A few years ago I was working at an international bank in Pakistan. The Global CEO was leading a drive on exceptional customer service and corporate was coming up with all sorts of service pledges and metrics to measure how our branches were performing. As a young graduate, I was located at one of our main branches, which happened to have a really low score (we tracked NPS for those interested). I was given the task of increasing the branch score and customer satisfaction levels. That was my first taste of how corporate strategy is often disconnected from the frontline. It didn’t take me long to discover that the branch staff had not received any training on the new initiatives, didn’t understand the metric we were tracking and didn’t bother to read the English language training emails sent out by service quality team, because English wasn’t even the second language for the majority of them. To the credit of our local head, my proposal to translate the training material into Urdu was promptly taken up and I held an informal training session for the fifteen or so tellers in our branch. Part of my effort was to educate the tellers on what our new strategy was, how it mattered to their work and what benefits it had for us as a bank (and as a branch).

I shared this story to set some context on what I am about to get into. In recent months, we have seen the rise of PTM as well as binaries between those who support it and those countering its narrative. When researching into PTM’s many demands, there is one that stood out for me because I could relate to it and for years felt that something had to be done about it otherwise the Army will keep losing face in the masses. However, before that a little something about myself: I was born in a military family and was raised in Cantts all over Pakistan. My father eventually rose to become a Major General and retired back in 2005/6 when I was still in A’levels. Naturally, my only interaction with the Army or its jawans was always positive, because everywhere I or my brothers went, we were treated with deference. We would call all non-officers ‘chachas’ affectionately and I know they are still called that in Army households. The ‘chachas’ were always respectful and often collaborated with us to save us from our parents’ wrath. For us, therefore, the chacha was like an older brother.

However, sometimes our interactions with ‘chachas’ didn’t start positively. These were almost always instances where the chachas weren’t able to ascertain our ‘son of’ status. This happened a lot at CMH reception desks, Mess gates, MP Checkposts, among other places. The moment ‘chacha’ would realize who’s ‘son of’ we were, his demeanor and attitude would change, almost comically. This began to happen more frequently as I moved into civilian life and took a role at the bank I referred to above. I lived in Karachi at the time, and often visited my real chacha, a retired officer who lived in Malir Cantt. Those familiar with Malir Cantt know it is a fortress of tranquility in Karachi. The whole city could be on fire, but inside life goes on as calmly as ever. The reason I call it a fortress is because getting into Malir Cantt, if you don’t happen to live inside, is one of the most humiliating experience a human being can go through. I often thought of penning a letter to the Station Commander to relay what I would witness on each visit. While my cousins would often come and get me, I sometimes walked up to the reception desk to get an entry pass. And that is where the humiliation would begin. The ‘chacha’ at the reception had evolved to operate a computer on which he would take down your details. The questioning was always aggressive and insulting. Often I would hear someone remark, ‘I am not coming here again’. Human dignity is scared to us all – civilians and military alike. However, the amount of goodwill the Army lost at the gates of Malir Cantt could fill up an ocean. For years, I continued to witness the mistreatment of civilians at those gates and worried about the feelings it would leave the average person with.

This became a recurrent theme as the security situation worsened and the Army was deployed across the country on checkpoints and often to secure the Chief’s route from Army House to GHQ. By now, I had moved to Rawalpindi and my daily commute to work in Islamabad was often intercepted by a road blockade set up on General Kayani’s route to office. Sometimes I would be late for work and would request the soldier halting the traffic to let me through. I regretted it each time. The demeanor and language was enough to put me in my place. I often wondered the damage this was doing to the Army’s reputation because there was a pattern of this behavior all over Rawalpindi/Islamabad at Army manned checkpoints. Those old enough would remember that after the Swat operation the locals had begun grumbling about the high-handedness of the Army at checkpoints. The war for hearts and minds had been won on the battlefield but was being lost at checkpoints across the country.

I know that a lot of military minds are wondering why PTM is complaining when so many men were sacrificed to save the Pashtuns of FATA from the menace of TTP and terrorism. The answer is that no Army officer from 2nd Lt to COAS has ever experienced a jawan mistreating them. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have all across the country. I remember approaching Ejaz Haider once on the topic of ‘Strategic Soldier’ and discussing if something could be done for our Army. The concept of strategic solider often called strategic lieutenant or strategic corporal is that in today’s environment a soldier’s actions on the field can have consequences for the grand strategy of armies. It further contends that low level officers and NCOs need to be briefed on the overall strategy and how its success depends on their actions and mistakes. I am sure you see how this loops back to the bank anecdote I shared.

No one doubts the sacrifices the Army has made and continues to make for our security or the need to have checkpoints across our cities for our safety. However, an essential part of that strategy is that the troops manning those checkpoints understand that they are there to protect their countrymen and not mistreat them like we expect Police chaps to do. Because then you have secured the country but have alienated the population. The rest should be easy for us all to understand.

 

n            The writer worked in banking before transitioning to technology consulting.