By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:45 PM
IN ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN In newspapers and on television here, a recurring villain is the United States, with its drones and its war in Afghanistan - all portrayed as instigators of Pakistan's increasingly bloody battle with terrorism.
But in the latest drama series airing on state television, a different story line unfolds. Here, the scoundrels are bearded mountain men with distorted ideas about Islam, and the heroes are the security forces and civilians dying at the hands of the extremists.
The glossy, 11-part program is the latest rally-the-public effort by the army, long Pakistan's most powerful institution and now a favored target of homegrown militants. Although the series is meant for a domestic audience and does not mention the United States, its theme of Pakistani sacrifice is one that military officers have been impressing upon U.S. officials, who are pushing for more Pakistani counterterrorism operations.
There is little dispute that Pakistan has been hit hard by Islamist militants, who hide in rugged peaks near the Afghanistan border. Nearly 2,700 soldiers have been killed fighting the Pakistani Taliban, the army says, and thousands of civilians have died in militant attacks nationwide.
Even so, analysts say, the state and the public remained ambivalent about fighting insurgents until they took over the bucolic Swat Valley, not far from Islamabad, the capital, in 2008. And although the army enjoys broad public approval, its reputation has been colored by online video of soldiers executing prisoners and by persistent allegations, including from U.S. officials, that elements of the military support the Afghan Taliban and anti-India guerrillas.
Those sensitive topics are not featured in the television series, which offers nail-biting battle scenes and the stories of real people affected by terrorism - among them bereaved relatives and a young woman kidnapped and molested by insurgents.
But neither are there images of soldiers triumphing over militants, a scenario that army press releases often describe. In the first two episodes, a police officer and an army captain die as they stand up to insurgents. In the third, an aspiring young suicide bomber surrenders to police, but his instructors are not pursued.
And, perhaps surprisingly, that episode finds fault with Pakistan itself, not foreign forces or terrorists. Once plainclothes officers finish interrogating the would-be bomber, they come to a sober conclusion: The Pakistani state has failed the teen, and he needs help.
"We are trying to keep our product as close to reality as possible," said executive producer Khawar Azhar, whose public relations firm partnered with the army to make the program. "If the suicide attacks are still taking place, if the schools and security establishments are still being bombed, then it is clear that the war is not over."
The episode about the aspiring suicide bomber begins with a black-garbed militant, his eyes ringed with kohl, stalking the sidelines of young Raheem Gul's cricket match. The man lays on the flattery, comparing Raheem to Pakistan's most favorite cricketer, before noting that cricket is a game of infidel Englishmen.
More militant wisdom follows. It is un-Islamic to shave, he tells the scruffy-faced teen. To go to paradise, the militant advises, you must kill infidels "and everyone who is associated with infidels." Fatherless and poor, Raheem is swayed, and soon he is at Taliban boot camp.
"Fifty suicide bombers are ready for the mission," the militant says in one scene, speaking by cellphone with a funder. "Just keep sending the money. Don't worry about the supply . . . Pakistan has many poor people. Better they die for God than from illness."
As Raheem is about to blow up a mosque, he balks and runs to the police.
Wasi Shah, the writer of the episode, said he and others involved in the series viewed hours of videotaped army interrogations of would-be bombers. Shah said he concluded that his character's motivation would stem as much from a lack of opportunity as from religion - a point he said the army was reluctant to emphasize.
"We requested them, 'Please don't close your eyes, don't live in a state of denial,' " Shah said. "What has the state done for these children? No one has done anything."
It's too soon to know how many people are watching the series, which counts among the few dramatic portrayals of the war on terrorism in Pakistan, where talk shows and news programs dominate.
But Brig. Gen. Syed Azmat Ali, an army spokesman, said the show has attracted almost 50 percent more advertising than typical television programs. E-mails and phone calls about the series are flooding army headquarters, he said.
"They keep calling," he said. "And everyone who rings is in tears."
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.