Of Strategic Fantasies And Self-Soothing Myths
In the last quarter of 1986, Indian army launched Brasstacks, the biggest military exercise in the history of the Sub-continent. The fear on Pakistani side was that this exercise, which was moving in Pakistani border’s direction, could be converted into a large-scale attack on Pakistan’s politically disturbed province of Sindh. Pakistan’s nuclear program was in the initial phase of development and Pakistan was at least 12 years away from declared nuclear status. Brasstacks was then seen as a strategic threat to the existence of Pakistan.
Back in Islamabad Pakistan’s prominent journalist Mushahid Hussein—who was one of the most prominent Pakistani journalists in South Asia at the time and who later rose to become information minister—arranged an interview between an Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyer and father of Pakistan’s nuclear program Dr A. Q Khan. In the interview Dr Khan vowed to use nuclear weapons against India in case Indian army attacked Southern Pakistan. Subsequent narrative that developed in the media stated that this interview confirmed that Pakistan had a bomb at that time and that the country was ready to use it if its survival was put in danger. The Brasstacks crisis fizzled out and the story related to this interview assumed the status of folk myth in Pakistan media and popular narrative about Brasstacks crisis. We started to believe that Indian backtracked on its aggressive designs only after a nuclear threat was conveyed to it through the interview.
We developed a similar myth about our nuclear prowess in 1990 the second time Indian carried out a large scale mobilization of its tank formations on our border in the wake of outbreak of insurgency in Indian held Kashmir. This time the myth said that Pakistan moved its nuclear tipped missiles close to the border and this movement was detected by American satellites hovering over the Sub-continent. They alerted the Indian, who in turn backtracked on their mobilization.
Countless times in later years, we as a nation or our elite to be more precise have tried to explain the complex military or strategic events or outcomes with this kind of self created myths. We treat strategic events and outcomes, which are inherently complex, as if there is only one protagonist in them i.e. we the Pakistanis. Indians, according to our narratives, are simply no one or to put it more simply they are there just to be afraid or react according to our wishes. When it comes to strategic, security and military affairs, we Pakistanis have a highly blinkered view of history—to put it simply we always view history from our own perspective and out rightly ignore or reject any other perspective that might be available and that might broaden our understanding and comprehension of history or any given event. Our view of military and security affairs and their history is one sided and never contribute anything in understanding the complexities that are inherent in the analysis and comprehension of military, security and strategic affairs. For instance we want to believe that Indians were very afraid when they came to know about nuclear bombs and they just hurriedly decided to withdraw from our border. Later we wanted to believe that when Americans alerted the Indian about the movement of our nuclear tipped missiles, they had no other option but to be afraid.
As a result we harbor a number of strategic fantasies which are very soothing to us as a nation at the psychological level. Secondly, these fantasies serve particular political interests and tighten the grip of the ruling elite on power structure. For instance, we want to believe that Indians were very afraid when they came to know about nuclear bombs and they just hurriedly decided to withdraw from our border in 1986. Later about 1990 we wanted to believe that when Americans alerted the Indians about the movement of our nuclear tipped missiles, they had no other option but to be afraid, which they were dutifully, to serve our purpose in the myth making exercise. I have yet to come across a serious effort in Pakistan to explain these two events in a serious comprehensive and analytical way that takes into account multiple factors that must have gone into the military decision making process on the Indian side of the border in 1986 and 1990. This kind of myth making actually serves as an opium for Pakistani masses so that they should not start raising serious questions about the security situation that the country is facing. Secondly, as mentally and psychologically we are still a feudal society where the man in power has to be macho man, who makes his opponents shiver, this myth making also serves the purpose of our ruling elite’s requirement to be shown as a brave and bolder protagonist and the opponents as cowards.
This is precisely the reasons that explain why the ruling elite reacts so harshly when anyone challenges these self created strategic fantasies. In February 2019, Pakistani Air Force shot down an Indian fighter aircraft flying inside Pakistani territory and Indian pilot was caught and within a day released and sent back to India. Pakistan’s military spokesman recently addressed a press conference when the former National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq tried to point out that Indian pilot was returned as Pakistani leadership was afraid of Indian attack that very night. “A statement was given yesterday which tried to distort the history of issues associated with national security,” the military spokesman pointed out without mentioning the name of Ayaz Sadiq. “During these actions, the enemy became so frightened that it shot down its own helicopter and troops in a state of panic. […] This victory not only exposed India’s hollow claims of power before the world but made the entire Pakistani nation proud,” he said.
The military spokesman’s press conference was tantamount to claiming that history is what is being claimed by one side in this skirmish which happened in February 2019 in Kashmir. And any attempt to question the official narrative or official orthodoxy from within Pakistan would be treated very harshly. Ayaz Sadiq has been subjected to harassment and humiliation on social media and from the brutal government’s spokesman to the extent of accusing him of being anti-Pakistan or alleging that he is supporting the enemy’s narrative. At the professional level what Pakistan army’s media wing has been claiming about this skirmish will be treated merely as a claim by the historian of the future and not as history as claimed by a military spokesman.
If we continue to feed our people the same single dimensional and narrow interpretation of history, events and outcomes we will be feeding them opium, which might be soothing for them psychologically and serve the political interests of ruling elite, but it will not make us a self aware nation.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.