Performance and the image

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A CORPS commanders’ conference held recently in Islamabad noted that some quarters are trying to deliberately “run down the armed forces”. What the generals found to be most disconcerting was that this “slandering” would hurt its image.

Coming soon after three events in quick succession — the Raymond Davis fiasco, the sting operation in Abbottabad and the PNS Mehran siege — the commanders’ statement is intriguing. It appears that those who head our armed forces draw a clear line between image and performance, as though the former is not created by the latter. ISPR is responsible for creating the shining image that is supposed to help.

The army’s civilian partners are also obsessed with the government’s image. There are no qualms about covering up the poor performance of the administration. The government follows the same pattern. In the National Assembly’s budget session it came to light that the ministry of information (which can be more appropriately described as the ministry of image-building) has earmarked Rs4.1bn for its annual expenditure for 2011-2012, of which Rs3bn are under the head of “other expenditure”, the purpose of which has not been explained.

The ministry is known to operate a secret fund that is used to pay loyalists in the media whose assignment is to build the government’s image even if this requires concealing facts and spreading falsehoods.

That is not all. Various reports inform us that the Pakistan Embassy in Washington is paying hefty amounts to lobbyists to plead its case. The firm of Mark Siegel, the best known advocate for Islamabad on Capitol Hill, has received $2m since 2008.

Last year another firm, Cassidy Associates, received $60,000. The US system accepts such lobbying and, following the same pattern, Islamabad has fallen in line to polish its image.

The question is not whether the money was well spent — the nose-diving of US-Pakistan relations suggests that the lobbyists could not do much. What needs to be asked is whether there should there be a relationship between image and performance.

The norms were somewhat different before 1991, when the fall of the USSR ushered in the era of unbridled capitalism with its attendant emphasis on a corporate culture designed to promote consumerism. This almost amounted to condoning lies and falsehoods for the sake of creating the right image.

In days of yore, image largely matched performance. In some cases a positive image was carefully cultivated but was designed to facilitate competency and efficiency. As a result, if performance was flagging it received a much-needed boost. But the emphasis was always on performance.

Today norms have changed. It is widely believed that appearance and the motions of observing formal procedures compensate for lack of competence and professional expertise. This is disturbing because it amounts to attaching a premium to outward forms while assigning lower priority to the basic qualities that really matter: knowledge, skill, attitudinal attributes, work ethics and productivity.

While civilian institutions can for a while get away with sloppy behaviour even as we see it happening around us, can the protectors of our security — be they soldiers or policemen — afford to let down their guard even for a moment? It can be a matter of life and death in the kind of work entrusted to them.

In such cases it is the image of an institution, not of individuals, that needs to be protected. If the individual in the leadership position spruces up an institution’s performance and, therefore, its image, he will one day or another get credit for it. If, on the other hand, an institution is not working well, it can be saved by the head stepping aside and allowing someone else the opportunity to improve its performance.

Doesn’t it hold true for the armed forces at the moment? In a television interview I saw in one of the rare moments when I switch on the idiot box, Gen (retd) Ziauddin Butt, former DG ISI, was condemning Gen Pervez Musharraf, specially with reference to Kargil. He suggested that the former army chief should be tried. Surprisingly, he had nothing to say about the present leadership and was concerned that the nation should have a sense of ownership for the army.

Popular hatred against the armed forces is on the rise. This trend must be arrested. But can it be done at this stage, when, according to The New York Times, army chief Gen Kayani “faces such intense discontent over what is seen as his cosy relationship with the United States that a colonels’ coup, while unlikely, was not out of the question”. This reflects popular sentiments.

I wonder, wouldn’t it be a sensible move at this stage if Gen Kayani and his partners in the air force and navy were to resign as a gesture to save our defence institutions? A change of face will reassure people — in the forces and outside — who are disconcerted. A change through a normal process — unlike what happened to Gen Butt in 1999 — would ensure a smooth transition, given the discipline the forces have so far managed to maintain. That is the only way to save the armed forces and Pakistan. One may well ask, why spare the civilian government for all the mistakes it has committed? No doubt, it has to be held accountable too. But begin with the one causing greater damage. Besides, this government at least tried to rein in the army, even if it failed.

5 thoughts on “Performance and the image

  1. Constitution unfortunately is always referred as sacrosanct, while flouting the very spirit of Islam with reference to justice. Everybody is accountable to law, and ironically we have provided constitutional protection to the our highest body, irrespective how corrupt, suffering from moral turpitude or unlawful they themselves may be.Today with almost everybody assuming to be a holy cow how can you make selective accountability?
    Armed Forces performing the most sacred job of defending the country are even more accountable. Nobody is above board. But we must be cognizant of the fact that the assembly is the highest body, as such should be tried first, followed by the institution that are subservient,and then the subjects( as the whole nation is treated)

  2. Although it wasn't really "shocking" knowing all this as it's no secret that who's in cahoots with whom but still I really liked the post, I completely agree with you on everything! It's a shame that from govt, to army to media people, those who can bring change are busy stuffing their pockets. Did a post that has some symmetry with the above:

  3. As a retd Army Officer I think images are not made by publicising in media but images are built by the deeds. Same Army was in 1965, civilian people from my own village volunteered to fight against India and cheered the PAF aircrafts from the roof of their houses.Even in Balochistan people sent volunteers list to participate in the war against India.( I personaly witnessed it)So where things went wrong? I see it very painfull when i see Armys childrens are heavily escorted to schools in Quetta.We should sit and think what went wrong; something is definitely wrong.

  4. I feel an issue of performance and image never arises in a society
    where leaders in case of failure accept the responsibility and leave
    the place

  5. I think army in Pakistan thinks that it has got a mandate directly from God & it is not answerable to anyone including the elected politicians. The Generals have diverged from professionalism and have tasted the fruits of misusing political power.

    The barrage of criticism it faced, from all corners of the society, after Mehran Base attack & Osama sting operation brought them down to earth. It is percieved as an ultimate insult, that they had to face a parliament panel and answer their questions. Some of them have commented that politicians are using this opportunity to cut them down to size and make them subservient to the govt.

    It is indeed disturbing that the top generals think that their image is much more important than their performance and this thinking could snuff out any sane voices suggesting a change in course to set things right.

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