Was glasnost (openness and transparency) the mainstay of the Soviet Reformation in the 1980s, or the main cause of its downfall? All I know is that its military edition was first launched by General Aslam Beg, who became our army chief after Zia. He was acclaimed as the godfather of democratic revival and known for his many proclamations on strategic matters. But none of that would have been possible without some perestroika (restructuring); a refurbished ISPR being an important part of it. With its brilliant new head, the late General Riazullah, the chief went around educating the people on an institution that occasionally rules over them. The new mouthpiece was well equipped to spread his words, and the army, well-versed in communications, made good use of it — often to the discomfiture of its civilian counterparts.
In January 1991, when America was raring to attack the Iraqis occupying Kuwait, General Beg delivered his famous treatise on ‘strategic defiance’. It stole the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s thunder, who found no press to brief on his peace efforts to defuse the crisis. Beg, however, rationalised that he was merely assuaging the public rage against the impending war. Empathising with people’s sentiments, since no one else cared, became the common thread of many a subsequent decree from the military’s pulpit. Even the most restrained of the chiefs, Jehangir Karamat, found this instrument useful. His address in the Naval Staff College — where he propounded the national security council concept to evolve consensus on national security — was, contrary to practice, released to the press. He lost his job but conveyed the message — that he went public with this proposal only after exhausting all other means.
Asif Nawaz, the quintessential soldier, did not believe in subtle messaging. When reminded of the fate of an earlier chief sacked for Bonapartist penchant, he threw the gauntlet to the military brass to face the consequences. He did not live long enough for either side to exercise its option. Pervez Musharraf, too, decided against the ISPR option. Post-Kargil, he protested that the government sponsored campaign was maligning the armed forces, but giving media diplomacy a chance needed more patience than he had. Luckily for him, some unsubtle attempts to defang him provided the chance his team expected and awaited.
The present chief does not lack patience or subtlety, and is getting all the chances to put these qualities to good use. On the Kerry-Lugar bill, the ISPR release reminded one of JK’s desperation. When the in-house sessions failed to raise the necessary alarm, in the belief that involving the civil society in the debate might serve the purpose, the army deployed its PR brigade. Post-Bin Laden, the environment seems ripe for a long drawn public discourse. To kick it off, after the 139th meeting of the military council, we have received a working paper with over a thousand words, some of them highlighted at the source. A bit unusual of course, but then these are not usual times.
Much of what it contains may seem clichéd or platitude: “Need for national unity or army’s continued support for the democratic system”, for example. It still may have been necessary; not only to balance the act but also to soften the ground before bombing it with the harder stuff. When someone starts with a eulogy, buckle up your belts for the real thing.
After Abbottabad and Mehran, the military and the ISI were understandably in the dock. Swift riposte would have been imprudent. Conceding shortcomings and flaws, followed by confessions (in parliament) were expected to provide relief and atonement. In face of the unending onslaught though, an institution that builds its edifice on honour and morale, even though it has at times got them all mixed up, was bound to feel uneasy. It therefore decided to expand the scope of the debate; starting with “voicing concerns over the blowback of the Abbottabad incident that has resulted in the upsurge in terrorism”.
That brings in the American factor, which indeed goes “beyond the military to military ties” and therefore “must be viewed within the larger ambit of bilateral relations”. Reminding the government of Pakistan about the dictates of the Joint Parliamentary Resolution passed on May 14, the communiqué suggests that the “relations with the US must be assessed afresh in the backdrop of the May 2 incident, taking into account the aspirations of the people of Pakistan”. So there we are: don’t blame the army for this jinxed relationship and that the course correction is in the domain of the federal government. It also clarifies its own role: “[T]he army has drastically cut down the number of US troops in Pakistan and has never accepted any training assistance except on the newly inducted weapons and some assistance for the Frontier Corps that has now ceased”.
The portions relating to North Waziristan are merely to reassure people — the real recipients of the message — that the military at least was resisting all that it could. The bluster on the drones was not likely to impress anyone, but that “the Government is making necessary efforts in this direction” might again imply that the ball was in Islamabad’s court. On sharing intelligence “strictly on the basis of reciprocity and complete transparency”, the less said the better (transparent it never is).
Economic aid being more crucial than military aid, may sound rhetorical, but when Kayani recalls the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue of March 2010, in which he recommended that the US funds meant for military assistance be diverted towards economic aid, he is once again reluctantly telling the people that it wasn’t the army alone that was responsible for their economic woes.
By addressing multiple issues, the impact of the message may have dampened, rightly perhaps in keeping with the zeitgeist or the character of the sender; thoughtful, philosophic and with feet on ground. But it essentially remains: The issues are multiple; the solutions all embracing; and we in the khakis have both our flaws and our limits. The good thing about this message service is that whenever the army has sent such signals, it has never followed up with anything more drastic.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2011.