Friday September 29, 2023

Securing the nation – promises vs reality

January 20, 2022

The Imran Khan government in its last year has announced its national security policy (NSP). The paper lays out the country’s grand strategy, which theoretically speaking is never limited to military security but entails plans for economic, industrial, social, cultural and human development as well.

So, it doesn’t even matter if the National Security Division (NSD) claims or doesn’t that it is presenting a major policy shift from geo-strategy to geo-economics. In any case, such a transformation cannot happen without re-organizing the existing civil-military balance. On which the NSP is totally silent. This makes the likelihood of the effort stumbling on to old traditions a greater possibility. The paper reads like a singer starting off with a good melody but soon losing the tune. In Pakistan’s case, the shift from a security state to an economic hub requires tearing away from traditions and building upon a new energetic process.

In any case, a national strategy is something that becomes big powers or those desiring a major shift in national direction. Pakistan, despite claims, is neither.

The US itself started to write its NSP in the late 1980s when it wanted to shift away from the fifty-year-old cold-war framework. According to renowned British military strategic thinker, Lawrence Freedman, national security policies have a “short half-life as they get overtaken by events. They are rarely that revealing but can give a sense of priorities and areas for future investment. When you get them every few years, they can give you a sense of policy shifts.”

For Britain, which continues to struggle to renegotiate its post-global power status while struggling to maintain some of the old sheen, a policy document is a form of bureaucratic hand-holding towards a certain direction. This is why the various segments of the UK NSP lay out concrete numbers in percentage terms to indicate shift in priority. Except for its verbose claims that the emphasis will now be geoeconomics not geo-strategy, Pakistan’s NSP gives no other concrete evidence that it has conceptualised a shift away from a military-centered approach.

It is suspected that the meat is in the undisclosed part of the report. But this is where the problem lies. The government cannot pretend to be relatively stable like the US and imagine change in its own less stable backyard without bringing people’s representatives on board. The NSP was not shared with any political party or individual members. The NSA briefly stated that he was willing to share the document with parliament without specifying if he was referring to the public one or the secret one. For a meaningful change, the government must get off its high horse that a national security policy document is a task for the executive alone.

This is not the first time that change is imagined. Change was talked about in the past but abandoned. For instance, not too long ago General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani spoke about focusing on the internal threat being more serious but then never managed a shift. The idea of a dialogue between geo-strategy and geo-economics probably dates back to the Kayani period. However, transformative changes also require transformative processes which this one lacks.

Imagining a match between a transformative formula and process reminds me of South Africa after apartheid. A direction away from a security state was undertaken by first undertaking a broad consultative process. Commissions were established on the pattern of bodies for ‘truth and reconciliation’ that recorded views of all major stakeholders including the public that were allowed to speak about threats and security. This data layered the resultant national strategy on which was then based the military’s vision statement and the size of the armed forces determined. Though very ambitious for Islamabad at this juncture, a shift towards geo-economics cannot be imagined without broadening the dialogue beyond the selective team of people that the NSA and his men spoke with.

There are two issues here at hand. First, one is not clear how the selection of these 500 people was done and if these numbers actually denote diversity of opinion. Leave alone various known people writing on state-centric issues, even the two smaller services of the armed forces didn’t get attention. A glance at the teams of the three key government institutions – the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI), Institute of Regional Studies (IRS) and the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) – does not encourage anyone about the quality of thinking that went into the product. Transformation requires a fresh approach and not being boxed inside an echo chamber which is what seems to have happened here.

Second, the task was too big for the NSD which is a minimal bureaucratic institution. Established in 2014, it lacks the potential to produce a meaningful document leave alone review it annually or as the need arises, and monitor its implementation across the state. We can only end up with an ambitious expansion of state bureaucracy in which the paraphernalia could become greater than the task accomplished. It certainly requires commitment of resources to be agreed to by parliament and not to be pushed down parliament’s throat like the State Bank of Pakistan bill or the mini-budget. It is worth noting that the American national strategy is an executive policy tool – but backed by the Goldwater-Nicholas legislation that underwrites the policy as a dialogue between the Congress and the executive. Where is the dialogue between the government and parliament in NSD’s game?

Re-imagining Pakistan, which this paper hopes to undertake, is not possible without re-thinking the dialogue process and diversifying it. Resultantly, our Indian neighbours picked up the signals, as mentioned by renowned journalist Shekhar Gupta, that Pakistan is probably hurting internally and wants to change its direction towards building a more domestically, socially and economically robust nation. However, this requires an elaborate and generous formula for outreach and engagement that ought to begin with parliament.

It is not wise to think of the NSD effort only with suspicion but it is still worth pointing out that its ‘doing-it-alone’ formula may sustain a bureaucracy but not produce a meaningful process. Although those who in 2013/14 thought of redrawing the national security policymaking structure viewed parliament cautiously because of lack of capacity, a major transformation cannot be undertaken without building the political and institutional muscles of parliament and increasing its share of the policymaking and its implementation pie.

The writer is author of ‘Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, and senior fellow, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. She tweets @iamthedrifter