Boys will be boys

As tension at the Torkham border increased, many members of the state and security community on both sides of the border began to blow the war trumpets. Since I don’t have access to Afghan newspapers nor do I know the language, I could only see what was happening in Pakistan. I was astonished to read the views of some capable analysts dripping with machismo shrouded as patriotism. Some even claimed that they would rather stand with the defence establishment than criticise. This is as if criticism is unpatriotic or a bad thing during conflict.

I was reminded of the late 1990s and the Kargil crisis, when it was quite possible to evaluate the conflict from strategic and operational angles. This involved criticising a lot of what the government and military had overlooked. Winning wars requires critical evaluation especially from a strategic perspective and showing those who are deeply involved in operations the perspectives that they may have missed.

Those were also times when it felt relatively easier writing about defence and related issues – weapons procurement, defence industry, military expenditure, financial wastage, inter-services rivalry and other critical matters. Interestingly, there wasn’t the threat of retribution or a sense that the politically powerful armed forces will ostracise you. Admittedly it must have been tough for the beat reporter but there was a sense of space for specialists, academics and scholars.

General Mirza Aslam Baig’s tenure coincided with a period of relative openness and democratic restoration in Pakistan

I am talking about years that looked different from General Zia’s era or even now. The Zia years were horrible. Growing up during that decade, one heard stories of physical torture and gagging of voices. The only difference now is that the methodology has changed. What looked like intellectual homicide in the 1980s today appears to be suicide – and it is called self-censorship. Furthermore, such a din is created that people no longer notice what was censored. Today, you need not ban books – you just cut the supply. You needn’t forcefully abduct people but instead you cut out the voice, the image and the idea. As long as it doesn’t appear on primetime shows, no one even thinks of those issues. It’s about killing people intellectually without bothering to dispose off the dead body.

The Zia days and our current times must be contrasted with a period from 1988 to 2008. It almost felt like freedom. After Zia’s death, the despised dictator was gone and democracy had been restored. People’s relative confidence in expressing themselves was not just because of political rule but also because the military had willingly opened up to a certain extent. For General Mirza Aslam Baig it was necessary to restore his organisation’s tarnished image. He opted to ape the former USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev and his ideas of ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring). These were the two concepts which opened up Moscow to the outside world and brought down many internal and external iron curtains. Baig’s glasnost meant that military personnel were comparatively eager to engage with civilians. So not just issues of civil-military imbalance, you could write on operational and military-strategic matters, procurement and recruitment policies, defence spending and all that the military considered strictly its purview.

For the author, today's atmosphere in Pakistan is comparable to the Zia era in terms of the poverty of debate on defence matters
For the author, today’s atmosphere in Pakistan is comparable to the Zia era in terms of the poverty of debate on defence matters

It’s not that they opened up entirely or were not suspicious. I remember my encounter with a naval admiral whom I had gone to interview regarding my doctoral thesis on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making that I was doing at King’s College, London. We didn’t have any conversation because his immediate reaction was that the British had put me up to extract information. The simpler ones like one director of procurement at the Ministry of Defense just asked me which intelligence agency I was working for. Once satisfied, he talked. Consequently, I managed to do over 200 interviews, including the Chief of General Staff and many others. This access – for which I didn’t need any safarish (recommendations or string-pulling) – helped me understand what the decision-making structure looked like and how it worked in reality. Those were the days when they had not started spotting favourable talent amongst Pakistani students abroad and the public relations machinery was not aggressively geared to co-opt media and academia. The main objective then was to rebuild the link that the military had with society, especially in Punjab.

In any case, the military was confident. What did a civilian know about military matters other than what they were told? Later, during the early 2000s I would come across military personnel, who had begun to dominate select departments at the Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, exhibiting the same arrogance. ‘Civilians’ meant ‘lack of expertise’.

General Mirza Aslam Baig's period at the helm of affairs coincided with a period of relative 'glasnost' vis-a-vis civilians
General Mirza Aslam Baig’s period at the helm of affairs coincided with a period of relative ‘glasnost’ vis-a-vis civilians

Today you can observe a fish market of defence analysts

But another factor which proved advantageous in many ways was my gender. Since she knows nothing, she could be impressed with tall claims. One particular head of Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) tried to impress me with stories of his achievements when others in the industry talked about the gent’s poor decision-making style due to which the tank manufacturing facility suffered. Not to mention the available data that didn’t support his claims. It is worth noting that those were good times also because the idea of recruiting women for publicity and other activities had not become full-blown. Although recruited female prototypes existed, the military certainly hadn’t indulged in mass production of women deputed to impress the world with the state’s perspective by joining media and academia. The idea of using women to charm the foreign world was started more aggressively during the mid-2000s. One even heard one of the heroes of Kargil boast about how he could change the world’s image of Pakistan with the help of certain females. The perception of a woman as nothing but a Mata Hari persists.

Three other factors also made the decade of the 1990s and most of the 2000s feel different.

Firstly, the liberal element of the civil society was qualitatively a bit different. Having emerged from a decade of Zia’s rule, there was some restlessness for society to be assertive. Even the traditions were better. We had seen a handpicked Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo challenge the military’s authority and the then Chairman Public Accounts Committee demand greater accountability of military spending and procurement. Probably because there wasn’t the dangerous defanging of society or the addictive allure of NGO culture, people were more restless in asking questions and were tied to some political ideology. Now it is not so much about left or right but a faceless society where opportunities matter more than principles.

Second, there wasn’t the mushrooming of defence and security experts. Nor were select quotes from the Chinese general and strategic thinker Sun Tzu and Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz thrown around like cheap and free candies. Now you can observe a fish market of defence analysts, most of whom are not even qualified for the job. Although there is a dominance of retired military personnel, the more intriguing ones are the civilians. They are prone to impress you with naming units, battalions, aircraft markings and much more. I do not doubt that there are those who genuinely know about these matters, but what we have is a lot of noise which drowns alternative views and is aimed to stop a dialogue.

Third, contemporary structural changes – both in terms of hardware and software – have made it possible to create a machinery that generates sympathetic opinion almost at an industrial scale and thus drown out the voices of naysayers. For instance, now with the expansion of electronic and social media, the conversation has almost become impossible. Earlier a dialogue was possible in the print media. It is true that our academic was always weak and so very few people bothered about long academic pieces or books. Look carefully and you will find very few Pakistani authors who have contributed monographs, especially books worth the paper they are written on – I am certainly not talking plagiarists. The gap was filled with opinion pieces which people consider a symbol of intellectualism. But the expansion of electronic media and the internet has been tantamount to intellectual blitzkrieg: bombard the opponent with breaking news, tickers and random facts stitched together to look like a coherent argument. The electronic and social media proved perfect for dumbing down real conversation.

As far as conversation on the security sector is concerned, we witnessed a bonanza of experts and journalists which, in the initial years, was a category that could not tell the front of a submarine from its back. Those on print media were no different. You could catch them because their reports demonstrated knowledge that they did not actually have. Towards the end of the 2000s, a new generation was brought on to electronic media. This new breed can drop names, ranks and terms faster than you can say ‘marbles’. These embedded journalists can impress you with information and images meant not to enhance your knowledge but to kill real conversation. Many of the embedded journalists and experts have done a lot of learning by rote but very little critical thinking. Thus, by the late 2000s, debate died because by now the military and its public relations machine didn’t like counter-arguments at all. It all turned into Fox TV. Those that disagreed were aggressively termed as ‘anti-state’ and even blocked from presenting their perspective. The battery of social media activists added to the action by damaging dialogue.

The new technology and mode of information matched well with the new narrative. Nationalism and patriotism was redefined to mean ‘no tough questions and counter-arguments’. In case you want to question, you will do it at your own risk. You feel naked and exposed. There are so many out there who are happy to toe the line or say what appears utterly reasonable to the Establishment. On the other hand, the one who disagrees looks like a dangerous risk-taker with a suicidal instinct. Furthermore, all of this is done so masterfully that we don’t even seem like North Korea – we don’t have one Kim Jong-Un but many replicas.

Such transformation was partly deliberate and partly coincidental.

The shift began to happen after the Kargil war. The conflict with India taught the deep state the worth of dominating the narrative through both the media and academia. In the mind of General Musharraf and his cabal, they hadn’t lost the war because of shoddy strategic thinking but due to the finesse with which India had played its cards. The Indian media and academia played a critical role in changing world opinion and thus contributing to Pakistan’s defeat. So, the immediate lesson was that media and academia had to be transformed to a level where it looked more nationalist. From this grew the understanding that narrative-making had to be captured especially at the source. This means greater interest in national and international think tanks, production of experts, investment in individuals for them to get formal qualifications, and of course, building partnerships with the young and ambitious by offering them opportunities. This is the new pattern of intellectual client-patron relationships.

For the state, regulating public debate was a far more crude affair in the Zia era compared to now
For the state, regulating public debate was a far more crude affair in the Zia era compared to now

A lot of initial work was done by organisations such as the Strategic Plans Directorate (SPD), where nicely dressed and friendly looking officers pursued the few civilian academics or media people and engaged them in conversation. The engagement would boil down to co-option or silencing. In later years, the directorate expanded to develop its own intellectual base.

The military’s public relations plan and style had changed. After the mid-2000s, the moment when it seemed that the media had become independent and out of control was actually the time when control was being consolidated. Over years, the job of a television anchor turned into a coveted position meant to deflate conversation. The choice of panelists and questions is meant to forget questions not to answer them. The cyber force is an additional force which is used to trash alternative perspectives and silence the naysayers.

Over the years, the debate on security has become centralised in a very unhealthy fashion and follows a singular narrative. This is not to argue that all of the statist narrative is wrong but it is to the state’s own benefit to hear multiple views. During my numerous interactions with the three services of the military as a scholar and when I worked with the navy as Director of Naval Research, I realised the bureaucratic hesitation towards the alternative view. I remember the psychological pressure put on me to stop me from presenting my evaluation of the F-22P frigate deal. There were senior officers that warned me about backdoor deals and so it made no sense for me to raise even a minor objection or highlight views of the technical wing of the navy. These were the Musharraf days and I saw such resentment towards getting an opinion from even the Foreign Office. Later, I witnessed a similar situation with the air force. While I couldn’t fathom why there was such opposition to alternative perspectives when that viewpoint would not necessarily be the critical factor in overturning a decision, I also understood the frustration of some of the best voices in the military that are silenced at junior ranks.

The public relations organisation of the armed forces has sharpened its teeth beyond imagination. It knows how to capture the narrative and the narrative makers. However, building a forced consensus is unhealthy and dangerous. This country needs multiple options and voices to help it excel inside and outside.

Note: This article originally published here.