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Pakistan Takes Its War On Terror To The Small Screen

Heroes in the making
Heroes in the making
Here’s a scene you might see if you happen to be channel-surfing on Pakistani TV these days:

Wrapped in the national flag of Pakistan, the dead body of a senior Pakistani security official is surrounded by dozens of mourners. Among them are members of the security forces, government officials, as well as his family members. As the preacher calls them to prayer, a huge explosion jolts them all. Body parts fly through the air. Among those killed: the dead official’s little boy, who had come to mourn his father.

[WATCH: A trailer for "Beyond The Call Of Duty":]

Now, this might look like the usual high-gloss Pakistani TV production. But it's not. This show, called Beyond the Call of Duty: Invincible Spirits, Immoral Souls, is actually the work of the information department of the Pakistani Army. It’s being shown once a week on Pakistani state owned television (PTV), and it’ supposedly based on the true stories of Pakistani soldiers and citizens who are resisting the Taliban in Pakistan’s war on terror.

It may seem like just another TV drama series, but what it’s trying to achieve is a much larger victory than just showing death and destruction.

Speaking at the show’s premiere on January 12, Major General Athar Abbas, the PR director of the Pakistani Army, described the main goal of this multi-million dollar project like this: “To pay tribute to the unsung heroes of this war and to bring the human face of this war to the public. Those unsung heroes were not only soldiers and members of the armed forces, but there are also lots of ordinary citizens.”

Okay, so that doesn't sound so bad -- assuming they can pull it off. Arif Jamal, a Quetta-based commentator, says, “It’s emotional, so it speaks to the emotions of people, which helps to generate sympathy among ordinary citizens towards soldiers. It has clear villains and heroes, and our society likes heroes, and when the roles of heroes are played by respectable actors, that boosts the impact of the message even more.”

The Pakistani Army has been down this road before. Its spin doctors did a brilliant job of roiling up patriotic sentiment in a show they produced a few years back. The program, called ”Soldier Maqbool Hussain,” was allegedly based on the true story of a Pakistani soldier who fell into the hands of the Indian Army in the 1965 Pakistan-India war and was later released after 30 years in captivity.

That show was first shown in 2009. Sitting in the audience at the premiere were General Ishfaq Kiyyani, chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, and next to him Maqbool Hussain, who was depicted in the show. The storyline was simple. It focused on the heroism and patriotism of the Pakistani soldier, who somehow managed to endure his torture at the hands of the Indians.

I remember this as being one of Pakistani TV’s all-time hits. And I don’t doubt that it greatly helped the Pakistani Army to increase its prestige at a time when the army was engaged in a tough war against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

The problem, of course, is that emotions can be very hard to control once awakened. One need not watch much of the new show to realize that its main heroes -- who are almost exclusively soldiers and officers of the Pakistani Army -- seem to come almost entirely from noble families in Punjab.

The villains are the Taliban, who are shown as uncivilized religious fanatics. They wear shalwar kameez and turbans and are barely literate. They speak Urdu with heavy Pashtu accents, a clear indication of their ethnic background.

A TV show on war with India -- something that almost all Pakistanis can agree on -- is one thing. War with an insurgency that often includes citizens of your own country is quite another. It is all too easy to imagine how this kind of storytelling can exacerbate the ethnic divides that already plague Pakistan and hinder the government's counterinsurgency efforts.

One can understand why the Pakistani military feels like it needs to boost its image among ordinary people. But is this really the best way to go about it?

-- Muhammad Tahir