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IT is realistic to imagine that some among the military and intelligence high command are gnashing their teeth as they look at the screens before them and watch talk shows on the murders of Saleem Shahzad and the young man in Karachi killed at point-blank range by the Rangers in broad daylight.
Some of the starred soldiers might even be discussing among themselves the various ways the ‘media’ can be ‘sorted out’.
Others could well be marking in their minds and their pocket diaries the names and faces of those who are very vocal in articulating the public’s anger at these murders. Still others may be actually planning how to declare these critics ‘enemies of the state’.
No less likely is that many of them might have already concluded that the media’s criticism of their role and power is part of a conspiracy to break up the country and is in all likelihood funded by India.
What is unimaginable, however, is that there are people in the top hierarchy of the formidable security establishment looking within themselves to understand the thunder of protest that has been rolling ever since Saleem Shahzad’s tortured body was recovered far from Islamabad where he was kidnapped. They are all trained in the delusional tradition of seeing themselves as ‘men at their best’. They are taught to believe that they can do no wrong, and that they have to be constantly on guard against their mortal enemies. This mindset does not allow for the openhearted admission of guilt or faults, and is forever looking for extraneous forces to lay the blame on.
But whether the generals, admirals and air marshals, who collectively form the nucleus of Pakistan’s state power, like it or not, the present spate of criticism has little to do with anyone’s nefarious designs. It is a result of long-standing issues that they have been ignoring or contemptuously dismissing as drivel. These have all come to a head.
On top of the list of ignored issues sits the primary issue of accountability and transparency of punitive action. Over the past years, many embarrassing events have taken place raising disturbing questions about the competence of the operation command of high-ranking officers, but no action has been initiated or punishment meted out. Whether it is the Parade Lane attack in Rawalpindi or the terrorists’ thrust into the army’s heartland, the GHQ, inquiries have been kept under wraps without anyone in the top ranks getting the sack for professional failure.
Indeed the brazenness with which the military command has sidetracked culpability in Osama bin Laden’s presence and killing on the country’s soil is striking. No less shocking is the utterly ridiculous stand of the naval chief on the PNS Mehran attack that appeared to suggest there was no security lapse. Just as scandalous are Pakistan Air Force claims on radar failure to detect America’s deep intrusion.
But these are all part of a long-held tradition in the security establishment of not laying the blame where it is due and instead diving into the caves of national security to avoid accountability. An extension of the same tradition is to constantly present themselves as victims of machinations, rather than admit to bad judgment or poor performance requiring punishment.
While this has saved many heads that should have rolled for committing blunders in maintaining national security, it has made the public and its representatives weary of the security establishment’s power. The top brass, in popular perception, always wants exceptional treatment and in their role as self-appointed definers of national interest insists on operating above the law. The bottled-up rage against this attitude is what has propelled protests over Saleem Shahzad’s killing to a new level.
This also explains the intense anger in the nationwide condemnation of the Rangers’ extra-judicial killing and the loud demand that the DG Rangers be sacked.
These incidents are bad enough, but now are seen as part of the immunity that the security establishment has given itself from being held accountable or being probed for illegal and inhuman conduct. This is particularly true of the ISI, whose officers, of all ranks, have become used to the idea of complying only with their own definition of right and wrong.
Adding to this frustration and public pique is the lifestyle that the top brass of all the services has maintained. This is not a guns vs butter argument, but a contrast between the reality of the life led by the military elite at state expense and the general situation for ordinary citizens.
The naval chief’s expensive car(s) would not have become an indigestible sight if the reality of those watching it on their screens wasn’t so depressing and horrendous. The sense that much luxury that has nothing to do with core defence needs is being showered on the top heads of the security establishment lowers the threshold of public tolerance. When the average Pakistani is being asked to eat grass for security, lush golf courses with their imported grass are an affront and a provocation.
An even bigger tragedy is that beyond providing partial and episodic relief, this high-cost security has not protected and enhanced the citizens’ personal well-being nor has it defended national pride. If CIA operates freely in Pakistan and terrorists continue to wreak havoc on internal stability, it is next to impossible to convince anyone in their right mind that criticism of the failure of the security apparatus is tantamount to compromising national interest.
These are factors the military elite needs to focus on. Throwing punches at the media may be cathartic but is hardly the right cure for what really ails it.