Thursday April 25, 2024

Lessons from the books of 2018

By Mosharraf Zaidi
December 25, 2018

Three books of profound importance to Pakistanis were published in 2018. First, Nasim Zehra, one of the country’s most insightful voices on national security and foreign policy, published her long-awaited account of one of the most important periods in Pakistan’s history, titled ‘From Kargil To The Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan’.

Next, Dr Moeed Yusuf, his generation’s sharpest public intellectual, published his modelling of how crises are managed and negotiated in tense nuclearised environments through his analysis of American engagement with the Kargil War, the 2001-2002 military standoff and the post Mumbai attacks scenario of 2008. His book is titled ‘Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia’.

Finally, Peter W Singer, an American political scientist who is among the world’s leading authorities on the application of how technology affects warfare, and Emerson Brooking, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow who studies the evolution of conflict and war in the digital age, published their invigorating study of what many in Pakistan have come to know as fifth generation warfare. Their book is called ‘LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media’.

For Pakistanis, these three books offer a world of insights into where Pakistan is coming from, and where it is headed. The political events that shaped public life in the country in 2018, the fears and anxieties that prompt attempts to direct and manage public life, and the ambitions that inform the tensions within the country all merit being assessed through the important lenses and contexts that these three books helps shape.

In ‘LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media’, Singer and Brooking explain how the US military, still the most powerful and intimidating assemblage of brute power ever assembled, prepares itself for fifth generation warfare. Whilst the term has become somewhat of a caricature of itself among many Pakistanis (thanks to an over exuberant and repetitive referencing of it by senior officials), evolved virtual battlefields and information warfare are very real.

Singer and Brooking describe the establishment of a new innovation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana called SMEIR. What is SMEIR? Social Media Environment and Internet Replication. SMEIR helps US military planners to train combat units in how to manage real-life battlefields that include the use of social media and digital connectivity as part of the core operating environment of war.

Singer and Brooking also describe how traditional politics has become part of a wider arena of warfare, through the alleged propaganda machine that Russia deployed during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. They say that the “2016 US presidential race stands unrivaled in the extent of algorithmic manipulation”, with over 400,000 bots deployed on Twitter alone. They also track how diverse the use of Twitter has been in the information wars age, with details about how, by 2014 – a full two years prior to the US presidential election – Daesh had over 70,000 Twitter accounts pumping out extreme propaganda, including images of burning corpses, in over a dozen languages, catering to an array of young Muslims around the world instantaneously, in a manner never seen before.

The biggest revelation in Singer and Brooking’s work is that the fog of real data, fake news, manipulated bot wars, expensive hashtag battles, planted blogs and real, visceral human outrage are not describing a world that is coming. They are explaining and detailing the realities of the world we already live in. LikeWar’s most profound insight is in its conclusion, where the authors explore the ultimate defence against a world that is so capable of coming apart through likes and RTs: personal responsibility. Think before you tweet.

This warning will come as a Zen moment for many of us individually. But it has much sharper, wider-ranging implications when we process it through the lens that Dr Moeed Yusuf helps us develop in his thoughtful and well-structured narration of the most dangerous moments in recent South Asian history in ‘Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments US Crisis Management in South Asia’. The 1998-1999 Kargil conflict, the 2001-2002 military standoff, and the 2008 post Mumbai attacks tensions all represented varying degrees and depths of the fog of lies, propaganda, and mistruths whilst young men and women were either dying or preparing to die.

The doomsday dimension of all three of these conflicts, initiated by India’s nuclearisation of the region in 1974, is a significant preoccupation for worst-case scenario planners all around the world, and particularly the Americans. Dr Yusuf explores the decision-making matrices and critical paths in crisis situations, but as Pakistanis close out the year 2018, a terrifying realisation dawns: how differently would such crises play out in Singer and Brooking’s world of LikeWar?

At the time of the Mumbai attacks, Facebook was four years old, and Twitter was two years old. Many Pakistani and Indian peaceniks often cite the adverse impact of the traditional print and broadcast media in establishing and deepening hatreds between ordinary people in both countries, and how their rabble rousing and hyper-nationalism have helped bake in a state of mind that approximates war – permanently. The obvious answer for Pakistanis is that we must examine the degree of vulnerability that the country is exposed to through continued distrust and tensions with its neighbours.

This distrust and tension will not disappear, at least in the short and medium terms. We may all be dead in the long run anyway, but this should not prevent us from doing everything we can to try to protect ourselves from the machinations of old enemies, new technologies and the instruments of war (new or old) over which we may not exercise as much control as we (or the rest of the world) would like us to.

Such basic introspection is immediately seen as an effort to undermine national security or to demoralise our brave soldiers and spies who are fighting an impossibly difficult war in the worst circumstances. But it need not be. In fact, as Pakistanis close out an important year in which so much is changing both at home and abroad, heeding the lessons of the past may be more important than ever.

Those that approach Nasim Zehra’s ‘From Kargil To The Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan’ looking for their version of history will find it. The military and civilian leadership at the time were both unforgivably irresponsible in how they treated this great country. But the real lesson of the book is lost if we see it merely as an instrument to allocate blame for the fiasco that was Kargil.

The real lesson of Kargil is that an absence of coherence within the country helps its enemies tear it apart. Pakistan’s ability to engage the US as a partner was permanently destroyed by Kargil. The strategic convergence of India and the US was catalysed like never before because of the tactical convergence caused by Kargil. The Kashmir cause, at least on the wider global stage, has still not recovered from Kargil. To date, there has been no serious conversation about how badly the fiasco has damaged the country.

This very lesson was available for anyone that sought to learn it, from the Pakistani partition of 1971. Today, as the diversity of weapons available to Pakistan’s enemies expand, the country’s leaders have a choice. They can choose to further weaponise every new tool by treating their own people as the enemy. Or they can choose to embrace their own people and, in doing so, minimise the capacity of adversaries to take advantage of past mistakes, present vulnerabilities and future fears.

The advent of 2019 is yet another great opportunity for Pakistan to put all its natural advantages to work, to learn from its past, and to take advantage of the opportunities that the future offers. In short, Pakistanis can enter the new year with the fears and anxieties of losers, or with the confidence of competent winners.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.