Steadfast in the storm

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Haseeb Ahmed

Azure skies and crisp air herald the onset of yet another September. Notable in history is the 11th of this month. On this date in 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote ‘there never was agood war or a bad peace.’

And yet we fight. The mark of Cain forever affixed upon the human condition. It is always the nefarious other providing casus belli. After a while all that remains is the continuing hostility, causes and missions fading into weak shadows of original resolve, shiny armor transforming into rusted and weary veneers imputed old glory.

Promise of a global community with shared ideals within the comity of nations had been the rising hope at the turn of the millennium. Ideas proliferating through the spread of the internet along with advances in telecommunications and attendant reach of media, brought visions of advancement of societies. Eliciting excitement about an end to history itself, the zeitgeist seemed anticipatory of an era of unbridled progress.

Not to be, the start of the millennium brought international strife spawned on a September morning, fast morphing into a conflict fueled ideologically through shibboleths of a self- perpetuating clash of civilizations. Flawed statesmanship informed by prejudice and personal failings allowed what should have been a police action to degenerate into global conflict. Aftershocks reverberate, as unleashed dogs of war exact their toll on national economies, infrastructure and security – affecting the very souls of the citizens of the world as bloodshed brings ever-increasing rounds of recrimination and forebodings of apocalypse.

As international relations continue to refract through prisms of national security, driven by illusory concepts of defense through pre-emptive offense, these Yeats’ verses appear eerily prescient: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

The fallout has been greater nowhere than in Pakistan, paying the price for sins of omission and commission and now routinely assigned blame for the inevitable instability in Southwest Asia. Placed under a critical scope appearing to belittle the tribulations of its people, the country as seen by the international community can do nothing right. Beset by corruption and ineptitude within the ranks of the few lording it over the many, the country lurches from crisis to crisis, as opprobrium continues to get heaped on its people.

Inexorably deemed a war zone itself now, Pakistan exhibits within its socio-economic classes the fissures and disarray set loose by hostilities. Most perplexing, therein, is the adoption of inaccurate narratives borrowed from unsympathetic external sources. Nationhood is often forged in the crucible of war, the people of the state coalescing around a central narrative of shared values and goals. Internal wars are far messier affairs, tearing at the very fabric of social cohesion. Symbols of national unity become paramount. Foremost among the last vestiges of possible unity, amidst a tattered ethos ascribed a floundering ship buffeted by sheer winds of circumstance, are the armed forces of the country navigating the perilous straits. Yet they are referred to within a lexicon of derision through the euphemism of ‘deep state’.

The institutions tasked with the country’s security face relentless assault, kinetically from misguided zealots with boundless motivation and ideologically from jaundiced mutations of liberal frameworks. Failures in governance and policy routinely get laid at the doorstep of the military declared omnipotent, omniscient and, dissonance unrealized, inept. Fending off blame for interference in everything, as well as for not doing enough, the beleaguered armed forces draw upon ever-scarcer reserves of resilience in countering challenges from within the polity, a stress potentially beyond their tensile capacity.

Sectarian strife besetting the nation cannot be decried a failing of a military which has long had religious minorities reaching senior ranks within. Parochialism, the bane of the country’s existence, is barely curtailed by the military within its own ranks through meticulous placement of personnel in career channels and systems of advancement. Xenophobia, the unmistakable characteristic accompanying pretensions towards patriotism of those daunted by intellectual challenge, may not be declared the raison d’etre of military institutions regularly exchanging programs, personnel, tactics and ideas with foreign forces, shaping doctrine and order of battle through study of parallels in different times and different places. The Directors General of Military Operations of Pakistan and India have a direct hotline. Senior Pakistani military personnel remain embedded within allied forces’ command centers. There are thin lines tread, a fine balance impossible to appreciate in ill-informed depictions of all things military.

Psychological operations constitute a significant tactical component feeding into war strategy. These focus on perceptions of stakeholders, whether through presentation of facts or fables. The narrative of war may be controlled tightly by the State, the fourth estate going along in providing cover and support under the rubric of the public good.
That Pakistan is in the midst of hostilities qualifying as low intensity conflict appears beyond the pale of reasonable challenge. And that no external entity should want a disintegration of the Pakistan Armed Forces, yielding space to wild-eyed hordes descending into the country’s population centers and breaching its security infrastructure, appears an equally reasonable proffer.

Yet the fog of war and the breakdown of reason and planning can have misguided interlocutors focused only on retribution and not the consequences. How mindful are we of this possibility? Freedom of speech is the hallmark of advanced societies, a cherished ideal. It comes with responsibility. Do salvos on defenders serve the public good; of anybody; anywhere?

There is no more a self-entitled praetorian order in Pakistan responsible for failures in governance than a defending force drawn from all socio-economic strata of society, perhaps the best microcosm of the nation’s polity, now tasked with managing hostilities within the borders as well as from beyond. Fighting imminent threats and incurring irreplaceable losses of personnel, with an inordinately high ratio of officers falling in battle, the nation’s armed forces serve as the last bastion against real and immediate threat to the lives, liberty and property of its citizens.

Wars seldom go as planned. The best outcome after a breakout is a quick end with minimal bloodshed and relatively low levels of compromise of objectives. Given space and support, Pakistan’s Armed Forces can well restore the writ of the state in spaces where its lack has brought the country trouble beyond its capacity to endure.

Societies honor their war dead and impute stature to those thrust into battle to carry out their will. As September brings about in Pakistan solemn official commemorations of those fallen in defense of the country, the people might gain courage in the sacrifices rendered by families whose stars have laid down their lives so others may live better ones. This is the rallying point for a country needing to stand steadfast in the storm.

(The writer is a Strategy, Management and Technology Consultant based in Washington. Email: hxahmed@gmail.com)

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