RECENTLY, I was standing in the immigration line at Atlanta’s international airport along with dozens of arrivals to the US from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Nearby, Americans were also lining up to re-enter their country.
While we waited, a flight carrying International Security Assistance Force (based in Afghanistan) troops set down. With no need to clear immigration, the troops, in army fatigues and carrying backpacks, walked through the arrivals hall in sporadic batches.
As each group passed the line of foreigners, they were met by deathly silence, piercing stares, rolling eyes or deep sighs. As they reached the Americans, though, there was an explosion of cheers, applause and hooting.
Throughout my recent trip to the US, I was reminded of that country’s unwavering backing of its armed forces. Walk into Starbucks, and you’ll be asked if you want to donate instant coffee to the troops this morning. Get on a bus, and the man across from you will be sporting an ‘I support the troops in Afghanistan’ button.
Pick up a women’s magazine, and the ‘guy of the month’ will be a serving officer. And this in a country where, according to a recent Gallup/USA Today poll, 45 per cent of the population does not favour a troop surge in Afghanistan.
Here, in Pakistan, a similar outpouring of support for our army is made impossible by that institution’s longstanding entanglement with civilian politics. Writing on these pages, Shandana Khan Mohmand rightfully asked, ‘why, after all these years, are we not able to differentiate between the army’s rightful role as defenders of Pakistanis, and its wrongful role as a political force?’ In this moment, however, it’s essential that Pakistanis learn to see the difference.
In the wake of the GHQ attack, troop morale must have been compromised. In Waziristan, the jawans are ill-equipped, dealing with stiff resistance from Uzbek and TTP fighters, and toiling under the knowledge that their 3:1 ratio against the area’s militants is probably not enough to decisively win this battle. They have been described as American mercenaries and are being held responsible for the mass displacement of thousands of people. Their deaths — like those of the militants they’re battling — are becoming statistics.
It also doesn’t help that recent setbacks in Swat — after what was described as a victory over the Taliban — have clarified that there’s no such thing as a conclusive victory when it comes to counterterrorism operations. And days into the Rah-i-Nijat push, the thought of a new frontline emerging in Punjab has to be an exhausting proposition.
Under these circumstances, the army, in its role as the defender of Pakistanis, should be backed by nationwide support. Before the Waziristan operation was launched, the political leadership expressed its support of the army. Talking heads on television acknowledge that we are relying on the army to ‘save’ us. And last week, traders in Rawalpindi brandished banners supporting the army. But don’t the foot soldiers deserve more?
Ironically, Pakistan’s failure to stand by its troops in a time of war is a direct consequence of the army’s omnipresence as a political force. Any support the public has recently expressed for the army has been in its political capacity; this, in turn, has negated the public’s backing of the army in its current role as the nation’s defender.
Consider the ongoing brouhaha surrounding the Kerry-Lugar act. Though widely read as a symptom of endemic anti-Americanism, opposition to the act was also a demonstration of regard for the army as a political institution that need not be checked by the civilian government.
Instead of bolstering public and official support for the army during Rah-i-Nijat, campaigns against the act have heightened tensions between the government and army, and forced civil society to dwell on the army’s many undemocratic indiscretions at a time when we should be grateful for their sacrifices in the battlefield.
Similarly, Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s recent comment about terror attacks being orchestrated by India toes the army’s political line, but does the troops on the ground a disservice. Knee-jerk, anti-India rhetoric is the hallmark of Pakistan’s military-dominated foreign policy. But it also muddies the waters with regard to the Waziristan offensive.
If the public is to believe that India is responsible for this country’s predicament, then the ongoing operation seems misguided — an example of kowtowing to American demands while real trouble brews on the eastern border.
Headlining India also confuses the public perception of the army’s real intentions in Waziristan. After all, some might wonder, if India is the real threat, why should the army fully eradicate the strategic assets it has been cultivating all these years.
The fallout of such politicking is less support — in both figurative and real terms — for our troops at the frontlines. For example, Maulvi Sher Mohammad, the founder of an anti-Taliban Mehsud militia, recently refused to fight alongside the army in Waziristan, claiming that he did not fully trust the military’s motives.
As attacks become more audacious, Pakistanis need to stand by the troops confronting the militants head on. One of the first ways to do this is by not raising objections to the new US defence bill, which will provide $2.3bn in the coming fiscal year. The bill requires that this money be monitored, but that’s not always a bad thing.
At the moment, the US is holding back important equipment, such as helicopters and satellite phone jamming equipment, needed to fight militants because of the Pakistan Army’s past financial lapses and history of turning a blind eye to Taliban attacks against US troops (a consequence of its political stance).
If confident that the army is committed to countering terrorism, the US will share equipment and intelligence with Pakistan. Such resources will help the army better defend this country, and reposition Pakistan as a partner — not a client state — in the war against terror.