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Defence challenges

June 03, 2013

THE recent elections constitute a milestone in the country’s history; the earlier coalition government was rejected with not an insignificant degree of humiliation. This is a lesson that the incoming government ought to internalise: its future may well be the same unless its performance is different.

Incoming prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif will have his hands full; several matters are in dire straits and Pakistan has, in international eyes, become virtually a pariah state. The people are suffering due to the energy crisis and soaring unemployment rates while violent extremism is rapidly engulfing the country as a result of a lack of consensus among the political parties.

If history is any guide, Mian Sahib has always made controversial decisions regarding the selection of his chief of army staff; he has also had an up-and-down relationship with the armed forces. He has conducted the relations on the basis of personal preferences but the army is a disciplined and organised institution and its decisions follow a chain of command, through appropriate forums.

Normally, the most competent and possibly the most senior general ought to be appointed to the position of the army chief. But Mr Sharif was, in the past, averse to creating an institutional mechanism to deal with the armed forces and to understand and debate defence issues.

If Mr Sharif is averse to the idea of the National Security Council (NSC), then he has the option of strengthening the Defence Cabinet Committee with civilian defence experts and which should have a permanent secretariat; this secretariat could also draw suggestions from think tanks and other stakeholders. The country’s defence policy cannot be resolved through mere bonhomie between the prime minister and the chief of army staff.

There are also some reports that Mr Sharif is mulling over appointing a national security adviser. If this is the case, such an adviser should not be reduced to a ceremonial post. He should have competent staff at his disposal to gauge threats in the regional and global contexts and formulate the country’s defence policies in the best national interests.

The recommendations of this body and the suggestions of the GHQ should be juxtaposed and debated thoroughly at the Defence Cabinet Committee. Only then will we be able to devise an appropriate defence policy. Once this is achieved, other policies such as that on the foreign front will follow.

Mian Sahib has many plus points; he is well-received by Pakistan’s trading community and he is a diehard nationalist. He could turn the tide on the energy crises, corruption and unemployment through better governance and management, as his party has demonstrated in Punjab. He wants to improve relations with India which is not a bad idea but he appears to be soft on terrorism, which is a priority issue.

If the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in KP doesn’t cooperate with the federal PML-N government, this could further complicate issues (although both parties’ take on terrorism is the same).

An improvement in relations with India is a good idea but the pros and cons needs to be discussed thoroughly. We have already been making distinct efforts in this regard but some hawks there have taken this as weakness and compulsion. Possible adverse effects on Pakistan’s trade will also need to be factored into the equation.

Curbing terrorism through negotiations and a mindset that says ‘this is not our war’ or ‘military solutions have never worked’ are mere political sloganeering. This is too simplistic a view about a monstrous issue that is eating into the vitals of the country.

However, since this has been the PML-N and the PTI’s political view, articulated through their election campaigns, they have all the right to pursue it to its logical end and the nation should pray for its success.

Yet I must utter a word of caution. The politicians should remember previous negotiations with the extremists and militants: the militants have always laced the offer of talks with preconditions such as the release of their most wanted men and have used the time gained to eliminate important personalities in government and society. They know that talks are just a farce, notwithstanding the seriousness on the government’s part.

The outcome of the decision to make an effort at negotiations is that either they will succeed — although the Taliban have spurned the talks offer at the moment following a drone attack that killed a TTP leader — or at least these two mainstream parties will be convinced that the solution to the problem is not as simple as they had thought. They may realise that the solution lies somewhere else. And this will bring consensus amongst political parties; the opinion of the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal is best ignored.

We should also remember that we are part of the international community which is keenly watching the policy the new government will form on terrorism.

The writer is a retired brigadier, former home secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and former secretary Fata.