Monday September 20, 2021

Getting Sun Tzu’d by the enemy

December 15, 2020

Last week, the EU Disinfo Labs released ‘Indian Chronicles’, an in-depth investigation and expose of a fifteen year-long anti Pakistan influence operation run by a company called the Srivastava Group and amplified by an Indian news agency called Asian News International or ANI.

The details of the disinformation campaign have been a major revelation for anyone around the world invested in how public discourse is shaped. International coverage of the investigation has been serious and studied.

Here in Pakistan, many otherwise well-informed observers have dismissed the expose as a storm in a teacup, and expressed scepticism of even the mere term ‘fifth generation warfare’ that the disinformation campaign is clearly a shining example of. Such dismissive attitudes are less reflective of the importance of the EU Disinfo Labs study and more reflective of the long-term damage that a highly charged political atmosphere in Pakistan has created. Ironically, it is exactly such deep division – amongst state institutions, between state and society, and between good people on all sides, drawn to different narratives about their country – that is the ultimate grand prize for such disinformation campaigns.

In the ‘Art of War’, Sun Tzu says, “By discovering the enemy's dispositions and remaining invisible ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy's must be divided. We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole, which means that we shall be many to the enemy's few”. India’s war machine has done well to heed the advice of Master Sun.

Of the two principal drivers of ‘Indian Chronicles’, the Srivastava Group is a widely discredited business group whose actual line of business is hard to decipher from the intricate web of shell companies that comprise it. ANI on the other hand is an example of the enemy hiding in plain sight.

ANI is a private company, but has long enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the news feed business in India. An incredibly rich investigation into ANI’s massive power over the news business in India by Harveen Ahluwalia and Pranav Srivilasan, in October 2018 reveals a number of startling facts about ANI. Perhaps the most shocking of all is that 49 percent of ANI is owned by Thomson Reuters, the very same holding firm that owns Reuters – one of the world’s most trusted and renowned news agencies.

The emergence and rise of ANI as the single-entry point for television news feeds is extremely well documented in both the 2018 story in The Ken titled ‘All in the Family: How ANI Quietly Built a Monopoly’, and the equally compelling reporting of Praveen Donthi in The Caravan from March 2019, titled ‘The Image Makers: How ANI Reports the Government’s Version of the Truth’. But the implications of ANI’s credibility within India and, through the Reuters platform, around the world is worth examining from the Pakistani perspective.

Since the 2002 explosion in television news media, many efforts to create powerful amplifiers of the government’s version of the truth in Pakistan have been made. Most have ended up beefing up one political party’s version of the truth over another’s. It is no secret that perhaps one of the most interested parties in the news wars in Pakistan is the security establishment itself. There are many reasons for this, and most are worthy of sober reflection about the degree of military involvement in civilian affairs. But it is also worth remembering just what the context of the army’s decisive foray into the public discourse really was: it was the unchallenged and constantly escalating terrorist campaign of the TTP.

By the time Swat was almost completely taken over by violent extremists, Pakistan was in dire straits, with no coherent pro-people or pro-state narrative, no public support for a comprehensive kinetic response to terrorism, and no political consensus on what needed to be done. Now, over a decade since Operation Rah-e-Rast, it is easy to forget how desperate the country’s situation had gotten, and why interventions in the wider mediascape were not just justifiable but absolutely necessary at that time.

Many events have transpired since the counterterrorism national consensus that emerged after the APS attack in December 2014 – but it is important to remember that the current prime minister was presiding over what was at that time a 122-day long dharna in Islamabad, to overthrow the government of that time. Curtains were drawn over the dharna a few days after the APS attack, and through 2015 Pakistan started to turn the corner on terrorism running amok through the country. In that process, however, many Pakistanis institutions began to lose their way.

The Indian Chronicles disinformation campaign began some time in 2005. So, all through the cataclysmic events triggered by the TTP’s war on Pakistan, ANI, powered by Reuters, and the array of anti-Pakistan individuals and groups that were being used wittingly and unwittingly by India, were making hay. They painted Pakistan – a victim of terrorist conspiracy – as a perpetrator of the very terrorism that was tearing apart our villages, our cities, our north and our south, our Karachi and our Khyber.

On the day the EU Disinfo Labs report was released, the main storylines on primetime television were about DJ Butt – the country’s premier sound system man for large public events – being arrested and beaten in police custody. The build-up was for the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s rally in Lahore on Sunday, where the big debate was the size of the crowd that the PDM was able to pull. Pictures from various previous events, including the PTI’s own rallies were circulated as proof of the gathering’s success (indeed, I unwittingly tweeted such an image myself!). By Monday morning, less than a week since the EU Disinfo Labs published their Indian Chronicles investigation, only a trickle of coverage of the expose was present. A couple of morning shows, an op-ed here, a news report there. The story is already over.

Pakistan is a post-conflict society in which a high-stakes contest for power has spun largely out of control. The guardians of the nation have been sucked into domestic politics. Though there are always some malign actions in such institutional drift, Pakistan’s historic baggage meant that such drift was largely inevitable after the substantially scaled-up military operations of 2014 and 2015.

But the collateral damage to our state and society are impossible to ignore. It is no accident that Pakistan’s politics is now stuck between two tragic and immoveable objects. The first being an obdurate PTI government that is out of its depth in many key aspects of governance. The second being a PML-N and PPP opposition that requires Maulana Fazlur Rehman to mount a compelling argument for democratic values. The vacuum between the rock and hard place cannot be filled by the institutions forever – and the strains of this unnecessary and constitutionally illegitimate burden are showing.

After the two columns I wrote last week proposing a grand national dialogue, Ejaz Haider wrote a caveat to the proposal in The Friday Times: a dialogue cannot be conducted when the differential in power between those that demand change and those that have the power to make change happen is as large as it is today.

But there is an even more powerful counter-argument to the proposal for a grand national dialogue. To be true to its title, a grand national dialogue must be ‘national’. The principal interests driving the key parties that need to sit down and iron out their differences are not about the nation. They are about individuals, groups and organizations.

Neither Reuters, nor any of the witting or unwitting accomplices of India’s anti-Pakistan fifth generation warriors has very much to worry in terms of a response from Pakistan. Pakistan is too busy fulfilling the fantasies of the invisible backers of the Srivastava Group and ANI.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.