One of the first lessons we learnt in research methodology was never to start any research inquiry or analysis with preconceived notions. Men are not machines hence not totally divorced from their biases. But it is incumbent upon a researcher or an analyst to have at least this much self-awareness to disconnect from recognisable biases and to ensure that they do not affect the outcome of the inquiry. Covering our politics is the best example possible. On civil-military relations, we have competing narratives from both sides, both of which are not entirely untrue but somewhere right in the middle they start accusing the other side of everything that has gone wrong in the country. In trying times, these positions get further hardened and end up creating an unnecessary passive aggression in the system that threatens to sabotage it entirely.
Right now, the civil-military mix has two distinct backgrounds. First, the incredible pain that results from fighting a prolonged and onerous war. A country that didn’t see any large-scale military engagement for decades has been fighting this tricky and painful war for almost 15 years — a never-ending tale of sacrifice, valour and heroism. The second background is of the experiences of the politicians — almost a decade-long dictatorial spell ending in greater chaos, wider sense of psychological displacement and death of an important national leader. We also cannot pretend that the four-month long attempted ambush by Messrs Khan and Qadri did not happen. Nor that it had an immediate civil-military context. Where a leap of imagination takes a wrong turn is when the affected parties start assuming an entire institution or a class was behind such upheavals. Had that been the case, the system would have broken down by now. Our paranoia gives more credit to either side than it usually deserves.
To understand things better, for a second put yourself in the position of a young soldier who is expected to fight terrorists daily and doesn’t know which moment will be his last. Salaries pay for services, not for lives. You can pay me as much money as you want but I will not put my life in harm’s way if I am not committed to the cause. That then is the standard definition of an average everyday hero. To this young soldier, who has no stake in the overall system, the critics of the institution he serves must sound like traitors. Now take another leap of imagination. Put yourself in the shoes of a moderate politician who comes from a tribal background, has earned considerable respect and for the most part of his career has stood by his principles. For such a white-collared man to see Imran Khan mimicking him in a disrespectful manner from the top of a container must have come as a big blow. So you see hardened positions on both sides, do you not? I am oversimplifying the two sides’ perspectives just for the sake of better understanding. There, of course, are multiple complicating factors, one of which will be mentioned later.
But these perspectives transform into half-truths when you look at them from an ordinary citizen’s point of view, who needs both a thriving democracy and high morale in the country’s fighting forces to progress. Pakistan has seen its share of suffering and now is on the cusp of a new dawn of opportunities. It can ill-afford to rely on half-truths and passive-aggressive attitudes. What is needed is tact and imagination.
But what happens when the hit-men you call TV anchors want it all to fail? When some genius gives an ordinary development such a spin that we start losing faith? Take the ISPR press release for instance. Beats me how “the need for matching/complementary governance initiatives for long-term gains of operation and enduring peace across the country” becomes a comment on good/bad governance? Know the context. An operation took place in Swat. There was no civilian follow-up. Malala was attacked, a general was killed. So how is this asking for too much? Our military and politicians can work together. That’s the need of the hour. But it will be kinder on the part of the rocket scientists sitting on our TV screens not to blow storms in a teacup beyond proportion. Otherwise karma does have everyone’s number. Also, people on both sides of the civil-military divide need to hold their horses, ignore media cribbing and try to understand each other’s perspectives and limitations. We owe our nation this much.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2015.