A parade by the Pakistan army in Islamabad.
Ever since Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, the western media has been wondering why Pakistanis refuse to accept the truth and believe in wild conspiracy theories. As one particularly scathing article 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? I’ll tell you why.
It’s because the army was awesome.
One of my earliest memories was waking up early in the morning on 6th September 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 6th September is celebrated to commemorate the valiant defence 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. It as a “cowardly attack” and it was absurd how an Indian General wanted to have dinner at Lahore Gymkhana the next day. 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 “Makti Bahni”, 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 their army would invade Pakistan the first chance they got; we would then be forced to lead terrible lives, just like Muslims in India lived a life of servitude and backwardness.
We were awed by the army. We were indebted to the army. They were, after all, the defenders of Pakistan. The army was awesome.
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 grocery 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. A career in the army meant a lifetime of stability, respect and security. When he retired, he would end up with a couple of plots of land in prime neighborhoods, allowing him to grow old in peace. Whenever it came up that the perks enjoyed by army officers were excessive, the conversation would be dismissed by saying, “Come on yaar, they spend their career risking their life for the country, the least we can do is let them retire in comfort.”
Over the years, we realized that everything that was good, pure and reliable in the country was associated with the army. All government departments – everything from the police to utility companies to the national highway authority – were corrupt. The army was not. The state infrastructure was inefficient and lazy, while the army was 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.
Everything the army did was of top notch quality, better than anyone else. If they built a neighborhood, it was well planned and well maintained. If they built a road, it had proper drainage and would last longer than any road built by the government. During the 90s, scenes of soldiers rescuing people from ravaging floods and patrolling the troubled streets of Karachi were portrayed daily in the Khabarnama (daily new bulletin on state TV) and are engraved in the nation’s memory. The army was a symbol of righteousness in a society riddled with corruption and nepotism.
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 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 which basked in the glory of our military strength – we were the world’s most powerful defenders of Islam. Allah-o-Akbar.
The nation was enamored by the army. Instead of protesting, we breathed a sigh of relief whenever the army threw politicians out and took over control of the country. The army was here, which meant that we could return to what the army stood for: security, stability and quality. It was agreed that a country as crazy as Pakistan can only be governed by the strong arm of the army. Thank God for the army. The army was awesome!
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 5th August by sending soldiers into Kashmir (and that the 6th Sep attack from India was a retaliation) . Wikipedia showed us a news item from the LA 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 media started complaining about how 80% of our budget was consumed by the army with no accountability to the public. Journalists wrote openly about how Gen. Zia manipulated the judicial process to hang Z.A. Bhutto, left the country with the infamous Hudood Ordinance and a Kalashnikov culture. Investigative journalists unearthed evidence that the ISI was involved in the rigging of elections to keep Benazir Bhutto out of power. 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?
Fast forward 35,000 dead Pakistanis later to 2011. The Pakistani nation finds itself in a situation where Swat has been taken over for a few days by Taliban . For a brief moment of brilliance, the GHQ has been overrun by terrorists. Osama bin Laden has been found and killed by a covert US raid which our airforce couldn’t detect. The airforce has admitted that the UAE actually controls an airbase in Balochistan. The ISI exhibited a massive intelligence failure on OBL’s existence in Abottabad. Wikileaks has proven that our top General secretly asked for drone strikes and lied in public. Last but not least, one of our largest naval installations (PNS Mehran) has been held taken over by 5 terrorists and it took hundreds of commandos 16 hours to regain control. The media, emboldened and angered, has started highlighting the complete lack of accountability of the army on a range of failures including the 1971 debacle, Bhutto’s hanging, Ojhri Camp, Kargil, Red Mosque, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, PNS Mehran and GHQ attacks. The international community is convinced that certain sections of the army are in bed with terrorists.
Pakistanis are already suffering from a number of problems. Prices of petrol and food are sky rocketing. A massive electricity shortage means households are without power for hours every day and unemployment is rising fast because factories and industries without power are laying workers off. The unemployed youth are turning to crime, further exacerbating the already precarious law and order situation. The elected politicians are considered inept and corrupt. India threatens from the east and the Taliban threaten from the west. US drone strikes often kill innocent civilians and tens of Pakistanis die every day in terror attacks. In these difficult times, the Pakistani nation wanted to turn to their knights in shining armour – the army.
But all of a sudden, 180 million people are forced to come to terms with the possibility that their armed forces might not be as awesome as they thought. Numerous incidents over the past few months indicate that the army is ineffective, incapable and inefficient. The army is not infallible and is not top notch. In fact, there are signs that certain sections of the army might be corrupt. or worse, supporting extremists. 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.
Jokes ridiculing the ability of the armed forces are going viral on the internet – peoples’ statuses on facebook are anti army like never before. Suddenly, the army is not awesome anymore.
Denial is a natural reaction when everything that you believed in is suddenly taken away from you. That’s why most Pakistanis run for the safety of 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 RAW to hurt our defense capabilities. In fact, it’s probably an evil scheme by Mossad to destroy the world’s most powerful Muslim army. Any conspiracy will do as long as they don’t have to face the grim reality that maybe, just maybe, the army sucks.
So, it’s back to the magical world of conspiracy for us Pakistanis: It’s never us, it’s them. The army does not suck… the army is still awesome.