A SERIES of recent events has led many to speculate that winds of change pertaining to the national security paradigm may be blowing in Islamabad’s policy corridors. From the Pakistan army chief’s calling on India and Pakistan to bury the past and move on, and the exchange of letters between the two countries’ prime ministers, to the renewed discourse on bilateral trade — despite the subsequent backtracking — it reflects Pakistan’s apparently changing and intertwined national security and economic diplomacy outlooks. And this is happening at a time when an initial draft of the long-awaited national security policy is expected to be soon submitted to the prime minister.
Successive governments in Pakistan, since 2008 to be precise, have struggled to craft a brand new, comprehensive national security policy. They assigned the task to diplomats, bureaucrats, and retired generals, who submitted the drafts to their respective governments. While the governments, for reasons unknown, preferred not to announce or make public those policy drafts, portions of these made their way into the media. They indicated a shift from geostrategic to geo-economic considerations, and the insertion of non-traditional and human security dimensions into the orbit of national security. The last policy document had gone a step further by adding a component of regional connectivity to supplement the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative while conceiving Pakistan as a transit state. Although previous versions have already covered most essential elements of national security, both internal and external, the incumbent government claims that the policy draft it intends to put forth would be the outcome of a more inclusive process.
However, it is difficult to understand these ‘mysterious’ inclusive processes in Pakistan, in particular on national security, which evade parliament and are usually considered the exclusive domain of powerful institutions. Lack of parliamentary debate on the issue was also a major flaw in the previous drafts of the national security policy. On the whole, in Pakistan, democracy or democratic processes are hardly considered a factor in nurturing national cohesion, building trust among communities and bringing economic prosperity to the country. There is no harm in getting input from academic institutions and think tanks, despite their sorry state of affairs in the country. At least the standing and special committees of the lower and upper houses can be taken on board. In the end, these committees can ensure implementation and transparency in policy discourse. But the establishment is not a big fan of these committees and often ridicules the ‘quality’ of the people’s representatives.
The fate of the policy framework, which has yet to materialise, cannot be predicted. The bureaucracy has also developed some security frameworks, including the National Internal Security Policy, Counter Violent Extremism Policy, and National Dialogue Policy. However, these policies have never been taken seriously enough to be implemented. The existing power structure is not capable of conceiving new ideas nor can it implement even what it devises on its own. The National Action Plan is another example of this failure, with a little exception in that parliament was taken on board, at least for its endorsement. This is the reason NAP is still alive in memory and we recall it whenever any critical extremism challenge arises.
A shift in our security approach needs open discussion on public forums, media, and in parliament.
Developing a discourse on critical security challenges does not require rocket science. The collective memory of a nation guides its provisions, which are largely related to our lives, society and nation. Drafting may require skill and for this purpose, the bureaucracy is brought in. If shorn of clichés and jargon, the national security discourse can be described in a simple way.
To handle its internal and external challenges, Pakistan needs a strong economy and good relations with the world, especially with its neighbours. Among the neighbours, India is the most critical challenge, mainly because of the Kashmir issue. To deal with India, there are several courses of action possible, including direct talks, mediation or complete disengagement. To defuse tensions, there are few better examples in both countries than the efforts made by Vajpayee, Musharraf, and Mian Nawaz Sharif. If required, these can be used as a template or they can be reinvented, but the most important consideration is leadership.
The relationship between India and Pakistan has passed through many ups and downs. During the good patches it has triggered enormous optimism on both sides, but its fundamentally conventional framework has remained intact. It is interesting that whenever a change in national security is conceived in Islamabad, it starts from the eastern border. This is natural as our political universe revolves around the threat from the eastern side, and this is deeply rooted in our psyche.
In that context, does there need to be a shift in Pakistan’s security approach? Does the conventional security paradigm not serve the purpose? If so, why, and what kind of shift does the power elite have in mind? These questions need an open discussion on public forums, media, and most importantly, in parliament.
Pakistan’s political and strategic position has been subject to an international coercive process, where its relationship with traditional allies including the US and the Middle East has gone through a transformative phase, and India has exploited it very well. Since its inception, Pakistan’s economy has remained dependent on its political and strategic relationship with the world, mainly the West, China, and the Middle East. Whenever global and regional political dynamics change, Pakistan’s economy suffers. The power elites have been successful in so far as realignment and adjusting according to their strategic needs are concerned, but they have never seriously addressed the economic issue.
Pakistan has to focus more on transforming its economy, which may require good relations with India, Afghanistan and Iran. Conceiving everything in the security perspective and putting everything in the basket of human security will further empower the elites, which are least interested in reforming the economy, state, and society, and more concerned about maximising the advantages to themselves. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has become a victim of this mindset. CPEC has great potential to transform the economy and challenge the existing means of production, but the idea has been confined to a narrow strategic and political context.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2021