hilary Clinton was in Pakistan for an unusual visit. What made it unusual were the venues and audiences she put on her agenda. She was clearly putting into practice what the Obama administration has proclaimed: an effort to engage and build a relationship with the people of Pakistan, and not jut the leadership, for a change. This change, in Pakistan’s case, is not entirely a result of the change of personality in the White House. The Lawyers’ Movement and what it said about ‘people power’ in Pakistan is at least a factor.

The Secretary of State has engaged with more diverse audiences and graced more representative and independent fora in three days than President Zardari, PM Gillani or Opposition Leader Nawaz Sharif, put together, have done in 18 months. One could perhaps make an exception for Mr Gillani, but not without noting, with disappointment, that his appearances have all been formal, with little or no aspect of the two-way, open and frank debate which has been a deliberate part of Mrs Clinton’s programme.

Since the Pakistani President chooses to remain Party Co-Chairman and retains the powers of the 17th Amendment, it’s only fair that we focus on him first and foremost. We hear him saying that Pakistan is at war and that it is an existential war. I say ‘we hear him’ because he is most typically saying it when visiting world capitals, addressing world leaders, in the hope that they would turn into donors, or bigger donors if already donating. He has rarely addressed the people of Pakistan. On the few occasions when he has done so, it has been from the ‘safety’ and relative detachment of the TV screen or the pages of a newspaper.

The main reason for the Secretary of State’s visit has been to try and counter the feeling amongst Pakistanis that America’s military presence in Afghanistan and her insistence on dragging Pakistan into waging a war within Pakistan is the biggest cause of the practically daily terrorist attacks claiming the lives of Pakistani citizens. While this so-called anti-Americanism is not new, it has become more widespread, somewhat paradoxically, even as more and more Pakistanis have become convinced that the militants have no redeeming features whatsoever and there can be no negotiations or deals made with them.

Mrs Clinton was in Pakistan to carry out her responsibility of securing and furthering American, not Pakistani, interests. Yet there is an obvious and important overlap in Pakistani and American interests when it comes to fighting the terrorists who are murdering Pakistanis at random, in large numbers, at an alarming rate. We fail to see this vital overlap and make maximum use of it to our detriment and the enemy’s advantage.

If Mr Zardari were to do no more than follow in Mrs Clinton’s footsteps for a mere three days, visit the same venues and talk to the same audiences that she spoke to and talked with, he would have done more and better and deserve more praise than he has done in the last 18 months. A democratic leader leads by consensus. At a time of war, the need for such consensus is paramount. It is not only necessary to legitimise the war but is essential to having any hope of winning it. The Government has to ‘own the war’, as well as own its democratic mandate, before the nation can start owning the war. This requires being in the midst of the people, talking to them, and this cannot be done by hiding in the Presidential palace and talking at them, occasionally.

Sound military strategy and good tactics can win battles, but the military alone does not win wars. Countries, not armies, win wars and democratic, bipartisan consensus building is the most important part of the whole war effort. Going around world capitals asking for money is the less important part. However, that is the only part Mr Zardari has attempted with any serious effort.

Our soldiers and security personnel are fighting and laying down their lives for us. There is little recognition of this in the media. Much of the private media is not interested in properly honouring our fallen soldiers… or, in some cases, even mentioning their sacrifice. It is left to the government-owned channel (PTV) and the hapless ISPR to try and do that. Hardly any one watches PTV any more. ISPR can hardly communicate, let alone have any illusions of becoming an opinion-maker. It’s not a reflection on its professionalism, wanting as it may be, but it’s a fact that the ISPR is just the PR function of an institution and cannot even remotely be seen as forming a part of the media. Not in the post-exclusively-PTV-Pakistan Radio world.

There are any number of anchors and writers in the media who are afflicted with the kind of religiosity that saw an exponential rise in our country when Zia-ul-Haq made it state policy for 11 painfully long years. There are others who simply find spinning and regurgitating conspiracy theories much easier than any rational analysis or proper investigative journalism. This kind of pseudo-journalism sells particularly well in markets made up largely of semi-literate and under-educated audiences. Even today there was some joker writing in his op-ed piece in daily Jang, no less: [translation] ‘Blackwater is an anti-Islamic and criminal private army of the US. This mercenary army has been created by former CIA and US army officers. It has been involved in kidnapping children, physical torture and arms smuggling in Iraq, Bosnia, Kuwait and other countries. Therefore, its presence in Pakistan stands to reason.’ But the journalists are not my focus here, mainly, because unlike the politicians, we do not vote for them, and unlike our generals, they have not sworn an oath of allegiance to (the Constitution of) Pakistan.

It is our elected leadership that is failing to step up to the plate, especially the top leadership. Second and third level leadership hogging our TV screens on political talk shows, moderated by partisan and compromised anchors, is no alternative to Messrs. Zardari, Gillani and Sharif doing the duty that they owe the country, democracy, our soldiers and the voters. And it is no good just appearing on TV shows. They should be undercutting the wrong-minded media by taking a leaf out of Hillary Clinton’s book and engaging directly with the people of Pakistan. They can do that by carrying out a serious and sustained effort at building up consensus. A few scores of these petty and deluded men in the media cannot be a match to an earnest mass contact campaign by the politicians, especially if it features the weight and crowd-pulling power of the top leadership.

An important thing that the politicians will do well to remember is that the soldiers – the rank and file that is – are also their voters. They are performing an extremely difficult task fighting this war. They could do with being shown some appreciation and support. One can understand why Mrs Clinton visiting the troops would look suspicious, given the much touted accusation against them of being, in effect, American mercenaries. But why can’t our own leaders visit our troops?

Mr Gillani did the right thing by visiting the blast site in Peshawar. Mr Sharif has not been bothered enough, apparently. But even he visited the Swat IDP’s. Yet nobody including the Commander-in-Chief (ie the President of Pakistan) has felt it necessary to visit and show solidarity with the men fighting and dying in order to protect us. Bush, Obama, Blair, Brown, all heads of state make it a point to visit their troops at the front. If they can fly all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan, why can’t Mr Zardari visit Swat or FATA? By now, top political leaders attending the funerals of fallen soldiers should have been regular practice. How many such funerals have our ministers, let alone the Prime Minister, President and (de facto) Leader of Opposition, attended to date?

It would be unfair to criticise the politicians without mentioning the most ridiculous own-goal scored by the military leadership, with an apparent absence of thought, regret or remorse. Despite being involved in carrying out a war in close co-operation with the Americans, and faced with a rabidly anti-American domestic media and a small-minded and weak-willed political leadership, the Corps Commanders thought it wise to stoke anti-Americanism by coming out in opposition to the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Their trying to act all innocent by saying it was ultimately for Parliament to decide, fooled no one.

Indeed, the Government was well within its legal and constitutional right to decide on Kerry-Lugar without reference to Parliament. It was the Army that was in gross breach of its constitutional role with this condemnable interference in politics. In doing so, it ended up strengthening the hand of the same Nawaz Sharif, who has been accused of ambivalence and equivocation on this war against the Taliban and sundry terrorists, and that of the rest of the Opposition (including not just Quislings but also fifth-columnists). The Corps Commanders in aligning themselves with the Opposition in this unconstitutional and unforgivably improper manner, pushed an already cowering and timidly hesitant President (and his Government) deeper into his bunker mentality, as far as the responsibility for building a consensus in favour of this war is concerned. The small number of those within the Opposition who have no lack of clarity about this war have also been let down by an Army leadership who seem to be more interested in showing the politicians their place than recognising its own constitutional role… even in the middle of a war that is claiming the lives of its own brave officers and men.

It is not surprising that any political muscle-flexing by the military should send the Government running for cover. Civilian governments in Pakistan are yet to taste being sacked through the power of the ballot box, or even that of the street. Even Bhutto was hanging on and still there despite the street protests against him. Politicians have not learnt to think in terms of the full parliamentary term. Voters are no longer relevant once the politician is in government.

The politicians have not unlearnt the importance of recognising the real power when it comes to them being kicked out, unceremoniously. Sadly, even the people have not realised that they have the power to kick a civilian government out, just like they can vote it in. They too look to the GHQ to rid them of unwanted civilian governments. Even when they have succesfully taken to the street against military dictators overstaying their (initial) welcome. These are big psycholgical hurdles in the way of getting to a truly democratic Pakistan where the people will be relevant stakeholders.

It has been only slightly more surprising to see the media taking no time to stand behind the GHQ rather than democracy and boldly raising the decibel-level of  its anti-Americanism. It instantly forgot that until only a few weeks ago it was having a concerted go at the Government for failing to charge the last military dictator with treason. As a prelude to the Army’s infuriating overstepping of the constitutional mark, Article 6 had been all forgotten about and, rather mysteriously, the Kerry-Lugar Bill had become the ‘new’ hot issue.

Once again, I believe that the primary responsibility for guiding the nation, correcting misconceptions, clarifying confusions and building the much needed consensus lies with the politicians – both Government and Opposition. It’s bad enough that the Opposition is not able to rise to its national duty and stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government as far as building consensus and resolve for this war is concerned. It’s even worse that the Army should revert, so soon after the end of yet another long period of military dictatorship, to interfering in politics, that too at time of war and in a matter that directly affects the need for clarity about the war. Yet neither can be used as an excuse for the top Government leaders not doing their duty, i.e. to lead through consensus. It must take its case directly to the people of Pakistan, bypassing the hindering media. The Opposition will have to join in or risk being left out in the cold in case the Government is able to carry out a campaign of mass contact and movement in favour of this war with any level of commitment and competence.

For a start, the head of state or of Government, or both, should visit the students at the Int’l Islamic University and find out why many of them think their fellow students were killed by America and not the terrorists. They should explain to them that if we can destroy the terrorists, then it does not matter who was pulling the strings or providing the cause or provocation. Can we really have in our midst people nay animals who are willing to butcher our children mercilessly in the blink of an eyelid as agents of others or for whatever real or perceived cause?

Messrs. Zardari and Gillani should go and visit the troops at the war front, post haste. They ought to make a point of regularly and repeatedly honouring fallen soldiers by word and by deed. This could become a strong symbol, helping clear much of the confusion in people’s minds. It will shame the Opposition – Mr Sharif – into following suit. The media would see a threat to its monopoly over opinion-making depending on how cleverly the Government plays it and how successful it is in creating a consensus. With a new consensus forming into shape, the media, as creatures of the market, ultimately, would have to adjust and change its own stance.

Most importantly, it will breathe a new life into and re-strengthen the resolve of the soldiers fighting for us. It might even make them realise that when the military leadership interferes in politics, it is the soldiers – the rank and file – who are being let down, first and foremost. In dragging the Army into politics and risking bringing it into disrepute, the military leadership is failing in its important duty of protecting the institution and its members from politics and politicisation, that eats into goodwill that both the soldiers and the nation need and miss most (bitterly) at time of war.

Indeed this civil-military disconnect would not have been there if this had been war or confrontation against our ‘traditional’ enemy. The seeds of the present confusion about the enemy were in fact sown starting from 1979. It suited the purposes of the military dictator at the time to co-opt religion in such a self-destructive (in the long term) manner. Ayub Khan had turned Pakistan into a Security State and Zia turned it into an Islamic Security State. We now need a collective effort at re-education in order to return to being simply a democratic state. There is another contender in the field – the so-called Islamic Democratic State. The present war should help focus the minds of those who are too young to have seen how mixing religion with politics has only empowered and strengthened the mullah and emboldened him to feel justified in claiming supremacy over all of us – our religion, our laws, our opinions and our lives.

The public debate in the media has already moved on from even the Kerry-Lugar Bill to the next hot issue: the NRO. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is never relevant to the court of public opinion, yet I wonder whether the Army realises the damage its previous military regimes have done in constatnly running down politicians. Now that the Army needs the politicians to bring the nation behind it and this war, all they can find around them are pygmies hand-picked by the Army itself.

We have come to a point where the media has quickly and conveniently forgotten about trying Gen Musharraf for treason, yet it cannot allow the politicians the benefit of the NRO. It hails as a national hero the (recently) self-confessed plagiarist who publicly owned up to crimes (against the state) on national TV only a few years ago. He is considered to have been made a scapegoat by Gen Musharraf’s regime. Yet the legitimately elected President who has already spent 11 years in jail without a single conviction against him has no hope of being presumed innocent. If Mr Zardari has any intention – entirely human and selfish – of showing his mettle as a successful war leader, he should follow the advice given above. I say, selfish, since he would be able to both wash away his presumed corruption and disprove his suspected mediocrity (cunning is not wisdom), in one clean sweep.

It seems that we stand, reduced to paralysis, surrounded by political pygmies, khaki know-it-alls and media mullahs. The more pragmatic and probable course of events over the coming months and years would be of the issue being forced by the enemy rather than the politicians taking responsibility or the media changing its outlook. The more of us the enemy kills, the more we would be forced to rethink our position and worldview. It is likely to be a slow, painful, haphazard process for both the military – top brass and rank and file, and civilians – politicians, media and the man in the street. The process has started in earnest. Confusion and denial will have to give way to the instinct to survive.

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