In Pakistan, denial is easier than heartbreak
Pakistanis have long revered their Army as heroic and pure. Now, they're coming to terms with the fact that it might not be as awesome as they thought. Denial is a natural reaction.
Ever since Osama bin Laden’s assassination, the western media have been wondering why Pakistanis refuse to accept the truth and instead believe in wild conspiracy theories. As one particularly scathing article in a Canadian paper puts it, “This is the salve that now comforts millions of Pakistanis at a time of fundamental crisis. They choose the magical world of conspiracy.”
As an expatriate Pakistani, I’ve also been asked by confused Britons, Arabs, and Indians: “Why don’t you guys admit that things are out of control? Why is everything that goes wrong in Pakistan always a CIA conspiracy?”
Let me explain.
In the 1980s, every 5-year-old in Pakistan wanted to become a commando or a pilot. Nobody wanted to become an accountant or an architect or a civil engineer. Ever wonder why?
It’s because the army was awesome.
Pakistan's national heroes
One of my earliest memories was waking up early in the morning each Sept. 6 to watch the Defense Day Parade on TV. It was amazing. There were planes, commandos, and missiles: everything that makes up the fantasy toy world of a young boy.
As we watched the tanks roll by, my mom told me that Sept. 6 is celebrated to commemorate the valiant defense of the country against an Indian attack in 1965. The Pakistan studies book in school later taught me that India attacked Lahore in the dead of the night, without any provocation or formal declaration of war – a “cowardly attack.” We won the war and caused major losses to the Indian military machine. Maj. Shaheed Aziz Bhatti was my hero.
The next chapter talked about 1971. We learned that India created a terrorist group called the “Mukti Bahini,” which terrorized the population in Bangladesh. While a massive conspiracy engineered by the Indians misled the East Pakistan population and eventually led to partition, our army still won the war and the Indian army was left licking its wounds. Shaheed Rashid Minhas was the hero this time.
School books told us that India never accepted the creation of Pakistan and that its army would invade Pakistan the first chance it got; we would then be forced to lead terrible lives, just like Muslims in India lived a life of servitude and backwardness.
A career in the army was a dream. Regardless of economic background, if a young man made it into the Pakistan Army as an officer, it was guaranteed that he would have a nice house, a decent car, and access to the prestigious Services Club. His children would study in good schools and he would be eligible for discounts on everything from groceries to airline tickets.
Never again would the police harass him, and petty burglars would think twice before trying to break into his house in the military cantonment. He would get to play golf and polo. When he retired, he would end up with a couple of plots of land in prime neighborhoods, allowing him to grow old in peace.
The army was everything good and reliable
Over the years, we observed that everything that was good, pure, and reliable in the country was associated with the army. The state infrastructure was corrupt, inefficient, and lazy, while the army was honest, disciplined, and efficient.
Policemen in the street were overweight, unshaven, and unkempt – they traveled in banged up pickups. Soldiers, on the other hand, were lean, well groomed, and smartly dressed. They drove around in Land Cruisers and big shiny army trucks. Army officers wore Ray Bans. Girls dreamed of getting married to dashing young lieutenants.
The army was awesome.
The army was also obviously successful in the pursuit of Pakistan’s strategic interests. In addition to the fending off the Indians, the army had now also saved us from the wrath of the Soviet juggernaut. The creation of the Taliban and a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan was a success in our effort to achieve “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.
We had a highly skilled, extremely powerful, and deadly efficient military. We were a nuclear-armed nation that basked in the glory of our military strength – we were the world’s most powerful defenders of Islam. Allahu Akbar.
With new information, disillusionment
Then the 21st century happened and things started going wrong. Information that was locked up in books that nobody read was suddenly available on TV and in people’s email boxes. Internet articles told us that Pakistan started the 1965 war on Aug. 5 by sending soldiers into Kashmir (and that the Sept. 6 attack from India was a retaliation).
Wikipedia showed us a news item from the Los Angeles Times that referred to our beloved Gen. Tikka Khan (the martial law administrator for East Pakistan) as “The Butcher of Bengal.” Googling “Operation Searchlight” gave gory details of the mass atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh during 1971, including mass murder and rape.
The previously classified Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, a post-fact investigation by a Pakistani judicial commission on the causes of the 1971 disaster, was leaked on the Internet for all to read.
Its findings accused the Pakistan Army of arson and excessive use of force. It also recommended courts-martial for much of the top brass for criminal neglect of duty, premature surrender, corruption, incompetence and for being power hungry. We learned that no action was ever taken on the recommendations of the report.
President Pervez Musharraf was blamed in 2001 for hastily jumping into bed with the US after 9/11. Books were written on the multi-billion dollar businesses owned by the Army. Bomb blasts started happening. Was the Army still awesome?
Answers to tough questions? Denial
Fast forward to 2011. The “war on terror” has killed 35,000 Pakistanis. Taliban have shown they can take over small towns. Terrorists have shown they can take over the Army general headquarters and one of Pakistan’s largest naval installations. Mr. bin Laden has been found and killed by a covert US raid, which the Pakistani air force couldn’t detect. Bin Laden’s long-time residency in Abbottabad raises serious questions about Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
The air force has admitted that the airbase in Balochistan is not actually under their control, as it was constructed by the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, Wikileaks has proven that our top general secretly asked for drone strikes and lied in public.
Suddenly, 187 million people are forced to come to terms with the possibility that their armed forces might not be as awesome as they thought.
Pakistanis are now asking difficult questions: Is the Army incapable? Is it corrupt? Has it really been the savior of the country for the past 65 years? And the most dangerous question of all: Are sections of the Army supporting the terrorists? In a world where the Army is the only thing in Pakistan that is reliable and true, this is a fundamental shock to the nation’s value system.
Denial is a natural reaction when everything that you believed in is suddenly taken away from you. That’s why I agree with most Pakistanis that it’s all a conspiracy. It’s a plan by the CIA to malign our armed forces and take over our nuclear assets.
Maybe it’s an effort by India’s intelligence agency to hurt our defense capabilities. In fact, it’s probably an evil scheme by the Israeli Mossad to destroy the world’s most powerful Muslim army. The Army isn't corrupt. The Army is still awesome.
Nzaar Ihsan is a Pakistani expatriate currently living in Qatar, where he works in the banking sector.