How long can Pakistan remain in denial about the surgical strikes?

Published in DAILY O on 11 October 2016

Pakistan has flatly denied the claim of the Indian Army that surgical strikes took place on September 29 at several launching pads in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) where terrorists had gathered to infiltrate into India.

First, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the mouthpiece of the Army, followed by the nominal defence minister Khwaja Asif and later the Federal Cabinet, all denied the Indian claims. Instead of surgical strikes, it was claimed that there was cross-border firing in which two Pakistani army personnel were killed.

Pakistan has stuck to this position despite mounting evidence of the strikes, and despite the actions of various Pakistani leaders and their non-state actors.
These have included the flurry of meetings that an otherwise laidback Nawaz Sharif has held; the flurry of visits to the forward areas by Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif; Hafiz Saeed threatening to launch his own surgical strikes on India et al.

The moot question, however, is how long will Pakistan continue to be in denial?

In reality, this is not merely denial but a desperate effort to mislead its own people, an art Pakistan’s leaders have mastered over the decades. This time around too, the situation is no different.

Several examples illustrate the point:

The events of 1965, as taught in Pakistani schools and floated by popular media, begin with the Indian attack of September 6, 1965. For example, in his In the Line of Fire Musharraf writes how he was saved from a court martial by the 1965 war “when India attacked Pakistan on all fronts”.

There is no mention of Operation Gibraltar that had been launched by Pakistan in early August to send “infiltrators” into J&K to incite a rebellion, no mention of Operation Grand Slam meant to cut off J&K from the rest of India launched in early September. Such Pakistani calculated aggression has been wiped from the collective memory.

The 1965 War is also portrayed as a “victory” and September 6 is observed as Defence Day of Pakistan. In fact, such was the false propaganda of the “victory” that even Benazir Bhutto writes in her Daughter of the East: “The country felt triumphant. Not only had we repulsed the Indian attack, but we had taken more of their territory than they had of ours.” However, when the reality of the Tashkent Declaration hit home, there was a popular outburst against Ayub Khan. To quote Benazir again, “Our elation was short-lived. During the peace negotiations at Tashkent, President Ayub Khan lost everything we had gained on the battlefield.”

Likewise, the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh is now portrayed as an Indian conspiracy. All talk of treating the then East Pakistan as a colony and the horrendous genocide carried out by the Pakistan Army there has been denied and wiped clean. For example, Bhutto writes, “Under the guise of establishing order so that the steady stream of refugees pouring into India could be reversed, the Indian army invaded East Pakistan and struck at West Pakistan as well.”In testimony before the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, Yahya Khan asserted that “no military historian would call this (Surrender at Dacca) a military defeat. It was nothing but a treachery of the Indians.”

Pervez Musharraf continues to deny till today that Pakistan Army regulars were used in Kargil. Instead, they were the “Kashmiri freedom fighting mujahideen.” For him, Kargil was not a debacle but “a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army”.

The main reason for such persistent denials and outright falsehoods is the dominant place that the Pakistan army occupies in society. Central to such dominance is the mantra given by Major General Sher Ali Khan to General Yahya Khan in 1969 that the Army’s ability to rule lay in its being perceived by the people as “a mythical entity, a magical force, that would succour them in times of need when all else failed… the army was the final guarantor of Pakistan and its well being.”

This mantra of the army being “a mythical entity” has been the pivot of every Army chief, whether he has ruled directly or pulled strings from behind a civilian set-up. Every Army chief knows that when the Army’s charisma is dented, it is time to pack up.

Nothing dents the Army’s charisma more than a military defeat and that too at the hands of arch-enemy India. Having built themselves up as larger than life, having appropriated vast amounts of scarce resources on grounds of protecting the “physical and ideological frontiers” of Pakistan, the Army cannot afford to be seen as having got a bloody nose.

Thus, any acknowledgment of the Indian surgical strikes would be to damage the all-important charisma, this mythical quality and consequently their dominant role in society.

Precisely for this reason, the strikes will never be acknowledged publicly.


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