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May 22, 2017



The right thing

The right thing

It has become customary for army chiefs in Pakistan to deliver dense lectures on significant aspects of national life, which may or may not have anything to do with their field of expertise. No less customary it is for the nation to listen with riveted attention and try to find deep profundity contained in the brass-pearls of wisdom.

However, the hard truth about the ritual is that the head of the army is too powerful to be ignored even in silence; his spoken words command audience in obedience. Otherwise, there is no real reason believe that just because someone has made it to the top of a war-fighting machine he has discovered all the secrets of the universe.

To his credit, though, the present army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, did not pretend to be a philosopher general when he spoke recently before an invited gathering of academics and writers. Other than the bit about extremism where he seemed to propound a theory of sorts, he was matter-of-fact and soldier-like. The messages that he tried to get across were all practical. They were all meant to be read in the context of some of the immediate issues that he is dealing with.

The three points – lost in the cacophony of the interim verdict of the ICJ on Kulbhushan – are: 1) a clear statement about the limitations on the army’s ability to measure up to the inflated expectations of all those groups and individuals who insist on treating the institution as a fixit tool; 2) the reference to his son’s observations on two decisions that he took (presumably the ‘rejection tweet’ and then the withdrawal of the tweet) that defined how a wrong decision can be popular and a right decision can be unpopular; and 3) the remarks about how he and the army as an institution have been targeted (presumably by deliberate campaigns on social media and on some outlets of the so-called mainstream media ).

These statements are different versions of the just one concern: the army should not be perceived nor peddled as a tool for everything broken in this country and that a more realistic view of the army’s role, while it may not sit well with courtiers, flatterers and script-writers of silent coups, must not become a cause of media bashing.

There are obvious reasons why General Qamar Bajwa would want to push this message out. As a commander who is trained to read security maps of the country, he understands better than most the precarious defence situation that the country is in at present. It is not life-threatening, but the spread of challenges is such that it spans the entire geographic length of the country. Two fronts are active and open; the Iranian front is sitting on the edge. As CPEC takes shape and form, right from the end of its border in the northeast down to the Gwadar Port, the Chinese expect A-grade security for the goods and services that will flow from this corridor. This is going to be a taxing exercise.

With internal operations showing no sign of pacing down, the army’s commander must be weary of the strains on the institutional capacity of the force to cope with the multiplicity of the challenges at hand. Fixing politics, diving deep into the pool of governance, and attempting to cleanse the system are the last things that the army needs on its plate at the present.

So General Qamar Bajwa is just being a straight-forward solider in suggesting that anyone harbouring ideas of a saviour in khaki is just being delusional and is totally cut off from the country’s strategic environment.

However, the problem for the worthy general is that the delusional brigade is relentless in spinning the yarn about the army’s national duty to save the nation. Its self-styled foot soldiers put words in the mouth of the army as an institution and speak with supreme confidence that the present political order is about to collapse, leading to the dawn of a new and happy era. In the age of fake news and (in case of Pakistan) fraud analysis, these silly thoughts travel fast among the rank and file of the army through new media. They begin to see life from a fancy yet wholly unrealistic lens. And that is dangerous.

The problem is reinforced when retired radicals – whose careers were cut short by the glass ceiling of their limited competence – play populist, tunes passing judgments about what is right and what is wrong. The post-Dawn leaks hue and cry on the media about national security being compromised has almost been turned into a case of sedition against “those who have sold the nation cheap” – to quote just one among many of the retired radicals who adorn our TV screens every evening. The appalling campaign has actually turned on the army leadership more than it has focused on the Nawaz Sharif government. The army chief needs to find out who the culprits are. He may discover that the roots of the campaign lie in familiar ground.

This tells you about the power of blackmailing and arm-twisting that a handful of self-appointed guardians of national honour have acquired over the years. It also says a lot about the addiction that a vast section of the country has developed to hollow bombast and brainless bravado, which gets amplified and projected ceaselessly onto gullible minds through various mediums, creating an endless boom of idiotic ideas.

To be sure the market for General Fixit is large. Its horizons have been expanded beyond imagination during the past many years with the birth of back-to-back myths of Greatest Leader (Musharraf), Greatest General (Raheel Sharif) and so on. Mixed with politics of extreme opportunism that require political parties to use the army’s shoulder to fire upon their opponents (for example: Imran Khan’s infamous umpire and Nawaz Sharif’s Memogate moment) and create for themselves political openings that otherwise do not exist in reality, this trend creates constant temptation for populist posturing.

But, like all temptations, this has a cost. It takes institutions in the wrong directions and sets them up to assume tasks they are incapable of carrying out or can only do so by spreading more chaos in the system.

General Qamar Bajwa seems to understand the pitfalls of the tempting path quite well. He has had his baptism of fire with the tweet and was quick to set things right. His real challenge, however, starts now because doing the right thing does not win anyone easy laurels in a culture hijacked by cheap populism and its even cheaper proponents. His statements in the seminar were steeped in realism, which is exactly how military commanders – like judges – ought to be. Their first duty is to reality defined by legal and practical considerations than to a wild goose chase that a handful of prompters wish them to get involved in.

Yet there is a mindset that has come to dominate national discourse about the role of the army in national affairs and how it ought to always play the saviour. This mindset will not change just because the army chief has spoken on the subject once. Oratory does not change habits built over decades. Actions do.

In the days ahead, the army leadership’s nerves will be tested by situations, events, temptations, dilemmas, follies of politics, and fallacies fathered by fake news and fraud analysis. We will find out soon enough whether General Qamar Bajwa will do the right thing in every instance even if it is unpopular or whether he will be pushed in the direction where others before him went with long strides before meeting a weary end. For now, the general seems unimpressed by drumbeaters and drama-lovers. And that’s a good thing. Cherish it while it lasts.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.


Twitter: @TalatHussain12