In defence of the army: The question of prisoners of war

An army fighting a war against terrorists cannot afford sensationalist media coverage that exploits public sentiments.

Haris Masood Zubairi November 18, 2010
Militants usually do not comply with customs of war. They  strike civilians and thus render themselves undeserving of traditional reprieve.

In the war on terror, the US government promptly refused to regard captured al Qaeda and Taliban militants as Prisoners of War and instead labelled them as ‘unlawful combatants’ at the very onset of the long-winding war on terror.

Historic precedent hints that ruthless terrorists are like pirates captured on the high-seas. David Neuendorf of the Indiana Journal-Press once contended that:
"Such people were subjected to military justice, administered by military commanders on the scene. That usually meant hanging from a yardarm. Today it could mean a firing squad."

In Pakistan, this is not an outrageous thought keeping in mind the terrorists ability to reorganise and strike another day.

So, how should captured militants in Pakistan be treated?

The question came up recently after a video showing a military firing-squad executing six men sparked uproar. The video obviously wasn’t filmed during a peacetime drill or inside a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. Is it justified to doubt the army which has offered great sacrifices in battle and instead give militants the benefit of doubt, presuming militants captured by troops (following an ambush or fierce battle) as innocent civilians just because they wore plain shalwar kameez (with no ammunition vests)?

Who is a prisoner of war?

According to Article 4 (A) (2) of the 3rd Geneva Convention ‘Relative to Treatment of Prisoners of War’ members of 'militias, volunteer corps and organised resistance movements' can only be accorded prisoners-of-war (POW) status if they fulfill four conditions. These can be interpreted as:

a)           Having a command structure, whereby commanders are directly responsible for actions/discipline of subordinates

b)      Having a distinctive uniform/insignia recognisable at a distance, to identify them as members of a particular militia/corps, so as not to conceal their identity

c)      Carrying their weapons openly, in order not to deceive

d)      Conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

Civil-military tug-of-war

Disturbingly, the army's tactics are judged on the battlefied by civilian standards which displays a lack of understanding of the intensity and nature of the conflict. Under the sway of a sensationalist media, the civilian segment of society has been overwhelmed by the idea of fighting militancy. The army now fights on - largely without the support of their nation.

Coming from simple urban lives, civilians cannot appreciate battlefield tactics. Despite the fact that thousands of lives have been lost at the hands of the terrorists, impressionable members of the public end up sympathising with militants.

At the beginning of the Operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009, news channels oblivious of ground realities continued airing footage of enemy casualties out of a pompous sense of impartiality. It wasn’t until flag-draped coffins began to arrive every day that the army/ISPR finally earned some airtime and the gullible nation eventually grasped the grim situation and chose a side.

Morality in the battlefield

Perhaps if a battle scene was played in slow motion, every shot causing the death of an enemy combatant would appear as an isolated act of brutal murder. An army fighting a war against terrorists cannot afford sensationalist media coverage that exploits naïve public sentiments, swaying popular opinion and leading to political and judicial actors overstepping their mandate and interfering in military matters, risking the security and morale of the troops in the process.

Variants of War

A ‘battlefield’ is commonly taken to mean territory falling between two opposing sides. The core difference between the war on terror and our nation’s earlier wars under black-outs, air-raid sirens and dog-fights wherein the public cheered bo-kaata, is that with the looming threat of attacks anywhere, anytime and no formal demarcation, the battle never ends for soldiers serving in volatile areas, who have seen countless comrades (as well as civilians) brutally killed at the hands of militants.

Under such ‘kill-or-get-killed’ circumstances and ceaseless engagement with militants who rely most on hit-run tactics, everyday is a battle and everywhere is the battlefield. Local army commanders entrusted with the responsibility of guarding the lives of their subordinates and ensuring the safety of other units/convoys have the right to decide when they must act on aggressive survival instinct to incapacitate militants apprehended during a battle, and when troops can enjoy peaceful partridge shoots.
Haris Masood Zubairi A finance and audit professional with an interest in military affairs and socio-political issues. He contributes to several publications and has served on the editorial teams of two lifestyle magazines.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Ammad | 13 years ago | Reply @Syed Nadir El-Edroos: I think you need to wake up.. You say that "What if tomorow the Indian Army in Indian Held Kashmir used the same argument to justify beating up civilians, claiming that they were militants in civilian garb?"... Hello... Have you been sleeping for the last couple of decades?? This IS what indians are doing in Kashmir.. They kill civilians barbarically.. Writing a silly comment "Ah yes, the useless civilians. Have no idea what is going on." quite explains what you are thinking. The writer did not in any way say anything to the civilians besides correctly stating that civilians do not know what happens in a battle-field or what tactics are used so they can not even remotely imagine the environment in which these decisions are made.. It is very easy for people like you to comment on "military attitude", cosily sitting in your home while they are far away from their homes fighting for this country and you. If you trust them to defend your life and country then trust in the decisions that they make. Have a good day.Blockquote
Sana A | 13 years ago | Reply Pakistan Army Zindabad! Anyone who questions them and their actions against our enemies that too in the battlefield is a traitor!
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