A Public Divided – Aasim Zafar Khan

Words matter. Is it the ‘war in Afghanistan’ or the ‘war on Afghanistan’? The answer depends on which side of the fence one is on, but the statement points to something deeper: about the nature of war itself. In a classical sense, war means two uniformed armies standing off against each other. But was that the case in Afghanistan? Or Iraq?

The world is ravaged by conflict. Hamas and Hezbollah are fighting against Israel. Al-Qaeda is taking on the US and its allies. The Afghan Taliban are trying to remove the invading US forces, and the Pakistani Taliban are trying to overthrow the government in Islamabad. Yet, the last war, according to the definition given in the first paragraph, was the 2008 South Ossetia War between Russia and Georgia that lasted a total of five days.

The nature of conflict has changed. We no longer have wars; we have insurgencies and guerrilla campaigns. But these aren’t new concepts. The great Roman and Persian empires were both plagued by numerous guerrilla campaigns: Caesar had a constant headache from Gaul and from the roving Huns; Sparta felt it unnecessary to bend its knees to Persia. Even Alexander the Great was brought down to earth by constant attacks from irregular tribal factions across the Hindu Kush and Central Asia.

A most vital aspect of guerrilla campaigns and insurgencies is public opinion. The whole of Gaul was united against Rome, the Spartans against the Persians, and the Huns against everyone. Indeed, if there had been a lack of cohesion and unity within Sparta, Gaul or the Huns, they would not have been able to do what they eventually managed.

However, public opinion is organic, ever changing, and must be handled, and in some cases manipulated, with utmost care, precision and timing. The most recent example of a massive shift in public opinion can be found in the US invasion of Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US had a vast majority of its population supporting an invasion of the country/government that was hosting/harbouring Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the attacks. So the Americans went in, to remove the Taliban government and kill Osama. The Taliban were immediately routed and Osama escaped. The US then decided to stay on, and the number of body bags returning to US soil started to rise.

Somewhere along the way, the aim of the invasion shifted away from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban towards trying to enforce a western-style democracy on a fiercely tribal people. Of course, the frequent news leaks of prisoner abuses, inadvertent use of force against innocents, and a total disregard and lack of understanding of the culture of the people of Afghanistan played a vital role as well. Hence, public opinion began to change. This was a few years ago. Today, the US is ready to close the Afghan misadventure and return home.

The situation in Pakistan is no different. For years now we have been facing an armed insurgency or guerrilla campaign (call it what you will) at the hands of the Taliban. Yet on the governmental level, we just don’t know what to do with them. Some say talk, others say fight. A few say talk and fight at the same time. Some call the enemy terrorists, others martyrs. The sad part is that this discord is not a matter of principle but merely political point scoring.

However, the buck doesn’t end here, and this lack of cohesion on who’s the enemy and what should be done with them, is apparent within the population as well. This creates a dangerous situation in which whatever actions taken by the state are brought down by massive criticism by the citizens. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur “one cannot wage war under preset conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously moulded by the press and other forms of propaganda”.

That’s right. The time to manipulate is nigh, and there is no better tool than the media. This is best explained through an example: Late Friday night, November 20, seven people were killed in Ancholi, Karachi, in a bomb blast near a tea stall in the area. The unfortunate victims included a young journalist named Salik Jaffery. But do we know the names of the other six? Nobody bothered to think about the other six, who were treated like mere statistics. Seven lives had been lost, seven families affected.

Now just imagine: if the pain of all seven families was brought out. It would have had seven times the effect. Going forward, the media can step up its role in this propaganda war, by personalising the affair. It wasn’t seven killed; it was Salik, Ali, Yasin etc. It can talk to their families, and show the pain and misery being faced by those left behind.

Some might find this approach callous, but propaganda is a tool the enemy has been using effectively against us for a long time now. Their videos of operations, martyrdoms, and beheadings are exactly that. Or the other way is to let matters take their own course, and pray that somehow public opinion on terrorism changes. Sadly, that won’t happen until there is a funeral in each and every single household of the country. Is that not too high a cost?

Remember the second battle of Swat? Remember that flogging video? It does not matter whether the video was genuine or fake, what matters is how it played a vital role of uniting public opinion for an operation against militants who were running a parallel kingdom in Swat.

The press played a vital role then. And it needs to play one now.