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Massaging public opinion

December 16, 2010

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THE Invisible Soldiers are on the march again. Spreading their lies, planting their conspiracy theories, nudging Pakistanis to blame anyone and everyone other than the self-appointed guardians of the national interest for all that ails us.

Look, the dirty Indians are up to their dirty tricks like always. Hey, did you know the Americans are in bed with the dirty Indians and want to destroy us through Afghanistan and Balochistan? Psst, see what the scummy politicians are up as the Americans and Indians and Jews plot against the country.

When the WikiLeaks storm descended on Islamabad, the unease was palpable in certain quarters. Politicians are used to being embarrassed publicly; the army is not. So something was likely to happen.

The logic was apparent to anyone willing to acknowledge it. The WikiLeaks cables contained many embarrassing revelations about the army and its chief. The army jealously guards its public image and has various methods to massage public opinion. Ergo, some way of deflecting attention from the army's sins exposed by WikiLeaks was likely.

In truth, however, it was not just WikiLeaks. For a while now, it's been apparent the real movement is on the external front. With the American surge strategy in Afghanistan, the last-chance saloon, faltering, the pressure on Pakistan was certain to ratchet up.

By now, the army has shown its hand. The sooner there is a political solution to Afghanistan which puts power in the hands of the Pakhtuns (read: effectively the Taliban with some of the roughest edges shorn off) and so keeps India's nose out of Afghanistan, the happier the Pakistan Army will be.

But few outside the army believe Al Qaeda can be separated from the Taliban or that the Taliban can be trusted to abide by their promise if indeed they pledge to renounce Al Qaeda and chase them out of Afghanistan.

Which leaves Pakistan and the US at loggerheads on Afghanistan. What we care about most — power to the Pakhtuns and Indian influence disappearing — and what the Americans care about the most — the end of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Afghan-Pak border and some certainty Afghanistan won't be used to attack the West — are really incompatible in the current scenario.

But that is only part of the story. The toxic cocktail of militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas has also been a major source of much tension between the Americans and the Pakistan Army. Unbeknownst to most Pakistanis — again, no coincidence that — the tribal areas have seen the rise of quite literally dozens of militant groups with virulently anti-West agendas.

Given the information blackout, it's hard to understand fully what's happening out there in Fata, but it seems fairly clear all manner of nasty characters are linking up with, or trying to link up with, nasty characters there and abroad. Pakistan's resistance to cleaning up North Waziristan in particular is partly because of the army's faltering execution of the COIN strategy and partly because of strategic concerns regarding Afghanistan.

So pressure on Pakistan was bound to go up in the months ahead. Through 'mil-mil' contacts as the jargon goes, the army could expect to fend off some of the pressure. But other avenues would be needed. And one of the favourite avenues is the so-called 'public opinion'.

See what the people are saying, they won't let us do this. No army can go against its people's will. We can't do this ourselves, we need to take the public along. If we do this in the current climate, it will destabilise Pakistan, the people will never accept it.

All true enough — until you stop to ponder how exactly 'public opinion' decides it is in favour of something or against it.

The fake WikiLeaks cables give the first public hint about how opinion is being shaped in this country right now. Unpatriotic, secular, godless liberals may sniff about such naked manipulation, but the smart money is on a population raised on a diet of conspiracy and paranoia swallowing it as yet more evidence of external plots against the country.

But that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Much of the manipulation and winks and the nods is never seen by the public. Islamabad remains a small town, however, and news travels fast.

The secret one-on-one meetings, the selective sharing of information with favoured sons and daughters, the dark hints about plots to undermine sovereignty, national security and the like — when the Invisible Soldiers swing into action, the wider public never gets to hear about it, but in this case if no one is around to hear a tree crashing in the forest, it still makes a very big noise, thank you very much.

Politicians can only dream of having such a sophisticated media-management system at their disposal. But when you see it up close, you can't help but wonder: are the Invisible Soldiers really that good, or do our media stars make it that much easier for them?

Put a politician in a room full of journalists and the questioning is more often than not tough and intense (smart is another matter, however). The situation often degenerates into rudeness or tension. But a uniform tends to have a peculiar effect on the preening stars in our media firmament. Heads tend to bob in agreement, approving sounds are heard every now and then and sometimes it's hard to tell if a question is being asked or a paean being sung.

The rumours swirling around the news agency which put the fake WikiLeaks cables on the wire are well known, as is the reputation of the 'newspaper' from where the story originated — and yet the story found its way to the front pages of newspapers and as headlines news on TV. How?

Why the easy gullibility on such matters? Imagine if the content had been reversed and the stories were about Pakistani generals. Still think the fake cables would have been headline news?

Actually, you don't even have to imagine. The real cables have contained damaging enough details, and yet the media narrative has focused on the foibles of the politicians. The coverage of the cable in which Gilani suggested the politicians would protest drone strikes in parliament and then ignore them has been particularly telling.

Read through all the coverage of that cable and try finding anything anywhere which suggests a small-time politician elevated to the slot of prime minister because he was deemed to be the right amount of spineless could possibly authorise American missiles to rain down in Pakistani territory.

Everyone knows there is only one institution with the power to make such decisions in Pakistan. But good luck finding even a hint of that reality in the breathless and shocked reports on the drone-strikes cable.

Yes, the Invisible Soldiers are on the march again, but, even more dangerous, sometimes it's hard to tell if you're looking at one.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com