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June 8, 2016

Army: default decision-maker?


June 8, 2016

The news is that the prime minister, recuperating from his surgery, will not be back in the country for perhaps another month. May he recover soon. Evidently, the recuperating prime minister has peripheral engagement on some matters of state.

On other critical matters, especially national security and foreign policy, matters are in a suspended zone although the thrust of current geo-economic and geo-security developments around Pakistan require a more hands-on steering of foreign and security policy. Barring grand plans backed by some project-specific planning, and expenditure on regional connectivity and the economic front as well as continuous military force build-up, there has been no comprehensive and coordinated inter-institutional discussion on the strategic environment within which Pakistan pursues its major security and foreign policy objectives.

While successive governments have continued to identify Pakistan’s numerous critical policy goals – including improved relations with neighbours, settling outstanding disputes such as Kashmir and Siachen, the energy issue, water disputes, decreasing the conventional and non-conventional arms race – there are three strategic security and foreign policy objectives that all successive governments in recent years have had consensus.

One, securing Pakistan from external security threats through strong military defence. Two, achieving economic prosperity by capitalising on Pakistan’s pivotal geographical position by actively charting with regional neighbours and utilising for trade and transport the northern-southern economic corridors. And three, utilising Pakistan’s pivotal location in the northern and southern regional corridors as an economic multiplier and an effective security leverage.

Clearly, these three macro-strategic objectives are long term. They still require clear and comprehensive long-term commitment – starting now. Ensuring unwavering commitment by all foreign policy and security stakeholders, however, requires the unpacking and repacking of these objectives to arrive at a PM-led inter-institutional consensus within an institutionalised framework of the National Security Committee.

Buy-in from all stakeholders is essential. For that, regular, informed and candid inter-institutional policy debate on policy approaches and viable policy tool-kits is critical. Such institutionalised dialogue alone will create a viable inter-institutional consensus. Also such dialogue alone can ensure the transparency required in policymaking to reduce the current trust-deficit among foreign and security policy stakeholders.

Consensus creation is a complex affair but it certainly helps to acquire and to erode authority. However tedious it may be, consistent, candid and competent debate within a transparent institutional framework does help in the recalibration of power. Such debate-based consensus building is always the authority-enhancing instrument of the unarmed elected leader. Yet our prime minister, perhaps still too captivated by past military strikes, seems averse to such a policymaking approach. Interestingly, he is known to have held extended meetings with the army chief and also regular interaction with the ISI chief but has only called one meeting of the National Security Committee in the last 18 months.

Even more interestingly, on several issues including confidence-building with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and on the Haqqani Network, on the Pathankot investigation and on the Iran-Saudi peace-brokering trip the prime minister has had extended and to some extent consensus-building discussions with the army chief and other intelligence institutions. But such consensus has eroded under the pressure of subsequent developments related to these issues and with a near blank from the prime minister.

The PM’s attention span on these issues is fairly limited and his preference for personalised chit chat over an institutionalised approach is only too obvious. His restive team have often unsuccessfully urged him to call cabinet and National Security Committee meetings. Perhaps the only two people, apart from his daughter and brother, who can prompt the prime minister into some policy action are Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar.

The prime minister’s lack of interest or a mere informal approach to matters of foreign and security policy has clearly led to the more powerful and organised institution, the military, steering policy in their preferred direction. Irrespective of his constitutional position, in Pakistan’s de-facto power structure the army chief tops the pecking order – only after the prime minister. Other ministers and advisers rarely function at parity with the army chief. And, with the PM’s virtual withdrawal from institutionalised policymaking, men like Sartaj Aziz and Tariq Fatemi carry little weight in a policy dialogue with the army. This is why both the prime minister and other security institutions sideline the Foreign Office.

Equally, the new ‘policy kid’ in town, National Security Adviser Lt-Gen (r) Janjua, has been stationed comfortably within the PM’s Secretariat and no more. A man with clear thinking on security matters is of marginal utility to the prime minister. The NSA’s high point has been his one meeting and few telephone chats with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval. Inevitably, there is then the perpetuation of a linear security approach in Pakistan’s tackling of comprehensive national security matters.

The current practice of institutions and individuals with opposing policy views taking to crude propaganda against each other through media and foreign friends is a no-win situation for Pakistan. Low-level propaganda leading the mishandled Indian spy-master’s Kulbhushan Yadav’s case to other RAW agents speaks volumes of the battles that our power-players fight within.

The list is endless. Any sense of victory may be relished only as far as internal petty power battles go. It may also through many guided televised verbal bouts help in some point-scoring. Externally too this is such a non-win for Pakistan, given the developments within the region and beyond Pakistan. Our regional neighbours, our SAARC partners, our OIC friends – they are all weaving trade and security ties, as they must. Pakistan is yet to walk its talk. Bluster and rhetoric are no substitute for policy.

Why are we consistently stuck with bluster and rhetoric? When the PM-led civilians don’t soberly think through, articulate, conduct and project policy matters and when institutions are undermined and a personalised approach to policymaking trumps all else, then those with existing institutional power and active engagement on policy matters home and abroad will dominate policymaking.

This ceding of space by distracted or incompetent elected civilians has been a chronic problem. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Junejo were exceptions. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif made half-baked attempts to lead policymaking. Nawaz Sharif’s India initiative in 1999, derailed by Musharraf and his team, was an exception.

Today, the onus to alter this erratic and effectively lop-sided policymaking paradigm rests on the elected prime minister. For this the obvious requirement is a cerebral policy huddle of all stakeholders that influence and implement foreign and security policy. It would help the elected PM take informed policy decisions. The known tension between two powerful men in the prime minister’s power circle, the interior minister and the finance minister, rules out a meeting of the National Security Committee.

Does this mean that many critical foreign and security policy issues that need to be addressed immediately will, in the absence of the prime minister, be decided – by default – by the army?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra


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