As the elections approach political tensions are on the rise. Political parties are constantly updating their narratives. But these elections seem to have acquired a life of their own, far bigger than their actual size. And there is the matter of terrorists at the door. Haroon Bilour’s tragic demise reinstates that the forces of chaos are resurgent. And that they will make every possible use of the already prevalent discord and degeneracy in society.
In this kerfuffle one crucial aspect is lost on us. The morale of the soldier. But trust me I don’t bring up the matter just for the sake of it. Nor is the purpose to play to a gallery of some sort. No. These are the issues I worry about and come across quite often. You should too.
Pakistan’s politics revolves around its civil-military relationship. There is a genuine reason why it is so. Only ten years ago this country was ruled by an authoritarian regime. A closer look at our history gives you the image of two groups of people, one in khakis, one in civvies, taking their turns on the carousel of power. Both groups do not trust each other and that is why we see this nerve-racking and never-ending power struggle between the military and the politicians. But this is an outdated version of history’s interpretation. The new version available dramatically changes the core premise owing to one contingent factor.
In the dying days of 2001, Pakistan was forced by circumstances to reshape its view of the militant religious groups. And since then all the monsters of bigotry have returned to hunt us down. I want to remind you of the day when Swat was controlled by the TTP. We were constantly told that the terrorists were less than 100 kilometres away and could attack the capital any given day. Our soldiers bravely fought back, recovered the land and restored life there. And we did not have time to offer a few honest words of gratitude. The sacrifices and the pain caused by fighting an unfixed and mutating group of violent extremists were viewed through a political lens. Was it not Musharraf’s doing? Were the generals not forcing their worldview on the politicians? But the more serious existential aspect of the challenges posed by militant extremists was totally ignored. A general’s readiness to share his force’s experiences of the threat, a remarkable feat of faith in itself, was being misconstrued as an attempt to sway a political discussion.
But here is the thing. We Pakistanis often talk about past as if we have a time machine and we can go back and change it. Guess what? We do not. There is a limit to obsessing over the past. You must make do with what you have in front of you. And then these debates about the grand designs lack the focus we need in these trying times. For instance, if you have not noticed, Pervez Musharraf is in exile, not in power. But our fights have continued. If the terrorist attacks on us have decreased, it did not happen out of a terrorist’s goodness of heart. It happened because we fought them. And the ‘we’ here is also very tricky. When Pakistan beats India in a cricket series we say ‘we’ won. But the truth remains that most of us, the armchair experts, have nothing to do with the cricket team or international cricket per se. And then our selfishness also kicks in. When our team performs well, we win. But when it doesn’t, it was they, the players, who lost, not us. The same approach is visible in the fight against terrorism. We cannot even offer our unconditional, unwavering support to our soldiers. But when they fight, we win.
In truth far from the paranoia that often grips Islamabad and Rawalpindi it is the soldiers and officer corps up to the mid-ranking officials that put their lives every day in the harm’s way for your safety and security. And the souvenirs of this terrible fight are spread across in the country, in the military’s graveyards and hospitals. When we incessantly criticise the army, we seldom pause to reflect how this criticism will affect their morale. Remember you might think or say you are criticising a few generals or dictators. But that is not how it comes out. The truth is they too are part of the very force you are criticising just now. They could do with some expression of gratitude.
Let me elaborate this point in some vivid detail. The kid you used to play with in your childhood grew up and joined the army. Within a few years he was deployed in a conflict zone. There his team was ambushed by hostile elements. He exhibited an incredible amount of courage, saved most of the party but lost an eye and two limbs in the struggle. After rehabilitation he is back, discharged from service. Try explaining the ongoing political rhetoric to him. And why we are not spontaneously bursting into songs expressing our gratitude for his bravery and sacrifice. And criticising today’s generals won’t work either. Because he knows them personally. He fought under their leadership only recently when they too were mid-ranking officers.
When I say our political class largely lacks the capacity, the imagination and the finesse to handle such delicate issues, I don’t exaggerate. There are some who show some promise. But they are usually dismissed as the ‘lackeys of the establishment’. This paranoia and counterintuitive contempt for all things khaki is naturally paid back in the same coin. The resulting trust deficit has grown to an explosive proportion. And since in view of mounting challenges our military and civilian sides are more intertwined and interdependent this deficit has the potential to implode the entire project.
I call the political rhetoric by the ‘pro-democracy forces’ counterintuitive because as was exhibited by the Peshawar blast only a day before yesterday the fight against terrorism is far from over. You do not quibble with the man you expect to willingly walk into a war zone and take a bullet for you.
I understand that there still are serious unresolved issues of demarcating the domains. We will have to address the issues pertaining to the civil-military divide someday. But I am convinced this is not the right time. Let us first conclusively defeat the spectre of terrorism. Also having observed our political masters for the last decade and knowing how little they have done to bridge the civil-military divide, I am looking to find and vote for a leader who can be trusted by both sides, especially our soldiers.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2018.