A major consequence of India’s punitive air strike on a terrorist camp inside Pakistan, in retaliation for the February 14 terrorist attack at Pulwama, would be to erode the credibility of Pakistan’s military with the Pakistani people.
In the early hours of February 26, Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets targeted terror camps at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Islamabad’s initial response was to deny that Indian planes had been inside Pakistani territory for “more than a few seconds” or that any casualties had occurred.
Subsequently, the Pakistani Defense Minister claimed at a press conference that the reason the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) did not respond to IAF’s entry into Pakistani air space was that “it was dark”.
This statement may have made sense in a comedy show; it is tragic that this is the response by the Defense Minister of a nuclear-armed state. This response is similar to Pakistan’s immediate response after the 2011 Abbottabad attack, when the United States Special forces took out Osama Bin Laden.
When asked how U.S. helicopters had been able to enter Pakistani airspace to conduct an operation in a garrison town like Abbottabad, officials had said that Pakistan’s radars and Air Force were focused on the Indian border and did not expect any threats from the western (Afghan) border. This time, however, the Pakistan Air Force failed to act even when the IAF crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.
From India’s perspective, its foray into Pakistani territory was a pre-emptive non-military strike against Jaish e Mohammed, the jihadi group that had claimed the February 14 terror attack on a convoy of India’s paramilitary troops, the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) at Pulwama, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
While the details of the Indian airstrikes will only come out over a period, the Pakistani response was interesting. After initial denial, followed by a weak explanation, the Pakistani response has gone back to what it has proved to be best at: propaganda directed at its domestic audience. If Pakistanis believe what their government says, the establishment does not really care about what the outside world knows.
This desire to control the narrative is so strong that over the decades the largest media outfit in Pakistan is the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR)—the media relations organization of the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, ISID, more popularly known as ISI. The need to keep Pakistanis in the dark means ensuring that no media outfit—print or electronic or even social media platform—can express views or provide facts that counter the view of the security establishment.
This often results in predictable outcomes. When an incident happens that the military is unprepared for, it often takes a few hours to get the narrative right. Until then, you will often find a plethora of views being expressed by anchors or analysts. However, as soon as the government narrative is ready it is fed to the news outlets and a change is witnessed.
The best such examples were witnessed during the wars with India. Pakistani textbooks and Pakistani military journals still claim that Pakistan has won every one of the four wars it fought with India. While there are scholars who would argue that 1948 was a ceasefire and 1965 may have been a stalemate, there is no scholar of repute who will agree that Pakistan won all four wars.
The 1971 war offers an interesting instance as often stated by leading Pakistani author and thinker Husain Haqqani, who notes that the day after the Pakistani army surrendered to India in Dacca—December 17, 1971—the headlines of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn read “War Till Victory”. The aim then, as today, was to keep the Pakistani people in a make-believe world that all was well and that the Pakistani armed forces would keep the country and people safe.
A more recent example of manufacturing false narrative was evident soon after the 2011 Abbottabad killing of Bin Laden.
For the first 24 hours after the incident and the announcement by President Barack Obama live on television, almost all Pakistani anchors and analysts were asking just one of two questions: how was it that a global terrorist Osama Bin Laden was hiding in the heart of Pakistan and so close to the Pakistani military academy? And second, how was it that the Pakistani air force was unable to spot and stop the Americans entering and leaving Pakistani airspace?
Within 24 hours, however, there was a sudden transformation and the same anchors and analysts changed the question to American betrayal of Pakistani trust and the conspiracy theory that Bin Laden had been killed elsewhere and the Americans were lying about his presence in Abbottabad.
In September 2016 India launched what it termed a surgical strike—a strike by Indian special forces against terror camps across the international border—in retaliation against the January 2016 terror attack at an Indian Army base in Pathankot, in Indian Punjab. The Pakistani response has been to consistently deny that any such strike happened.
It may be politically expedient for a government that seeks de-escalation to deny any attacks across its territory. But the Pakistan military seems to perceive such incidents less as an attack on the country and more as an affront to the standing of the security establishment.
A security apparatus that has been used to controlling the narrative, and ensuring that only one point of view prevails, cares deeply about how its people view its role. A military establishment that eats up almost 30% of the budget of a country of 210 million that has millions living below the poverty line needs a permanent enemy. Hence the need to paint the picture of an existential threat from India. The deep state also needs to demonstrate that it is wisely using the money and equipment provided to it at the expense of the people’s needs.
On all these fronts the Pakistani military has been facing a problem over the last decade or more. In the age of social media, it is extremely difficult to put out only one narrative and one point of view. Hence, the censorship and attacks on journalists, bloggers and those active on social media within Pakistan.
Pakistan’s economy has been facing a crunch and it no longer has access to economic assistance and military largesse from the Americans. Hence, it is more and more difficult for the military to justify the massive expenditure. Chinese and Saudi investment is only a temporary salve for a larger problem.
It was easier for Pakistan to pretend it had no relationship with the jihadi groups that operate from its soil during the 1990s. It is almost impossible to find anyone outside Pakistan who believes the same today and many within Pakistan also argue that it is time their government acted against all jihadi networks once and for all.
What is often ignored but must be recognized is that the strongest and toughest critics of Pakistan have been its dissidents, those living within and outside the country. It is these people whom the Pakistani security establishment targets as it does not want Pakistanis to hear the views of fellow Pakistanis.
One recent example was when, soon after the Pulwama terror attack, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States (and my Hudson Institute colleague) Husain Haqqani tweeted that the Jaish e Mohammed’s headquarters were located under cover of a seminary in Bahawalpur. The Pakistan army spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, demanded that Mr. Haqqani return to Pakistan to help the authorities in finding that location. But barely a few hours later the Pakistan government announced that it had taken over the seminary in Bahawalpur that doubled as Jaish’s headquarters.
The Pakistani military has lost the battle of credibility when its own citizens are more likely to believe and listen to dissident and exiled Pakistanis, than to their own security establishment.