Plight of soldiers: Advantages of a ‘peasant’ army

In better-off countries than ours, battlefield casualties matter. When soldiers die explanations have to be offered. A body count is kept and if it gets too high, questions are asked. How much more convenient is our situation where casualties, especially of lower ranks, don’t matter as much as they do, say, in the US or the UK. If the US army had suffered a tenth of the casualties our military forces have endured in North Waziristan these past few days, Washington would have been in turmoil and people would have been out on the streets.

Most of the lower ranks of the Pakistan army are drawn from the peasantry of a few districts in northern Punjab and the Frontier — so-called martial races (not that there is much martial about them) who provided recruits to the British to police the borders of Hindustan and fight their wars in distant lands. That pattern of recruitment remains much the same. The South Asian peasant: what can be more expendable than him? Every day brings news of soldiers killed or captured in Waziristan, the number of the captured often embarrassingly high. Yet neither public opinion nor that inner sanctum, General Headquarters, seems overly concerned. The kind of outrage that should be there is simply missing.

Granted that the man in the street, grappling with the problems of everyday existence and not much enamoured of things military, may not have much sympathy left over for the travails of our boys in khaki. But what about the army command itself? Its first order of business these past few weeks should have been the return of the captured soldiers. But it seems to have had other things on its mind: weightier stuff such as the president’s re-election, the deal with Benazir Bhutto, petitions in the Supreme Court, the coming elections, pleasing Washington, etc. Politics first, the plight of our soldiers can wait.

This calls for a serious reappraisal of priorities. Time was when the enemy was India. A good thing our army is no longer interested in that front, in fact it is in no position now, physically or psychologically, to repeat such adventures as the ‘65 war or Kargil (surely one of the most asinine operations undertaken anywhere in recent times). A good thing we have turned that corner although it would have been better if we had done so on our own instead of being prodded in that direction by the United States. Where we have ended up doing some downright stupid things at US bidding, we have done some good ones too, this perhaps being one of them. The question still arises: when will we learn to think for ourselves?

But to proceed with the argument, an end to our Indian obsession should have meant a peace dividend, a slowing down of the arms race, the freeing of resources for social objectives. Instead, we have replaced one kind of jingoism with another. Towards India we cultivated our own folly. In our tribal areas we are cultivating folly at the behest of our American godfathers. And we continue to spend big on arms. For God’s sake, why do we need more F-16s? Why do we need a new GHQ in Islamabad? Don’t we have enough poverty to contend with?

Billed as a conflict for the soul of Pakistan, extremism vs moderation, it is, alas, nothing of the kind. Our soldiers are being shot like rabbits in Waziristan not for the greater glory of Pakistan but to save America’s backside in Afghanistan. Without our soldiers in such numbers on the Durand Line the position of the Americans and their Nato allies in Afghanistan would become untenable. Providing logistic support to the Americans was one thing. If our devil’s bargain with them had involved only this, some justification for it might yet have been found. But we are on a slippery slope and are having to do that which we had never imagined. As for the supreme commander who I suppose we will have to live with for some more time, he is helpless. For his survival he needs the Americans. But for the Americans to continue holding him up, he needs to keep the army in the tribal areas, fighting a war history tells us it can never hope to win.

We should have no truck with the Taliban. Hands off Afghanistan is the best policy we can pursue. But does it follow that we become mercenary tools in America’s hands? We must not hold the lives of our soldiers, even if peasants from the Pothowar Plateau, Bannu, Kohat, etc, cheap and turn them into fodder for an alien war. At the same time, the army, especially the intelligence services under its wings, must also learn to respect life. The use of torture to grill suspects in the ‘war on terror’ is inexcusable. The bodies of some of our soldiers have been mutilated in Waziristan. Despicable. But the answer to this is not to make a Fallujah out of Mirali by sending in F-16s to bomb it. As in Iraq, mindless reprisal only spreads hatred and stiffens resistance. And brings more recruits to the other side. We must look at first causes and find out why we are there in the first place.

Ayaz, a columnist for Dawn, writes

for THT from Islamabad