AN internet meme of Sartaj Aziz was circulating on Facebook last week: the bespectacled national security adviser looks askance from the camera and wonders, ‘Has anyone seen my glasses? I can’t seem to find them’. The joke depicts Aziz as fumbling and forgetful, but the political gaffe that prompted the meme is no laughing matter.

Aziz’s comment in a recent interview suggesting that Pakistan would not pursue militants that do not attack the state was damaging, and not only because of its timing: days after Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad during which Pakistan pledged to support Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban, and while Gen Raheel Sharif made the rounds of Washington to pitch the military’s counterterrorism credentials and secure more US dollars for the fight against militancy.

It does not matter that the Foreign Office has since clarified Aziz’s meaning, or that he contacted his Afghan counterpart to set the record straight. Snafus like this matter because they exacerbate the civilian-military imbalance that haunts Pakistan.

A new narrative sets up the military as our only hope.
For years, the security establishment has projected itself as the saviour of the Pakistani people. Civilian politicians have repeatedly been portrayed as corrupt and incapable of governing, and military takeovers have been welcomed by the public as a respite from a parasitic political culture.

This narrative has been revitalised thanks to PTI and PAT’s endless anti-government protests. Both the ruling party and the opposition have been discredited in the process, appearing by turn hypocritical, arrogant and incompetent. The military, meanwhile, has emerged from the fray in the best possible light: the calm arbiter, the honest broker, the institution with profound respect for the democratic process, and — most importantly — the sanest of the bunch.

In recent months, a new narrative is emerging in parallel with the well-established dichotomy of trustworthy military versus corrupt politicians. This narrative seeks to rewrite Pakistan’s experience of militancy, suggesting that the country is losing the fight against terrorism because of the ambivalence of its political elite, and despite the military’s commitment to eradicate homegrown militancy. And it is in the context of this emergent narrative that Aziz’s statement is the most damaging.

As per this narrative, civilian politicians have constrained the military in its efforts to tackle terrorism, and, more troublingly, wavered on their stance against militancy. The former PPP-led coalition did nothing, except sign the Nizam-i-Adl, which facilitated the TNSM and Pakistani Taliban’s takeover of the Swat Valley in 2009. The current PML-N government tried repeatedly to talk to the intransigent TTP, thereby stalling a much-needed military operation. And the rest of the political landscape is dotted with militant sympathisers the likes of Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

Meanwhile, the new narrative sets up the military as Pakistan’s only hope against the militant onslaught. We’ve had Rah-i-Rast and Zarb-i-Azb, and while the military has been able to ‘clear’ and ‘hold’, the government has failed to ‘build’. There was a media frenzy over the supposed revision of military doctrine to prioritise homegrown militancy as a greater threat to national security than India. And Gen Sharif’s appointment was accompanied by the media highlighting his role in crafting the army’s counterterrorism manuals.

Never mind that the Pakistan government has little say over security policies. Never mind that militant groups have vowed to overthrow the democratic system and mercilessly target politicians affiliated with ‘liberal’ parties during the 2013 elections. And certainly never mind a three-decade-long history during which the military has cultivated and deployed ‘strategic assets’ both within the region and at home against separatist elements.

Of course, our politicians have done little to help their case. There is no doubt that the military has launched essential and effective operations against the Pakistani Taliban, and that the blowback from Zarb-i-Azb has been far more muted than was feared. According to early estimates, terrorist attacks have decreased by 30pc between 2013 and 2014. The security situation is likely to improve next year too thanks to back-channel negotiations between the security establishment and amenable militant factions such as the Sajna group in South Waziristan and the Punjabi Taliban, which announced they would not launch attacks in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the government’s much-lauded National Internal Security Policy has been a non-starter. Civilian law-enforcement seems increasingly irrelevant and the National Counter Terrorism Authority lies virtually defunct, the victim of a petty power tussle and bureaucratic haggling. Pakistan has a penchant for rewriting history, but it is in the interest of democracy in the long run that our politicians rewrite this narrative before it is taken as the truth.

The writer is a freelance journalist.