Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pakistan Military Under Attack

[This column appeared in The News International today but an important paragraph was inadvertently dropped. Here is the full version.]

General Kayani's statement protesting the assault on the morale and reputation of Pakistan Armed Forces is a good move. But let us not kid ourselves. It’s too little, too late, and lacks legal punch.

Attacks on our military from inside and outside the country have become a thriving business since 2007. The inability of the State and the military to defend themselves is a matter of deep concern not only for our soldiers but also for the majority of patriotic Pakistanis. Blunt denigration of our military by domestic actors shot through the roof in this five-year period. Strangely, this unprecedented domestic military-bashing overlapped with a similar campaign originating in the United States against Pakistan Army and ISI. There is little evidence that a statement from the army chief would end the domestic part of the campaign, although there are signs the American-led external campaign has waned to some extent, but not ended.

The military in Pakistan is an easy target. Muhammad Shafqaat, a driver for the federal Interior Ministry, accused the ISI of kidnapping him along with his official car from a parking lot in Blue Area, Islamabad last month. It turns out the alleged kidnapping was staged as part of a plan to disrupt a probe into a four-billion rupees immigration fraud case. The spy agency had nothing to do with any of this but apparently Shafqaat thought mentioning ISI would make his story credible. In July, prominent journalist Najam Sethi accused our military of planning to kill him in an interview to a British newspaper. In June, political activist Asma Jehangir told a German broadcaster the ISI plotted her murder. In January, presidential adviser Farahnaz Ispahani was caught telling a British journalist in Washington with known links to her party that she flee Pakistan because she feared ISI was going to kidnap her. Ispahani denied she made the statement but the British journalist and her paper stood by the story.

The get-ISI campaign doesn’t end with these politically-motivated attacks. Afghanistan-based terrorist group BLA accused the ISI of jailing 6,000 Pakistani Baloch women. The group kidnapped a UN official from Quetta in 2009 and said it would exchange him for the Baloch women. Fortunately, the kidnapped UN official turned out to be an American citizen and the involvement of US government in the probe proved conclusively there was not a single Pakistani Baloch lady in any jail across Pakistan and there were no missing-person cases registered for any Baloch woman. One more lie against ISI stricken from the book.

A different kind of attack on Pakistani military emerged in 2010 when a British extremist group was found trying to recruit senior Pakistani officers. The group, Hizb Tahrir, is a British-origin and licensed religious extremist group. It uses gullible British Muslims to make inroads in countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Saudi and Egyptian intelligence established the group’s links to British intelligence back in the 1990s and this led to some tense moments in Riyadh and Cairo’s relationship with London. The British group no longer operates in those countries. After 9/11, it apparently shifted operations to Pakistan and Central Asia. Unlike Cairo and Riyadh, Islamabad is yet to ask London to restrain British extremists.

The anti-military bias was also apparent in the case of retired general Javed Ashraf Qazi. A couple of unknown reporters misbehaved with him in clear violation of the norms of decency and professionalism, which led the general to lose temper and call them ‘idiots’. Almost all the media reports highlighted the remark and conveniently omitted the derogatory remarks made by the two unknown reporters that triggered the unfortunate incident.

Since 2007, the government and the military have allowed extreme forms of anti-military slander to pass as freedom of expression. American media commentaries abusing our military and leveling charges without evidence were reproduced by the media without objection from PEMRA or ISPR. The serious charges made by Sethi and Jahangir were met with a shy statement from Defense Ministry asking them to register a police complaint. As elections approach, some politicians will find it easier to make anti-military statements than answer voter questions about governance issues. We are also hearing rumors that some political parties and foreign media organizations are preparing for another round of military-bashing on the occasion of the release of the findings of the judicial commission into the American military incursion in Abbottabad.

If the government and the military are serious in containing military-bashing that is demoralizing our soldiers, they should start taking legal action against those who float conspiracy theories assailing the reputation of Pakistani military. Islamabad should also put a check on foreign meddling in our media where commentators have been recruited to promote a certain agenda serving foreign strategic purposes, including demonizing our military.

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