AGAINST the backdrop of uncertainty stemming from a transitioning Afghanistan, the in camera national security briefing given by the military and intelligence chiefs to legislators the other day is to be welcomed.
The chiefs spoke largely about the volatile situation in Afghanistan, though developments in India-held Kashmir and US efforts to contain China also came up. Given the implications of each of these relationships for Pakistan, it was important for those who have historically influenced foreign policy in the country to take lawmakers into confidence about the situation. Such a meeting is an opportunity for legislators to ask questions about the success of past policies and weigh in on lessons for the future. In fact, the interior minister after the meeting talked of the army’s change in policy when it came to committing bases and troops to other countries — a significant change that warrants an explanation.
There are reports of a second potential security briefing, which, if held, should provide a good opportunity for lawmakers on both the opposition and treasury benches to continue this dialogue. Though Sheikh Rashid talked of the army, government and opposition being on the ‘same page’ on security issues, frank conversations underpinned by questions should be welcomed by the military so that the political stakeholders can make informed decisions on challenges that are bound to outlive the government of the day.
In the recent past, similar briefings have taken place on important issues such as the Gilgit-Baltistan elections and the downing of Indian jets by Pakistan in 2019. But Prime Minister Imran Khan has mostly remained absent from such briefings. This time, too, the prime minister was not at the meeting, and a controversy erupted as to why he did not attend. Though the government claims Mr Khan stayed away because opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif purportedly told the National Assembly speaker he would not attend if the prime minister were there, the PML-N has rejected the statement, and pointed out that his name was not on the list of attendees in the notification.
Ironically, the briefing, which was billed earlier as one that would mark the beginning of a ‘new era of politics’ in the country, has given more reason to both government and opposition lawmakers to bicker. Reports indicate that the military and security chiefs, too, addressed this ‘divisive politics’ and called on lawmakers to avoid it — a statement that should serve as a warning to politicians about how their inability to communicate is giving further room to the establishment to interfere in civilian matters.
Lawmakers on both sides should demonstrate that they are able to hold civilised discussions to reach agreement on critical issues without needing reminders from the military. For too long, the security establishment has dominated the decision-making process in the country. It is only by strengthening democratic institutions and making parliament sovereign that politicians can lead the decision-making process.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2021