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March 6, 2019

After Balakot: lessons in victory


March 6, 2019

The age-old challenge we have had in Pakistan is our inability to learn from humiliation and defeat. Whether it is 1971 or it is various opportunities after that, including the assassination of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, or the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, or other such moments, Pakistan seems to be incapable of learning when it is enduring a sense of loss or humiliation.

The great window of opportunity available to Pakistanis today has been opened by the fact that the Pakistani respons­e to India’s attack in Balakot constitutes an unqualified victory. Unlike almost every other occasion in adult memory, there is hardly any of the usual Western stinginess in acknowledging this. From the ‘New York Times’ to ‘Foreign Policy’ to the ‘Economist’, the conclusion is universal: Pakistan has done well, and done so with good grace.

This is why, unlike previous occasions, the Pakistani optimist is compelled to believe that the opportunity for lesson learning is unique, and must not be wasted. Here are the five key lessons Pakistanis should reflect on post-Balakot.

Lesson One: Civil military coherence matters. Remember Nawaz Sharif? In 2013, when he took oath as prime minister for the third time, he was supposed to be the man that would transform the country. Four years later, he was disqualified from office. A few months later, he was thrown in jail. Many supporters and critics of the former prime minister wonder how Pakistan would have fared had he been in office. It is an important thought exercise. I think Pakistan would not have fared as well this past week as it actually did. And I express this view despite my strong belief that Nawaz Sharif is just as patriotic and loyal to the flag as our current Prime Minister Imran Khan is.

So why would Pakistan not have done as well with a PM Sharif, as opposed to a PM Khan? One word: trust. The military rank and file, as well as the high command simply stopped trusting PM Sharif. In the absence of trust, it would have been impossible for the Pakistani leadership to take the swift and decisive measures that it took after the Balakot attack, that helped generate a sense of victory for Pakistan. PML-N supporters would be quite right to ask where this mistrust came from, and who started it. By September 2014, just over a year into the term, the Dharna had effectively destroyed the chances for normal governance in the country. That period in our political history merits more than one book – but the lessons are obvious.

Once a civilian leader stops trusting his own military, there is little any third party can do to rebuild trust. Sadly, in Mr Sharif’s case, many of those that he trusted were busy not rebuilding trust, but eroding it further. His own poor judgment in strengthening those folks, and weakening the ones that understood the value of trust between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, is perhaps the greatest indictment of his leadership.

All told, PM Khan does not suffer from this trust deficit. The rank and file as well as top leadership of the army believe in his sincerity of purpose. This trust is what has allowed for swift and decisive decision-making with relatively little dissonance or white noise between Islamabad and Pindi. Long may this harmony last. PM Khan will not be Pakistan’s leader forever. Future prime ministers should examine how valuable trust with Pindi has been in the last week. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for military and elected officials to enjoy a robust, transparent and democratic means to establish such trust?

Lesson 2: Competence matters. Pakistani society, politicians, media and the armed forces have endured an almost decade and a half of sustained violence. Since 2014, this country has fought a full-scale war against the TTP and several other groups, and it has won this war. Notwithstanding legitimate discussions about what was won, how it was won, and what remains to be won, this war has produced a generation of soldiers, pilots, journalists, ministers and members of the opposition that can stare a crisis in the face and not lose their nerve.

The most important part of the equation however was not nerves, it was skill (and some luck). In the skies above and around the Line of Control, Pakistan Air Force pilots knew what they were doing. Without the downed IAF plane, there is no narrative of victory, no gushing over the PM’s speeches, and no confidence in the face of international skepticism. That downed plane could have been a PAF plane. That it was not is a tribute to our air defence planners, our avionics people, our pilots and their trainers and commanders. All of them have grown up in active duty, during a war.

Luck is always part of the equation in such scenarios, but being good at your job is the best ingredient in being lucky. Pakistan made its luck in the skies because it has invested in having highly-skilled people flying its fighter jets. Competence matters as much on the ground as it does it in the skies. Isn’t competence a vital tool for public policy in Pakistan, across all fields?

Lesson 3: Other countries matter. At the OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan was unable to force India to be disinvited. But, in equal measure, India was unable to prevent Pakistan from drafting and passing a clear and comprehensive resolution about Kashmir and India’s brutal occupation of it. That was the most balance Pakistan would be able to manage.

Further away, Pakistan watched in awe as the Balakot attack was treated by literally every major country on the planet as something that Pakistan (the victim) was equally culpable for as India – the aggressor. France was perhaps the most egregiously pro-India in its response to India’s Balakot attack. But the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom (the last of the P5+1 powers to speak on the matter) were all decidedly on India’s side throughout the ordeal. I would argue they still are. If the warm embrace of some good press and a downed MIG-21 manage to conceal this fact from PM Khan, the senior rank and file of the Foreign Office, and the people working for the generals that participate in the next corps commanders conference, Pakistan is in a lot of trouble.

The fact that the government has sought to exhibit the more positive aspects of the statements from other countries is proof that other countries matter. Shouldn’t Pakistan be searching for ways and means of ensuring that other countries are able to see India’s atrocities in Kashmir and its belligerence toward Pakistan more clearly?

Lesson 4: Non-state actors matter. Since the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, the Pulwama attack is the fifth major national security event in either Occupied Kashmir or India that has triggered a crisis between two nuclear-powered countries. Unlike the four previous occasions, the Pulwama attack has led to a military exchange. IAF in the skies above Pakistan had not happened since 1971.

Whether Jaish-e-Mohammad was behind Pulwama or not, Jaish is the reason India conducted the Balakot attack. It only threatens war over groups that are listed on the Al Qaeda and Da’esh Sanctions Committee List established by UNSC 1267. Should Pakistan continue to allow these groups to wield this much power over its present and future?

Lesson 5: Content matters. For years, Pakistanis have watched India dominate the narrative game. As a result, we have developed a national obsession with telling Pakistan’s story. Yet, despite great effort, the Western media rarely tell the story Pakistan wants told. Suddenly, after Balakot, this changed. It changed because the facts on the ground supported Pakistan’s version of events. Suddenly, without any tickers being fed to CNN, without any biopic films, and without the muscle of multinationals or a film-making industrial complex, Pakistan still managed to win the narrative.

Downing a plane is a good start. Handing over the pilot that walks the line with his head held high is a great follow up. Indian ham-fistedness and excess sure didn’t hurt. The end result is a rare victory on the international stage. Isn’t it clear now that having the better story (and the facts to back it up) is the best way to win the “narrative”?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.