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Survival in the age of information warfare

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Afrah Jamal |

Pakistani troops recently rescued a US – Canadian family that had been captured in Afghanistan in 2012 and held hostage for 5 years. International media headlines however were not all laudatory; they editorialized, and dabbled in innuendos undermining a successful mission and the men who risked their lives to bring the captives home. This is not the first time the West glossed over an ally’s achievements. And it will not be the last, since a negative spin is invaluable for propping up pre-prepared narratives, advancing agendas; shaping perceptions, reinforcing stereotypes, driving ratings and controlling the message.

Because dictatorships do not have a monopoly over information warfare – everyone has a dog in the race and the fake news juggernaut appears unstoppable in the age of social media and instant messaging. And while traditional methods remain relevant in the game of deception, the advent of social media has only expanded their reach and amplified the intensity.

The need to raise their stature to match their newfound role as counter-terror specialists and regional power players is undeniable and perhaps it is time to start grooming its best and the brightest to take the reins and infuse some optimism into the landscape.

The threats can be external and internal and the goal can be anything from influencing the outcome of an election to vilifying a rival, manipulating opinions or sprucing up ones image. Nations adept in the art have also been at the receiving end of media spin masters – the US senate intelligence committee credits the Russian propaganda team for running interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections.

The enduring myth of the free and fair media

The American entertainment industry for its part often seems to tow the establishment line by frequently referencing Pakistan as the staging ground for terror, and raising questions regarding its neutrality, trustworthiness and fairness. The media is no better. Bin Laden’s capture from Abbottabad helped cement the duplicitous ally narrative and in one fell swoop tried to overwrite decades of cooperation, intelligence sharing, one nations’ suffering and its many contributions. The wave of terror that swept through Pakistani cities only made the terrain appear inhospitable and dangerous, the lens portrayed a nation in line to becoming a failed state – it did little to generate compassion for America’s Cold War ally or sympathy for its post 9/11 plight.  In other instances, media bias that put the ISIS inspired brand of terror and Islam in the same bracket inevitably fed the wave of Islamophobia across continents.

Such is the power of perception. In the absence of a counter narrative – propaganda will thrive, turning the digital world into a battlefield. This unsavory blend of half-truths and selective reporting shreds credibility and creates rifts – finding a response powerful enough to cut through the haze of confusion and the web of deceit can be challenging. 

The post-rescue bias – a case study

Recent events like the rescue mission by Pak forces that liberated the American hostages from the clutches of Haqqanis testify to the importance of intelligence sharing and coordinated ops. It’s a rare instance of cooperation that should have been hailed as a benchmark and perhaps used to develop a platform for future collaboration. 

The Western media not only downplayed the rescue efforts and the inherent risks of such missions but also managed to sow the seeds of suspicion leaving the impression that the entire episode was stage-managed propagating the myth of safe havens and at the same time, absolving the NATO high command for their perceived failures in Afghanistan. The post rescue op cost the lives of Pakistani soldiers and the men who died in the aftermath when they went after the handlers might wonder at the analysts who insisted on dismissing the incident as a magic trick implying that back door dealings were involved and links with Haqqanis secured the captives release.

Same goes for the hardliners holding the capital hostage, who come disguised as the champions of Islam and must also not be permitted to edge out the moderates and eclipse the nation’s hard won freedom.

There was a popular theory regarding the Navy Seals ready to swoop in and show their Pakistani counterparts how it is done, if Pak military was not up for the task. This went well with the fiction that Pakistan acted under duress and had limited options. The coveted role of the savior was awarded to the SEALS, declared victorious in absentia and the Pakistani men in uniform were left out in the cold.

The details of the operation will remain classified. The way facts were twisted to suit this new narrative however is just one dimension of information warfare. It can be weaponized to gain strategic advantage over adversaries, or crush home grown resistance, and curb free speech. The possibilities are endless.

Power of optics

Blockbusters like ‘Top Gun’ (1986) can end up becoming recruiting tools for the US Navy. Democratic nations can be equally guilty of deploying authoritarian methods to control the narrative and Hollywood, despite its claims of autonomy is not averse to practicing self-censorship. The Pentagon had reportedly demanded script approval for Director Tony Scott’s monster hit to safeguard the U.S. armed forces’ image.

The way autocratic regimes and nations like India reportedly clamp down on dissent in a bid to keep the spotlight away from their dark side negates their democratic credentials. Their lobby is strong enough to shield them from the fallout for now.

The power of good optics cannot be overstated given how the Eastern front lies in wait for any missteps to be turned into ratings gold for their own image building, like Pakistan’s decision to deport of the green eyed Afghan refugee who once graced the cover of Nat Geo magazine, which India then played to their advantage. Delhi also turned legitimate grounds for the detention of an Indian naval officer / spy caught in the act of espionage and held on charges of terrorism by Pakistan into an international incident to stir the pot, simultaneously using the restive parts of the Baluchistan province to flay Islamabad on its human rights record.

That will not happen since Kashmir is not an existential threat, merely a domestic spat and public naming shaming is not the Chinese way. The BRICS declaration was an exception ostensibly to safeguard their economic investments.

The appearance of ‘Free Balochistan’ posters in Geneva, and later London this year demonstrates India’s global outreach. Here makeovers are an important part of the package and turning aggressors into victims is an art. Their power lies in peddling fear and finding grievances – disinformation campaigns work best when the state abdicates its responsibilities and cedes space to the enemy. Hotspots make perfect playing grounds for exploiting vulnerabilities and hostile parties will take advantage of discords, be they religious or ethnic – use poor governance in badlands to stir rebellions, incite violence, and sow doubts.

Manning the New Frontier

Neutralizing the sophisticated media arsenal deployed alongside an army of trolls who lurk in the cyber-world spreading lies, disinformation, spewing vitriol and engaged in character assassinations present its share of challenges.

A recent report detailing Pakistan’s intended diplomatic offensive in the wake of Indian aggression across the cyber dominated Line of Control does away with the element of surprise and lays out the battle plans in full view of the world. “We will raise the human rights issue in held Kashmir and India’s interference in Pakistan’s internal matters at every forum to expose it,” said an official. “India is supporting Baloch rebel groups and sponsoring hate slogans across the world. We will now show their (India’s) real face to the world.”

These are admirable sentiments coming from the Foreign Office and the Prime Ministers desk and shows it is all hands on deck for once.

There is only one problem

The world does not care about India’s true face especially if said face is being presented by its arch nemesis. A Kashmir liberation campaign coming from Pakistan is doomed for failure in the present climate. Delhi has beaten Islamabad to the punch and has already shaped the narrative in its favor as a benevolent democracy cradling doves of peace and secret dreams of economic domination. It has taken years to achieve this position, and while other heads of state may not be easily swayed by sugarcoated half truths – nations will always put their security and corporate interests above truth, honor and justice. And so India remains ahead of the game, notwithstanding its dismal press rankings and stays in their good graces happy to be wielded as a subservient pawn in Afghanistan.

The appearance of ‘Free Balochistan’ posters in Geneva, and later London this year demonstrates India’s global outreach. Here makeovers are an important part of the package and turning aggressors into victims is an art.

India’s appalling human rights record is not likely to get any traction unless it comes from the super pack. If, for instance Moscow raises its concerns about gross violations of international norms by its friend and ally Delhi, like China did at BRICs recently with that little dig about global safe havens notwithstanding its terms with Pakistan, then perhaps Kashmir gets a nod.

If Beijing, in a break from tradition, comes out in the open about RAW based saboteurs operating in the CPEC heartland, then maybe the world will put some stock in Pakistan’s accusations. That will not happen since Kashmir is not an existential threat, merely a domestic spat and public naming shaming is not the Chinese way. The BRICS declaration was an exception ostensibly to safeguard their economic investments.

At the frontline of cyber-warfare

The illusion that Pakistan’s sacrifices and role in the war against terror would automatically upgrade them to a position of privilege and power is gone. Tackling western bias goes beyond fiery speeches at UN, op-eds in the print media or issuing vehement denials at international forums. Their endeavors at image building may be timely given an Indian lobby nearby with tentacles spread across the globe, savvy PR teams at their beck and call, and a formidable media spin machinery working overtime. While Pakistan’s diplomatic overtures and makeover campaigns need not be announced to the world, they go hand in hand with fixing fault lines and investing in its many assets.

Enemies foreign & domestic

Frontline states in the crosshairs need to develop effective strategies to counter the inbound propaganda from mainstream media and unconventional sources. They must learn to cope with international bias and hostile lobbies and at the same time be vigilant towards the domestic threats as they carefully watch out for the resurgence of Taliban mentality from recently cleared strongholds like Waziristan and ensure that they can never gain a foothold.

This went well with the fiction that Pakistan acted under duress and had limited options. The coveted role of the savior was awarded to the SEALS, declared victorious in absentia and the Pakistani men in uniform were left out in the cold.

Same goes for the hardliners holding the capital hostage, who come disguised as the champions of Islam and must also not be permitted to edge out the moderates and eclipse the nation’s hard won freedom. There are shades of the Red Mosque in the current scenario where the decision to crackdown on rebel leaders ended the standoff but also planted the seeds of rebellion. Since then, these shysters have demonstrated their considerable street power using religion as a ploy and united the masses under a Taliban inspired fundamentalist banner. Should the state cave in to the mullah’s demands, and cede the moral high ground, the leaders of the unholy resistance will ensure that fanatical voices become the sole reference point when it comes to writing Pakistan’s story. Their propaganda is as lethal as anything that comes in from outside

The siege of Islamabad is an affront to the nation’s ideological pillars founded on religious freedom, harmony and equal rights. Using the Prophet (PBUH)‘s name as cover to crush minority groups and assert the clergy’s power base damages Islam far more than any paranoia driven travel bans, gives impetus to western fear mongering and poses a significant threat to the economic integrity and social harmony. Such attempts to rollback its security gains and tarnish Pakistan’s brand needs be dealt with an iron hand.

Launching that diplomatic offensive

Islamabad is in a better position to navigate the terrain given Pakistan’s improved press freedom rankings and crackdowns on radical ideologies. Being able to speak truth to power is a privilege – and civilized nations that respect a citizen’s rights to comment on policies without having their patriotism questioned or their religious beliefs challenged may find a more receptive audience for their cause.

The media is no better. Bin Laden’s capture from Abbottabad helped cement the duplicitous ally narrative and in one fell swoop tried to overwrite decades of cooperation, intelligence sharing, one nations’ suffering and its many contributions. 

They can then continue to pursue their advantage by rebuilding the decimated tourist industry and making Homeland’s absurd disinformation campaigns obsolete and using the revival of its cinema to showcase their incredible heritage and resilient populace. Once these levels have been mastered, Pakistan can claim moral superiority and embark on that diplomatic offensive.

The need to raise their stature to match their newfound role as counter-terror specialists and regional power players is undeniable and perhaps it is time to start grooming its best and the brightest to take the reins and infuse some optimism into the landscape. Ambassadors of the past once held down the fort and fought on the diplomatic frontlines included the cream of the crop like Jamshed Marker, Sami Khan, and Prince Aly Khan. Finding their equivalent to do some damage control and engage with rogue analysts and lobbyists may help Pakistan recover its prestige and with any luck, some of that credibility, and not have credit rudely hijacked the next time it goes to bail out an ally.

Afrah Jamal is a freelance writer. She is the editor of “In Conversation with Legends – History in Session”. She had also been writing for Daily Times, Lahore, and was the editor of Social Pages, Karachi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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