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Facing a hybrid war

April 25, 2018

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ON different occasions last week, the army chief has warned of a ‘hybrid war’ being imposed on Pakistan. “Our enemies know that they cannot beat us fair and square and have thus subjected us to a cruel, evil and protracted hybrid war,” Gen Qamar Bajwa declared in his speech at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. The context of his speech and the inference he was making were evident.

Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that employs a blend of kinetic operations and subversive efforts to destabilise an adversary. It may also be defined as a non-linear or non-traditional war. The army chief is right about the multiple security challenges the country is facing. Being in the midst of intense geopolitical conflicts has made Pakistan increasingly exposed to wars that are non-linear.

There is no denying that adversarial relations with India in the east and an unending war in Afghanistan on its western borders pose serious threats to the country’s security and internal stability. It may also be true that the regional conflicts have had a direct bearing on the country’s stability. Indeed, in this age of non-linear warfare one has to remain very cautious of outside forces that may be stoking disorder inside the country.

But what our security leadership fails to understand is that external factors can only work in an environment of internal strife and popular mass discontent. Instead of addressing the root causes, we often tend to raise the bogey of a ‘foreign hand’. That leads to a besieged syndrome often resulting in the use of coercive force of the state to suppress internal unrest. Over the course of the years, this has been seen in several instances in the country. In the current context, the response of the authorities to the Pakhtun rights movement in the country stands out.

Instead of addressing the root causes, we often tend to raise the bogey of a ‘foreign hand’.

In one of his recent addresses, Gen Bajwa had cautioned against what he described as ‘engineered protests’, warning that “no anti-state agenda would be allowed under the garb of those protests”. Such statements represent a myopic institutional view of the suffering of the population in conflict zones, and of human rights in other parts of the country. In fact, the scourge of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings is not restricted to a particular ethnicity; it has been all too evident in many parts of the country and has, over the years, resulted in discontent and protests by the underserved.

Undeniably, there have been extreme manifestations of such protests that cannot be condoned, but declaring any protest as anti-state will not help address the real issue, and can only boost the very forces said to be engaged in a ‘non-linear’ warfare against Pakistan. In the current case, the protests are peaceful and, unsurprisingly, have received support from almost all mainstream political parties and rights groups.

Protest is a democratic right and protesters cannot be accused of being unpatriotic or of having foreign agents within their ranks; hardline positions in response can only further alienate protesters. Unannounced bans on media coverage of such protests can deal a blow to freedom of expression and damage our democratic credentials. In any case, restrictions on the media and the freedom of expression are often counterproductive in the age of social media.

The space for dissent and pointing out hard truths is growing narrower as seen in the attack on the residence of a consultant to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the sacking of a Punjab University professor Ammar Ali Jan for encouraging debate among his students and supporting the current protest. The recently published HRCP report highlighted the issue of enforced disappearances that is not confined to the tribal areas. The report has cited many cases of political and rights activists allegedly being taken away by security agencies in different parts of the country instead of being produced before a court of law. Propaganda campaigns, including the holding of pro-establishment rallies, to discredit protesters only generate further controversy and deepen polarisation, making it that much harder for the authorities to confront the challenge of a non-linear war.

What is most dangerous is when the views of the government and other major political parties appear to be at variance with that of the security establishment. The divide was very much in evidence during last week’s Pakhtun rally in Lahore. At the other end, the growing assertiveness of the establishment has its own perils.

Indeed, measures taken by the security agencies address some of the problems faced by the tribal population are creditable. But there is also an urgent need for addressing the other and more pressing demand of giving the tribal population equal rights and bringing them into the mainstream. The passage of the bill extending the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court to the tribal region is only a small step in the process of integration. In fact, there is concern that the slow process of the reform could further alienate the tribal population and lead to a greater challenge for political and military authorities.

We have paid dearly for the mistakes we have made in Balochistan and in other parts of the country in the past, allowing outside forces to fish in the troubled waters of the country. While cautioning about the country facing a hybrid war, the security establishment must also realise that it is popular discontent and the deprivation of rights that fuel instability and create a conducive atmosphere for external forces to intervene in the country’s internal affairs.

The root cause of protest movements lie in the challenges and problems that populations face at home and are not engineered from outside. But external forces can easily exploit the situation if the state fails to address the genuine grievances faced by the people.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2018