Pakistan's post-9/11 sacrifice often unrecognized at home

Pakistani families of some of the 3,000 security personnel killed in operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants since 9/11 say their sacrifices often go unrecognized.

Last May, when retired Col. Syed Jafar Abbas received a phone call informing him that his only son had been killed while leading a counterattack on Pakistani Taliban militants who had stormed a Karachi naval base, his grief was tempered by pride.

Naval Lt. Yaser Abbas, an aeronautical engineer untrained in combat, had risen beyond the call of duty and embraced the martyrdom he had dreamt of since childhood.

Four months later, however, Colonel Jafar says he’s frustrated by the military’s lack of recognition for his family’s sacrifice, and by the attitude of some members of the public whose sympathies still lie with militants.

“I want there to be proper recognition – not only for my son, but for all the martyrs in this war. Only then will the youth remain motivated,” he says.

War memorials and plaques to Pakistani soldiers who fell while fighting against India are common in towns and cities around the country. But the military has conspicuously failed to do the same for the more than 3,000 security personnel who have died in combat operations since 2001.

Deep suspicion about the US and historical focus on India as enemy No. 1 has meant that 10 years after Pakistan joined the so-called war on terror launched by President George W. Bush, some Pakistanis remain ambivalent about their country's involvement in what many call “America’s war.”

Awaiting recognition

“We’ve always been a war economy and war society,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a noted analyst on the Pakistani military. “But the state propaganda machinery only recognizes the sacrifices of those that have fallen victim to state aggression, not anything else.”

Jafar says his son’s actions helped stall the terrorists who had attacked Pakistan Naval Base Mehran. The military held them off long enough to allow the Chinese and US engineers there time to escape (the amount of the militants’ rations appeared to indicate they sought hostages).

Lieutenant Abbas became the public face of the attack and was recommended for Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan’s highest military honor, by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. His father was told that a street might be named after him in his hometown of Lahore.

But, so far, no honors have materialized. Jafar's calls and letters to officials go unanswered. He remains grateful, however, to the US for sending a letter of condolence.

In 2006, Jafar’s own actions in providing medical assistance to US Consulate staff in Karachi after a bomb blast led to a letter from the Consulate extolling him for “courage and initiative in assisting the seriously wounded while placing his own life in jeopardy."

'Our war'

Other bereaved families express anger at how the media and some religious parties sympathetic toward the Taliban sully the memories of their loved ones.

Abu Bakr Khan, whose elder brother Capt. Ali Mehmood Khan was shot dead by sniper rifle while on patrol in Bajaur on the Pak-Afghan border last May, says, “Some people do not feel the Army is doing the right thing – but I know from what my brother told me that the Taliban aren’t real Muslims.”

The Army, he says, are afraid to commemorate the fallen for fear of antagonizing the religious right. When he hears people criticizing the war, he says, “I feel like punching them.”

To be sure, attitudes in wider society are changing. Observers say the election of a civilian government in 2008 helped rally support for the war, and the military now funds television ads to promote the effort.

“Perhaps this wasn't our war before but now it has become our war,” says Farhat Naz, a deeply religious woman and the widow of Maj. Zahid Hussain, who was killed in Swat in July 2009. “With all this destruction and violence, it has become our war. I think the first solution is we should negotiate – if it is possible. But if there is no solution then we must take action.”

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