Silence of the lambs in fox land

The job of the ISPR is not an easy one as media expands but critics should be treated with sophistication

Silence of the lambs in fox land
Gone are the lazy days of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) when army officers of the rank of colonel and later, brigadier with a small team of men dealt with journalists, academics, researchers and whoever else needed information about the armed forces. The challenge has since multiplied tenfold. Now, the director-general of the ISPR is either a two- or a three-star general, overseeing a more extensive team of civilians and soldiers to command and control the burgeoning media industry of the country.

Years ago, I made several visits to the ISPR headquarters located outside GHQ on Hilal Road in Rawalpindi. Back then, the office was a less glamorous place and was rarely noticed by ordinary citizens. Although its openness varied according to the temperament of individual officers, it used to be quite accessible otherwise. A visit wouldn’t earn the stigma of “boot polisher” for the visitor mainly because the ISPR itself tread a ‘straight and narrow’ path in those days.

DG ISPR Maj Gen Athar Abbas

I remember my interaction with Brigadier Khalid Bashir (1993-94), who was the director-general or DG ISPR during the early 1990s. I had needed his help to undertake fieldwork on my PhD thesis on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making. He was cooperative and an effective interface between the armed forces as an organization and me, the researcher. With the ISPR’s help I could even access the then Chief of General Staff, Lt. General Farrakh Khan, and the DG Military Operations Maj. General Pervez Musharraf. I not only completed my doctoral thesis but later produced my first book, Pakistan’s Arms Procurement and Military Buildup, 1979–99, that for the first time documented how the weapons acquisition system worked and was actually done.

Those were also the initial days of the military’s policy of openness towards the public and trying to reverse the tide of negativity that had built in the 11 years of General Zia-ul Haq’s rule. Generating a positive image banked on encouraging some to write books that presented the narrative as the military would like to see it. But an even bigger objective was to persuade the world of the military’s significance; this was to be achieved by partnering with ‘white foreigners’ to write books about the institution and hence, project it. This method was first used during the Zia days when assistance was provided to two American authors, Stephen P. Cohen and Raymond A. Moore, Jr., to write books on the army—one on describing the institution and the other on its role in development. In the 1990s, the ISPR assisted and encouraged a retired Australian military officer, Brian Cloughley, to write a book about its wars. Cloughley, who resided in Scotland then, had given me a flash drive with the final manuscript to be delivered to the then DG ISPR. Similarly, doors were opened and material was provided to British author Carey Schofield and American researcher Christine Fair. The results, thus far, have been mixed, with some authors using the opportunity to extract information to then independently analyse and others performing as they were expected to.

How does one communicate to an officer that critiquing the military is not about hating it but drawing attention to acts that diminish the organization's core war-fighting potential?

Although the ISPR’s cooperation was invaluable for my own work on arms procurement decision-making, one had the sense of there being little interest in non-white scholars. The only author of this category who received cooperation in the form of access to archives is probably the US-based Shuja Nawaz, who is also related to General Asif Nawaz Janjua. This trend was both good and bad. While this meant that non-white scholars had to struggle harder to access data from independent sources, the flip side was that little attention was paid to their final product. Indeed, my first book in 2001, which critically examined arms procurement and defense production, didn’t get a lot of attention except in certain circles. (The analysis was certainly noticed, however, by an air chief who involved me in an in-house discussion on the JF-17 Thunder program.)

The ISPR’s role began to change during General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure. This is the time when media expanded, making the work of the head of the ISPR trickier. It was clear even during the 1990s that dealing with the media was an uphill task for any officer posted to the organization from the fighting forces. Commanding a soldier, who is trained and paid to conform to a certain discipline, is a different ballgame than dealing with civilians, especially those whose business is to probe and ask questions. It was under Musharraf that the tenures of officers posted to the ISPR were prolonged. Otherwise, until 1998 most came for a year or two out of which an average of eight months was taken to adapt to the environment before they were sent back to the ‘real’ military job at the end of a year’s tenure.

There were some officers who could temperamentally adapt to the challenge much better than others. For instance, Brigadier (later retired as Maj. General) Rashid Qureshi (1998-2003) was fairly accessible and polite. As the head of the military public relations agency, the ISPR chief was hardly expected to lay the truth bare, but he was expected to give the military’s point of view. Later, Maj. General (retd) Athar Abbas (2008-2012) brought his own skills and strengths to the post. They included a charming smile, the ability to reach out to journalists and scholars, and a family network of journalists at his disposal. He was even known to invest time in cultivating certain elite and budding journalists by regularly discussing their weekly columns and sending them birthday cakes.
I remember my interaction with Brigadier Khalid Bashir, who was the director-general or DG ISPR during the early 1990s. I had needed his help to undertake fieldwork on my PhD thesis on Pakistan's arms procurement decision-making. He was cooperative.

Abbas was followed by Maj. General Asim Bajwa (2012-2016), who was later promoted to a three-star and was posted probably in recognition of his work to expand the ISPR to a corps strength organization comprising civilian and military personnel, and being solely responsible for constructing an impressive image of the then army chief, General Raheel Sharif. Under Bajwa, the ISPR bit off a lot more. The general added to his predecessor’s achievement of setting up an independent FM 96 international radio channel without the approval of the government. He established their presence in the film industry, in theater and on social media. The production of films such as Waar, Yalghaar, Maalik or the search for budding directors through some established journalists was probably considered necessary to produce a friendly narrative. The military’s image had taken flak due to the decade of Musharraf rule and news of army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani’s brothers’ involvement in land deals.

These initiatives indicated that there was a lack of understanding of civilians having the independent capacity to project a friendly image. It was not given sufficient thought that if Bollywood could independently produce films such as Mission Kashmir, Agnipankh, Ek Tha Tiger, Madras Café, Phantom, Airlift, The Ghazi Attack, and many more, so could the Pakistani film industry. It would be jumping to a wrong conclusion if one said that Pakistani filmmakers would not cooperate in painting the armed forces in favourable light or would not project the ISPR’s narrative of labelling all those opposing the Kalabagh dam project as enemies of the state. The problem with the ISPR’s closeness to film production is that it does not allow the filmmakers to see the flaws of their production as the rating is usually pushed up through fake Imdb accounts and any criticism of the venture then turns into a critique of the military and its notion of nationalism. A reading of history will indicate that Hitler’s master propagandier Joseph Goebbels created more problems by controlling society than what he aimed to solve.

In the past five years the ISPR has taken a sharp turn in re-defining its role. It changed in terms of location, role and attitude. The office moved inside GHQ which influenced the relationship between the media and the PR agency.  Though its new location would impress many socio-political climbers, it imposed certain natural limitations. For example, journalists seen frequently hovering in its corridors ran the risk of their community interpreting their writings as tilted towards the military and thus as furthering propaganda. Of course, no one would have an issue regarding this as long as other voices maintained their independence to speak.

However, as part of narrative management, the ISPR, along with some other organizations, would also indulge in arm-twisting or campaigning against those who did not view things the same way. Thousands of social media accounts were used to tarnish the image of those viewed as unfriendly. There were issues that could not be frequently written about, apart from in a couple of English newspapers. For example, the treatment of peasants at the Okara military farms, Balochistan, the conditions in FATA, or the topic of missing persons received little coverage. Even when an English daily published opinion pieces on some of these issues, the actual reportage, which is the crux of journalism, was missing. Such an approach was meant to assure the world that there was freedom of speech in the country without there actually being one.

The relationship between the media and the ISPR changed dramatically. No wonder, as journalist Huma Yusuf and Emrys Schoemaker wrote in their 2013 policy brief for the BBC, the two entities that journalists were cautious about commenting on were militants and the military. From 2007 onwards, the ISPR’s mega-infrastructure had taken on a ‘Goebbelsian’ persona.

Pakistan's military spokesman Brigadier Rashid Qureshi (R) along with foreign minister Sartaj Aziz (L) speaks at a press conference after the meeting of Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan, in Islamabad 11 July 1999
Pakistan's military spokesman Brigadier Rashid Qureshi (R) along with foreign minister Sartaj Aziz (L) speaks at a press conference after the meeting of Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan, in Islamabad 11 July 1999

Enemy territory

Officers such as Maj. General (retd) Shaukat Sultan (2003-2007) ran the PR agency quite differently. Sultan was extremely brash and was not adept at engaging with the media. I remember the general once telling me that I shouldn’t write because no one read. He also tried to apprise me of the many benefits that would accrue from writing on issues that his organization wanted flagged, and that too in a certain way. He had little interest in understanding the difference between a journalist and a scholar. I was also told that the ISPR simply set aside columns that were critical of the army. He indicated that these opinions were not even read or taken seriously. Perhaps this is what the current DG ISPR, Maj. General Asif Ghafoor meant when he said that people who criticized the military while sitting inside the country were not Pakistanis, and that such people lived both inside and outside the country. This indicated that, like Sultan, the incumbent has also maintained a list of blacklisted names without ever pondering their message.

We should probably not expect anything different from a military mind such as Maj. General Ghafoor, who is surely a good officer deputed to the ISPR to apply his training to see the world through the linear binaries of ‘blue land’ and ‘fox land’ (representing your own force versus the foe’s). I recently had the chance to meet a younger and bright army officer with exposure to the world acquired through foreign postings and tours but with a similar bent of mind. We were discussing my book, Military Inc. to which he said: “I haven’t read your book but there may be something right in what you wrote but there must be many things that are wrong.” It was difficult to make him realize that he couldn’t comment in such straight binaries of right or wrong without at least reading the book. His comment that, “How would you think if your book were cited by Indians to criticize the Pakistan military,” opened my eyes to the fact that this officer or indeed, say, Maj. General Ghafoor’s opinion of me as a writer was not necessarily based on an actual reading of my work or understanding of how books are written. Those responsible for managing opinion have little capacity to differentiate between real friend and foe, so completely clouded by threat perception from India or fear for the safety of nuclear weapons they are. The practice of assuming all criticism is a hostile attack from the enemy raises questions about the quality of intelligence gathering and its interpretation.

The media has, of course, spiralled out to become a complex field that any otherwise efficient officer may find too hot to handle. The internet has broadened the frontiers of information, which means that what is written in a country is no longer confined to its borders. Both friends and foes use cyberspace. The threat of fake news is real. However, this in turn requires one to view these opinions and their origins through a more sophisticated filter, rather than treating them all with the same single broad brushstroke. A scholar will examine issues and write about them not because they follow an agenda but that others consider their area of inquiry worthy of attention. This is probably why the Fellowship Fund for Pakistan committee of notable and conscientious Pakistanis who choose the Pakistan fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars had preferred my proposal in 2004 to work on the military business as they considered it a more serious issue than the nuclear contest in South Asia which was one of the competing project proposals.

Furthermore, scholars and journalists also meet people with diverse opinions and backgrounds not with the intention of selling out their country but to gain information and understand different perspectives as part of their trade. Writers may not agree with the military perspective but this in itself is not sufficient reason to push people into the fox-land category. An institution that has no capacity to examine scholarly work or base its evaluation on how a third party has used these writings runs the risk of total war, or in other words, a conflict that engulfs an entire society.

An expert provides an opinion that is based on a particular framework for examination which others in the field may agree or disagree with. This is also not to undermine the worth of empirical knowledge. Notwithstanding the military’s need to bring public opinion on its side, the ISPR ought to become a more potent facilitator for theoreticians to enhance their knowledge without forcible hand-holding and pushing in a certain direction. As I noted the commentary emanating from military circles about my book over the span of a decade, it became clearer that my work was never sufficiently explored. Consider this: I was accused of stealing and sharing data with India without anyone bothering to see that the research was based on open sources. Or perhaps the only response could be to put me in ‘fox land’ given the sheer reality that the book documented and examined facts pertaining to a particular genre of military activity that is visible to most citizens.

Trying to generate positive opinion by silencing voices is a short-term ploy that is divisive at the societal level. For instance, while pushing a favourable narrative, Goebbels, ended up drawing a line right down the middle of society. Notwithstanding the threat posed by trolls or propaganda, the dark depiction of every critic as enemy reflects a damaging lack of sophistication. The mindset in an organisation that cannot separate the wheat from the chaff will be blind to the tears in the eyes of a three-year-old child of an abducted blogger or hear the cries of families whose loved ones have gone missing because of the lack of capacity of the system to persuade the state authorities of their innocence.

As a matter of fact, there is very little means of genuine communication between many of those who fall victim to threat perception. A duty-conscious officer will write pages on the enemy’s psychological warfare in the Army’s Green Book, erroneously labeling academic works or media organizations as enemy agents, but where is the method to communicate that a conspiracy is not being hatched. The women with infants and children sitting outside courtrooms in Karachi and Hyderabad, the family of abducted Sindhi social activist Punal Sariyo waiting for his return, or the three bloggers and their families who can no longer return home all victims of a system that does not listen and talk.

Asim Saeed, one of the three bloggers picked up in January 2017 for running a political blog ‘Moochi’ (and later freed), considered an October 6 seminar at the London School of Economics an opportunity to communicate. The seminar was organized by a curious and unknown forum bringing together the former head of India’s R&AW and Pakistan’s ISI to talk about the topic: “If intelligence agencies can do good?” Speaking gently and respectfully, Asim tried to draw the attention of the former DG ISI, General Ehsan ul Haq, to blasphemy accusations as a tool. (No incriminating evidence had been found against him during interrogations). The intention was not to humiliate a four-star but to draw attention toward a human tragedy. It was Asim’s only chance to ask someone from Pakistan this senior in the hierarchy about these issues.

Officers trained in seeing the world in black and white have filled page after page in the Army’s Green Book, accusing individuals and organizations of being funded and aided by the enemy without understanding that the real conspiracy is a lack of reasonable communication. Be it the political government or the military, the idea that there ought to be a reasonable and respectable way of communicating and resolving misunderstandings has to be institutionalized. Why should it be that begging, exposing themselves to humiliation, and groveling for forgiveness be the only recourse for dozens of women and children who regularly attend court proceedings in Hyderabad and Karachi with the dim hope that their abducted loved ones will return? There has to be a way for the Sindhi social activist Punhal Sariyo, the three bloggers and hundreds of others to return home without being utterly humiliated.

One doesn’t know how long Maj. General Ghafoor will remain in his post but if he were to open himself up to his new position, he would understand that critiquing the military is not about hating it, but about drawing attention to acts that diminish the organization’s core war-fighting potential. Why is pointing out that serving officers of the ISPR trying to manage social media conversations against the political dispensation does not constitute freedom of expression but is constitutionally incorrect. Moreover, not all critics are financed and paid by an enemy state. People often take the initiative to voice concern or write about it because of their sensitivity for the country.

Even more important is to ask why just the army’s sensitivity matters? What about citizens who are thrown to the sharks of potential mob violence by painting them as traitors? Instead of enhancing a nation’s capacity to face challenges, a ‘total war’ tends to weaken it as it creates internal fissures that are then difficult to fight.

At this juncture, when the military’s sensitivity about threat is exponentially high, it would help for it to generate institutional capacity to hear and decipher voices. The ISPR stands at the precipice of a burgeoning civil-military divide that must be bridged. There is a lot that civilians do not understand about the military and vice versa. Helping to find common ground is worth the effort.

The author is a research associate at SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute and author of Military Inc., She tweets as: @iamthedrifter