Even the best media campaigns cannot change reality

Gen Bajwa ISPR

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Gen Bajwa’s elevation to three stars was seen as announcing the arrival not only of the respected general himself but of 4G warfare and the psychological operations that ISPR has perfected under Gen Bajwa’s leadership. To commemorate the anniversary of APS Peshawar attack, ISPR released another excellent video, ‘Mujhe Dushman Kay Bachon Ko Parhana Hai’. The video has received thousands of views and positive coverage in the media. But while ISPR’s media programme was rallying nationalist fervor, another narrative was beginning to take hold. One that is questioning whether everything is really as we’re being told.

Cracks began to show in ISPR’s storyline as the anniversary of 16th December began to approach. In a nightmare for Army’s public relations, parents of students killed in the APS attack threatened to boycott official functions and declared dissatisfaction with the way the state followed up on the attack.

“There have been contradictions in the number and identification of the accused,” he said, claiming that the convicts were hanged just to ease the unrest among parents.

Mr Fazal said despite the passage of one year, the attackers and those behind them hadn’t been brought to justice to satisfy the aggrieved families.

This was only the beginning.

Column after column has begun to appear that questions ISPR’s carefully managed narrative that says Gen Raheel and Zarb-e-Azb have broken the back of terrorists and returned a rising Pakistan.

Statistically, there have been many improvements. No one is denying this. However as Cyril Almeida noted, there is a difference between improving and winning.

Institutional interest dictated that we fight, but had we dabbled so much in religion that we had become the guys we had to fight? Until institutional interest asserted itself, there was real doubt.

Once it did, we were on an upswing again — bringing us to the present side of muddling through. Once again, rhetoric has raced ahead of reality. Pakistan has been saved! Never again! Go Green. Go army. Go Pakistan.

But, for those who care to look, it’s obvious that we have not been saved. There’s a ceiling to this upturn. And it’s built into the system that is muddling through.

As Mosharraf Zaidi notes, the threat that we face goes much deeper than some training camps in tribal areas, or some anti-state holdouts in Waziristan. Actually, the reason that there are holdouts is that some militants see what remains to frightening for us to face.

When we see the large crowds celebrating Mumtaz Qadri and defending the Hafeez Center bigotry, maybe one question worth asking is whether we can ever really kill em all? Maybe more importantly, we should be asking, who is ‘them’? And, scarier still, who are ‘we’?

Do we know? Do we want to know?

One year after the APS Peshawar attack, we still haven’t asked these hard questions, and we insist on doing the easy things – the killing, the songs, the warming-of-the-cockles of the heart. We owe those children and their grieving families better.

All of these questions lead to an inevitable, unspeakable conclusion.

The progress made since Zarb-e-Azb launched appears shallow under the light of questions that remain unanswered. Are Pakistan’s efforts to flush out terrorist elements still divided into the category of state-friendly and anti-state? Has Pakistan truly given the executed and those on death row a fair chance? Are crackdowns against militants in individual cities, like that in Karachi,  just stop-gap measures? Pakistanis have waited for the blissful day when their country is finally militant-free. But after a year of relentless operations, that day does not appear to be any closer.

Gen Bajwa has performed brilliantly, taking information warfare to new limits. ISPR has made great progress since the 1971 days of simply publishing misleading headlines and hoping for the best, but the strategy remains the same: project a strong narrative until the facts catch up with the spin. But there are limits to what public relations can accomplish, and even the best media campaigns cannot change reality.

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