Fifth generation warfare

Over the past ten days, the local and international media (especially the social media) has been abuzz with talk of Finance Minister Asad Umer’s interview to BBC’s celebrated television show: HARDtalk.  For those who may have forgotten, this is the same show on which Hameed Haroon appeared, some months back, and put up an embarrassing defence of the Sharif family.  Back in 1999, the same television show also interviewed Hassan Nawaz, who fumbled through a relentless barrage of questions concerning his family’s unexplained wealth and off-shore companies.

As could be expected, Asad Umer was poised, bold, and articulate throughout the interview – answering questions in a manner that is usually not associated with (timid) Pakistani politicians.  However, it was not what Asad Umer said that made the headlines; instead, it was the part of his interview that got ‘edited’ out, which became the subject of much intrigue and controversy.

Specifically, in response to a question from the host (Stephen Sackur) asking whether there is outside (terrorist) interference in areas such as Balochistan, and who might be behind it, Asad Umer replied that that such interventions are happening and are being “led by India of course”. He then went on to say “Pakistan arrested a senior operative from India. His name is Kulboshan Yadav.  He is in the custody of Pakistan.  And he gave details of how the Indian intervention in Balochistan, and other parts of Pakistan, is taking place.”  Except that the entire statement concerning Kulboshan Yadav, his activities in Balochistan, and his admission of guilt, was edited out from the interview that aired.  It was as though Stephen Sackur, and his team at BBC, were part of a decided agenda to censor any narrative that irrefutably implicates India in perpetrating terrorism within Pakistan.

When Pakistan highlighted this mala fide viewpoint censorship, through official and unofficial channels, BBC HARDtalk found itself in a tough spot.  With no cogent excuse or justification at hand, they decided to play dumb… and blamed the technical guys.  Through an official tweet, the team at HARDtalk claimed that the “reason” for omitting Kulboshan Yadav’s name from the aired transmission was merely because the “interview was too long for our broadcast slot and so had to be edited”. 

They insisted that “this was not an act of censorship”, and that any such impression was only part of some (unexplained) “confusion”. 

How convenient.  The only thing that needed to be expunged from the interview, in order for it to fit the “broadcast slot”, was the 24 seconds in which Kulboshan was mentioned.  Makes perfect sense.

While that excuse might be good enough for the likes of Stephen Sackur (and Narendra Modi), it should not dupe the rest of us from the reality at hand: that we live in a world that is divided across entrenched ideological battle-lines of agendas and narrative (i.e. fifth generation warfare).  We live in the information age, where physical borders (protected by tanks and soldiers) are sometimes less consequential than the intangible frontiers of ideas, economy and narrative.  A world where the lines between war and politics, between combatants and civilians, between governance and subterfuge, have become blurred.  A place where bombs and bullets are no longer the currency of war.  Instead, modern weapons have morphed into trade sanctions, international isolation, economic hitmen, and media narrative.

They say that America won the Cold War without firing a single bullet.  That is true. But were bullets the only weapons that America used in the Cold War? Did Soviet Union really collapsed under its own weight, without any help or urging from US-centric forces?  Of course not.  The US did everything in its power – from economic embargos to inciting ‘revolutionaries’ in Ukraine – for bringing down the Soviet Union.

So this begs an important question: are countries no longer engaged in the sort of ‘soft war’ that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union?  Is all the talk about ‘fifth generation warfare’ simply a slogan drummed up by the military-types, to scare us into being suspicious of civilian governments?  Or, is it possible that (some) people in Pakistan, and across the world, are actually engaged in this new form of warfare?

It would be naïve, at best, to think that having tasted the fruits of fifth generation warfare in places like the Soviet Union, Argentina and the Middle-East, the world just decided to abandon this war of narratives and economic ambush.  In fact, the only reasonable conclusion is that visible (and invisible) forces across the world are continuing to engage in this intangible fifth generation warfare. 

So, let us instead ask: who (knowingly or unknowingly) are the players of this warfare in Pakistan?  And this is a tough question to answer; if only because the enemy, in this form of warfare, does not wear a uniform or carry a weapon.

To understand the impact of fifth generation warfare, let us frame the debate in a slightly different manner: what has caused more damage to Pakistan – the border skirmishes with India, or the the international loans that we cannot seem to pay off?  What would strengthen Pakistan more – a new long-range missile, or recovering all of our looted wealth that sits in foreign accounts of a handful of people?  Have corrupt governments caused more damage to Pakistan, or did the Kargil Operation?  Could any military adventure or war, thrust upon us by the enemies, have caused as much harm to our nation as has been done by a handful of ‘leaders’, whose policies resulted in lack of water resources, depreciating currency, mammoth loans, bankrupt State enterprises, population explosion and a malnourished generation?  This is not to allege that these leaders were concertedly working on the instructions of the enemy; just that they were so focused on personal enrichment, that they turned a blind eye to the larger (regional) agenda at play.

Has PML(N)’s narrative machine, and social media cell, not caused damage to Pakistan’s democratic institutions – all in the name of saving the King and his personal wealth? Were slogans, such as ‘vote to izzat do’, really a cry for democracy (during the incumbency of PML(N)’s own democratic government)?  Or was it, instead, simply an attempt to escape accountability?

So, do the likes of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Asif Zardari wish to be part of this fifth-generation war against Pakistan?  Probably not.  But has their blinding pursuit of personal ambition and wealth, made them susceptible to being a pawn at the hands of forces that are waging this war?  Absolutely.  According to official estimates (as claimed by Ishaq Dar himself), over the past ten years, Pakistan has lost more money to corruption and money-laundering than it has in the war against terror.  As such, even though we are winning the war on terror, are we not losing the larger fifth-generation war?

Was Nawaz Sharif’s silence to ever mention Kalboshan (for whatever self-contrived reasons) anything other than silent support of the international narrative against Pakistan?  Even if you ignore the Dawn Leaks, can Nawaz’s comments about the Mumbai attacks be justified as anything other than fifth generation warfare (even as his own Prime Minister and Interior Minister contradicted him on the issue)?  Did it not undermine Pakistan’s stance on the issue, strengthen the enemy, and lend credence to the international narrative about Pakistan being a rogue State?  More importantly, did it not damage Pakistan’s image more than was possible by any speech or narrative that could be rendered by Modi or Ashraf Ghani?

We must accept the reality for what it is.  If for no other reason than simply to be able to grapple with it, and devise a way forward.

The censoring of Pakistan’s narrative, during Asad Umer’s HARDtalk interview, was the latest (and starkest) reminder that we live in the age of an information/narrative war.  And the challenge, at least for the next many years, will be to confront (domestic and international) forces that are participating in this fifth generation warfare, and adopt measures to counter them.

This is the new and elusive challenge for Naya Pakistan.  It cannot simply be confronted with efforts of the government alone.  It must be met with individual and collective efforts of each Pakistani, in every sphere of life.

Let the good fight begin.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore.  He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More