Swat stories: Pakistan army soap woos sceptical public

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Media caption,

A trailer shows the Pakistani army in action

It is just after eight o'clock in the evening, and a fierce battle is raging in the corner of my living room. Members of the Pakistani security forces are inching closer to a Taliban hideout, but the militants are fighting for their lives.

Inspector Javed Iqbal Khan shouts for cover as he tries to get behind the enemy lines. Overcoming an horrific gunshot wound to his right arm, he musters enough strength to raise his gun and shoot dead the last Taliban fighter standing, leading his men to victory.

It makes for compelling, thrilling television, but this new drama series is also based on true stories.

Half an hour later, we learn that Inspector Khan, a man whose character and whose family we have now got to know, was ultimately killed in a roadside bomb attack.

Prime-time propaganda

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The drama series is based on true stories

Over 11 weeks, Beyond the Call of Duty is a series that looks to address some of the toughest issues facing Pakistan; there is conflict, death and religious extremism.

But it is also slickly produced, prime-time propaganda. The series has been made, at great expense, by Pakistan's military.

"It is to show the sacrifices of our soldiers and officers, particularly in the operation in the Swat Valley," says Maj Gen Athar Abbas, Pakistan's military spokesman.

"It is also to highlight what the people of Swat underwent; the kind of atrocities that terrorists committed, so the public should know what exactly happened."

One episode focuses on a boy who is brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber.

"Just as the boy is about to carry out his suicide mission, he remembers what his mother has taught him about Islam," says Laila Zuberi, who plays the boy's mother. "He suddenly realises what he is doing is wrong and chooses not to blow himself up.

"The situation in our country is really disturbing these days," she says. "As an actress, it's a privilege to be given the opportunity to tell stories like this."

Swat stories

Most of the stories are set in the Swat Valley, where in 2009 the Pakistani army launched a huge offensive to win back control of the area from the Taliban.

The army eventually triumphed, but since then not all of its publicity has been good.

Image caption,
The drama makes compelling, thrilling television

Foreign diplomats have frequently raised concerns that Pakistan's army is in fact supporting some militant groups who want to carry out attacks in Afghanistan or India. It is a charge vehemently denied by the country's leaders.

And a few months ago a video began circulating on the internet that appears to show Pakistani soldiers leading blindfolded and bound young men through a forest, before the men are lined up and shot dead.

Another web video apparently shows soldiers administering vicious beatings to detainees.

The army has questioned the authenticity of both clips, but says it is investigating them and that any soldier shown to have done anything wrong will be severely punished.

Human rights groups say they have documented many cases very similar to those depicted in the videos. They accuse the army of carrying out numerous extrajudicial killings in Swat and of torture.

The US state department says it takes the issue extremely seriously and has raised it with the Pakistani authorities.

Damaged reputation

But on the streets of Swat's main city, Mingora, very few people had anything bad to say about the military.

Many, in fact, were gushing in their praise, saying they had not even heard of the criticism that had been levelled against soldiers.

When our microphones were turned off, though, some told us it simply was not wise to speak ill of the military.

"The people feel scared when they criticise the army because the army is in power in Swat," says Ziauddin Yousafzai, spokesman for the Swat Council of Elders.

He thinks that the people of the area are certainly grateful for the operation that brought an end to Taliban rule, but that they had now grown tired of what they saw as army interference in many aspects of daily life.

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The series has cost the military a lot of money

"The army's minimum presence, to deter terrorists is important," he says. "But it is important that their involvement in civilian life must be wound up as soon as possible.

"Their continued presence here will only be harmful and injurious to our social life."

The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history. The final months of the last military dictatorship, of President Pervez Musharraf, were particularly damaging for the army's reputation in the country.

But by trying to bring its human face right into people's homes through its new drama, the army is attempting to convince Pakistanis it is doing only what is in their country's best interests.