What’s missing in the long war against the militants

The Pakistani government’s counterinsurgency strategy is reminiscent of US preparations for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, writes Tom Hussain

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Imagine if you lived in a country where militants had been waging war for seven years. The headline cost, according to the government, has been more than 50,000 lives and $70 billion ­(Dh257bn). Finally, the militants are in the process of being routed in their final borderland stronghold. They are in such disarray that a much-feared terrorist backlash in the major cities hasn’t yet materialised. What an achievement for a country that just a few years ago was the cause of so much hand-wringing by the international community. Surely, the time has come for that country to celebrate and move on with a renewed sense of common purpose.

Broadly speaking, the above paragraph is true of Pakistan – except for the last sentence. To put that to the test, one need only review the editorial priorities of Pakistan’s top three English daily newspapers from Wednesday to Friday, and review them in the backdrop of the country’s social media trends.

On Wednesday, a former military spokesman decided it was time to reveal that his recently retired boss had procrastinated on launching a decisive operation against Pakistani militants and their foreign guests in the North Waziristan tribal area.

On Thursday, however, there wasn’t a single front-page mention of the operation. Nor was there any media campaign to galvanise the public, at its most generous during Ramadan, to aid the approximately 600,000 fellow citizens obliged to leave their homes by the conflict. The only social media mention of note came from supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan tweeting their leader’s ability to attract charitable donations for the displaced tribesmen, even from those who didn’t vote for him a year ago.

The official counter-narrative appeared on Friday, with the government boasting how it had managed to register all the displaced tribesmen, and the military saying how it was feeding most of them from its soldiers’ rations. Oh, and the charitable front of the Lashkar-i-Taiba (of November 2008 Mumbai attacks notoriety) told journalists that the displaced tribesmen it had helped were so grateful that they’d vowed to work for it for free, for the rest of their lives.

The lack of media play, and the clumsy credit-claiming exercises that dominated what coverage there had been, were as revealing as they were incredible. All arms of the government had been aware, for at least six months, that the North Waziristan operation was imminent, but they had failed to prepare Pakistanis by creating a unified national narrative that would aid in the achievement of its political objectives, and the humanitarian crisis that would invariably accompany them.

In fact, as the Pakistani media demonstrated, it was as if the country was completely ignorant of the significance of what was happening in North Waziristan, or of its consequences. Instead of a nation galvanised by the defeat of its deadliest enemy, Pakistan was preoccupied by the petty politics of its different interest groups. Its interior minister, who’d angrily dropped out of sight after the operation was launched without his approval or knowledge, was being wooed by his party colleagues to return to work. The military’s propaganda machine was working overtime to show that its chief, rather than the government, had provided political leadership when it hadn’t been forthcoming from its elected leadership, or even the general’s predecessor. Imran Khan’s isolated opposition, meanwhile, was setting dates for protests to oust the government, citing claims of election-rigging the previous year that it couldn’t prove, nor felt any need to.

With nonsense dominating the national political narrative, no attention has been paid to winning the hearts and minds of the North Waziristan tribesmen. Instead, like their brethren elsewhere in previously militant-occupied areas, they have been treated almost like the enemy. Indeed, a comparison between what’s continuing there and in previous counter-terrorism operations identifies disturbing commonalities.

In all cases, residents were warned to fly the national flag from their homes, or paint it on the shutters of their places of business, to avoid being targeted in the early phase of a military counter-terrorist operation. That demand of demonstrable loyalty was invariably made while civilians were still on the ground, sandwiched between the equally trigger-happy militants and military. In fact, the civilians were unable to flee until the militants had been forced to retreat by the launch in earnest of military operations, trumpeted by air and artillery strikes, some of which were more deadly to the local populace than they were to the militant insurgents.

It follows that humanitarian relief efforts for the displaced, as and when they managed to get out of the war zones, have been piecemeal throughout, rather than well planned – and they’ve been wholly inadequate.

The Pakistani government’s counterinsurgency strategy is strikingly reminiscent of US preparations for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. American military supplies had been transported to the region and stockpiled for 18 months’ prior, but there was no matching preparation for humanitarian disaster. As immoral as that was, it wasn’t surprising: the Bush administration had all along been talking up its tough tactics.

But what does it say about Pakistan’s government when it treats its civilians the same way as the Americans treated Iraqis? Unfortunately, it says next-to-nothing, because the rest of the country is preoccupied with the irrelevant, and the media lacks the courage to ask such questions.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist

On Twitter: @tomthehack