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VIEW: You Can’t Handle The Truth? —By Afrah Jamal

(Sequel coming NEXT hopefully)

Published in Daily Times / Monday, May 30, 2011

The guard is on edge. He sits up warily as a small car pulls up by the PAF Museum. But it is just some good Samaritans who hesitantly walk over to the stone slab to deposit a bouquet. The tribute is for the martyrs of the PNS Mehran tragedy who have given their lives protecting their base just a few hours earlier. The onlookers are moved. A media man leaps up with his camera.

This little show of solidarity came at a time when the Pakistani nation needs major reassurances. A handful of men who can storm a major naval aviation base, take out its main surveillance capability, inflict heavy casualties and hold up the entire garrison for more than 16 hours not only challenge the military’s omnipotent status, they play havoc with its image.

While this is not the first attack on Pakistan’s armed forces, it is the first of its kind. There is a wave of sympathy for the fallen, buried under an avalanche of criticism for the top brass. Not just because they failed to thwart the attack but because they mishandled its aftermath.

Military men generally avoid wasting time mourning; instead they show resilience, value discretion and do not welcome criticism. During such a crisis, they tend to close ranks. They are basically men of action. But after the PNS Mehran tragedy, they also need to be men of reason.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), said to be the highest national body on security-related issues, “expressed full confidence in the ability and the capacity of the armed forces and law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in meeting all threats to national security.” How nice. The media does not mirror their confidence.

Breaking into a military base is not supposed to be this easy. These places are heavily guarded at the best of times and in view of the deteriorating security situation remain on a near constant state of (yellow, orange and red) alert. The security around naval areas had been tightened further, especially since they seem to have been placed on a hit list since last month. The Navy’s procedures do not distinguish between visitors and residents. Even the pizza delivery guy’s privileges have been revoked.

While Pakistan’s military is putting up a brave face, the leadership is considering a pre-emptive strike policy against terrorist bases within Pakistan. But in their haste to assuage the public’s fears they have miscalculated the extent of their displeasure. For our military establishment, balancing ‘need to know’ with the public’s ‘right to know’ may be a new terrain but it needs to be conquered swiftly.

They can begin by admitting that it was a security lapse for a start. Even if it was not a SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) lapse, denying the breach ever occurred or shifting the responsibility on a fellow service men merely aggravates an already bad situation. The discrepancy in the number of attackers (oscillating between 6, 10 and 12) has added to the confusion.

Google Earth shows that PNS Mehran and PAF Faisal Base share a boundary wall. It is entirely possible that they came through the Faisal Base side but trying to pin the blame on a fellow service weakens all three. Engaging in blame games at such a critical juncture is counterproductive and what is worse, it makes the enemy very happy. There is a general consensus that this may have been an inside job besides being a massive intelligence failure.

The armed forces tend to live in a perpetual state of war and frequently undergo drills that recreate such scenarios. Some have adapted to the changing nature of warfare and utilise breaking in teams that envisage terrorist attacks, hostage taking, and suicide/car bombings during peacetime alongside enemy action by air raids during war. And yet, the walls were breached with frightening ease. What went wrong? Now, with the watchful eye of the media upon them, cover-ups would be unwise.

Meanwhile, people stand by helplessly as the foreign media terms this as a “brilliantly executed strike” that made the armed forces look “sadly amateur” (‘Unsafe Pakistan: Wishful thinking’, The Economist, May 26, 2011). They would like to set The Economist straight. Their only consolation is that by successfully rescuing the 17 foreign nationals, Pakistan narrowly avoided an international incident. But it is still a national tragedy.

The truth is that the attackers were neither better armed, nor better trained than the men they were confronting. Their sole advantage was that they had the element of surprise, had come prepared to inflict maximum damage, were on a one-way mission, and had darkness as an ally. Their prey, on the other hand, had to cover a large area while treading carefully lest they set off potential trip wires. Their job could not have been easy.

The commandos prevailed in the end but not before the terrorists had achieved their objective. Both the destroyed P-3C Orion patrol aircraft will be replaced. The loss to prestige will be harder to salvage from the wreckage. The military needs to rehabilitate its image. They need allies. For that all three services must be on the same page. Putting their house in order is the next logical step and while an inquiry will determine the extent of complicity, the way they handle this situation will shape the way Pakistanis perceive them in the future.

The plume of smoke was visible till 2am. Standing in front of the PAF Museum gate less than 24 hours later one cannot see any sign of the mayhem. But everything has changed. The guard, having given the harmless bunch of flowers a thorough once over has returned to his post. After today, nothing can be taken for granted.

Images by Afrah Jamal

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