Sunday, February 20, 2011

Smokers’ Corner: From Vietnam to Waziristan

Nadeem F. Paracha

A friend of mine recently told me a revealing little tale. To film a documentary, he had travelled up north into a tense battle zone where the Pakistan Army is fighting a bloody war against extremists.
There he met a soldier who startled him by saying: “Sir, since you seem to be an educated man I can trust, let me tell you that all these extremists were made by us!” He then added: “We are told so many lies about whom we are fighting. But we know who these people are. These are the people we have been feeding, and now they have turned against us. They kill women and children!”
The soldier was not saying anything new. Because barring, of course, the usual set of so-called ‘patriots’ (the ghairat brigade) who are ever-willing to lie through their teeth just because they believe flying fibs serve the country’s interests, by now most Pakistanis know that the vicious enemy the people of Pakistan and its army are up against are very much a product of our own strategic follies and misplaced arrogance.
Nevertheless, when one hears this coming from a soldier up in the front lines, one is not sure how to react. Whether one should rejoice over the fact that due to what the soldiers have been facing from an animalistic enemy, perhaps many have awaken to a reality that till now has been fed to them wrapped in the usual sheen of anti-India and pro-faith rhetoric; or should we see this as a warning?
The debacles faced by the US army in Vietnam and by the Soviet forces in Afghanistan should be taken as examples to be learnt from. It is much easier raising an army on certain myths about one’s foreign enemies and on an exaggerated sense of patriotism. These can work to charge up the soldiers during a sharp, short war (such as the one Britain fought in the Falklands in the early 1980s). But the post-World War II scenario in this regard is studded with examples where, in a long drawn-out armed conflict, there does come a time when armies involved in guerrilla warfare begin to lose touch with all the ideological hoopla that they were fed during training.
There are numerous accounts of how whole battalions of American marines and Soviet fighters ended up rebelling against their own superiors because after facing the kind of bloodshed and madness on the battlefield they completely lost any worthwhile contact with what they were told by their politicians and generals. All that began to melt away and they found themselves awkwardly exposed to a set of truths that they were conditioned to repress.
These are the kind of truths that a soldier, especially if he is being readied to take on a ruthless bunch of insurgents, should be briefed about up front. As one saw in Vietnam and Afghanistan, all that mythical talk about how the soldiers were fighting for a higher cause simply began to melt away and the soldiers were not only left stranded with a rude reality, but they had no clue what to do about it.
It is a bit unsettling to know that the army is preparing its men for the conflict against armed extremists by using rhetoric it originally devised for a possible war against India. But it is not Indian forces that the soldiers find on the battlefield up north. Instead, it is their own countrymen — legions of fanatics brainwashed to believe that they are the ones serving God and the country, even if that means blowing up women and children and chopping off heads with swords.
The enemy in this context is not the saffron-clad Hindu battalions on mechanical elephants fitted with nuclear warheads. The enemy is very much from amongst us. Most of them are Pakistanis who were given a free passage to breed the kind of vicious, short-fused hatred some of our generals, intelligence agencies and politicians thought would help them gain Kashmir and ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan — and if certain nut-jobs in the electronic media are to be believed, maybe raise the Pakistani flag in New Delhi.
Telling the soldiers the whole truth is better. This means re-orientation with a view to ready them to fight the extremists responsible for killing hundreds of innocent citizens and many soldiers too. They have been slaughtered by a terrible breed of Pakistanis who are not dropping from the sky or rolling in from across the border, but emerging from our very own mountains and cities.


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