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The chief’s choice

December 06, 2016


INCOMING army chief Gen Bajwa takes over at a time when Pakistan is already on the road to recovery. Since 2010, the country has experienced a significant reduction in terrorist violence. The economy has also begun to rebound. Gen Bajwa and the civilian government could keep doing more of the same to achieve further incremental progress. But this would reflect a ‘good enough’ approach. It’ll definitely keep Pakistan out of the ICU but we’ll still be weak and frail.

Would the general consider what it would take to make Pakistan a truly economically successful and peaceful country that is respected by the world? Will he be willing to introspect and identify the deepest binding constraints holding Pakistan back and where his institution may have been part of the problem?

What may he discover?

First, that Pakistan’s current strategic paradigm guarantees that it will remain economically mediocre. A big reason is the security establishment’s regional outlook. Since the 1990s, when regional trading blocs became fashionable, overwhelming evidence has pointed to a direct correlation between strong regional economic interaction and national growth and progress of the countries involved. In our case, it would mean opening up economically to India.

What are the options for peace?

Naysayers argue that rather than singling out the India piece, we need to focus on domestic economic reforms, explore alternative trading and investment partners, and recognise that CPEC is a game changer. The general should sit with trade economists to understand the flaws in this contention. Even when we add up realistic appraisals of possible reforms, includes CPEC, and factor in new export markets Pakistan can tap, we still end up well short of what the country needs to keep competing with India and other peer countries.

More importantly, it is absolute, not relative, gains that matter. We need to be concerned about the additional growth we would generate from acting as a trade and transit hub for the near and far neighbourhood and the force-multiplier effect it would have rather than what India or others might get out of the arrangement. Plainly, the new chief must know that keeping the region closed guarantees that India and Pakistan’s differential will continue to grow in New Delhi’s favour.

Thinking through alternatives, he should consult political economists who can demonstrate policy options to allow greater regional integration without capitulating to India — rather, while strengthening Pakistan’s hand over the long run. I have repeatedly elaborated on these options in my columns.

Next, how does Pakistan go from the recent improvements in fighting domestic terrorism to durable peace? The answer one universally gets from experts is that the next counterterrorism phase is likely to be focused on urban areas and requires exemplary coordination between the military and civilians on implementing the National Action Plan.

The army chief has two challenges here. One, that the civilian sector is exceptionally weak. He can’t do much about it. Two, that civilian politicos and law-enforcement institutions feel that the security establishment operates more as a master than a friend. This, he must fix.

In researching for my edited book Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge some years ago, I was alarmed at just how deep the distrust between civilian law-enforcement and intelligence and the military was. At times, the civilian sphere echoed views of the establishment’s intentions not much different from what one hears in the most critical quarters of the Western world. The military, on its part, not only finds these views exaggerated and misinformed, but tends to see its civilian counterparts as apathetic and worthless.

With such a disconnect, you can’t hope for much in terms of coordination. If so, efforts in pursuit of NAP will remain disjointed and suboptimal. Militant outfits will be the ultimate beneficiaries, and both the civilians and military fighting them will continue to incur losses.

Finally, little respect for Pakistan internationally implies all sorts of losses in terms of economic activity, increased risk of global isolation, etc.

If the general is a realist, he’ll realise the basic problem: Pakistan’s security policy runs smack in the face of the interests of world’s only superpower and its chief partners in South Asia. The US-led international community has forged a universal consensus that policies linked to violent non-state actors specifically of the Islamist bent are no longer acceptable. The apparent inability or unwillingness to tackle allegedly Pakistan-based violent actors aimed at Afghanistan and India defies this consensus. Fair or not, till this holds, Pakistan’s global perception will keep taking a major hit.

Gen Bajwa should work with his team to identify policy choices that protect Pakistan’s national interests, but without undermining or antagonising the US. Incidentally, this is exactly the advice his predecessors and Pakistan’s civilian leaders have consistently received from China.

Pakistan needs more than a good enough approach from its civilian and military leadership. The new army chief can set the tone for his institution.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2016