The heart of the matter

January 21, 2011


WHEN we learned via WikiLeaks that the Indian foreign secretary thinks the Pakistani military is “hypnotically obsessed” with India, we were hardly shocked. Over the years, many (including this columnist) have commented on this obsession.

Why, they have repeatedly asked, does the Pakistani army not thin out its troops along the Indian border in order to face the more immediate threat in our tribal areas along the Durand Line? After all, India is highly unlikely to attack Pakistan while we are preoccupied with the jihadi threat.

The reality is that the Pakistani officer corps has been trained to view India as our primary foe. But more importantly, defence planners everywhere analyse the capability of potential enemies, not their intentions. In this calculus, India looms large on our military's horizon.

In most countries, while the defence ministry carries out analyses of dangers posed by possible foes, it is the foreign office that assesses their intentions. Based on these two inputs, the political leadership decides on resource allocations to the military, keeping in view budgetary constraints as well as the needs of the social sector.

These competing demands are mediated first in the cabinet and then debated in parliament before being approved through a vote. The budget document that emerges at the end of this process reflects the priorities and constraints agreed upon by all major stakeholders.

In Pakistan, however, budgetary allocations are skewed by the fact that the army plays such a dominant role in the process. Not only does it assess military risks, but it evaluates intentions as well.

Finally, it virtually dictates to the government what resources it wants. Such is its stranglehold over the institutions of the state that the single-line entry for defence in the budget is not even debated in the National Assembly.

Ultimately it is the allocation of resources and the taxation structure that reflect the true distribution of power. In Pakistan the military siphons off the lion's share of resources and the feudal class pays no taxes, while the business community gets away without paying anywhere near what it should. In this sense, both our income and expenditure are off-kilter.

This state of affairs has persisted for decades, and its effects are obvious in the shape of a poorly educated, undernourished population with high levels of unemployment. Whether we talk about the dangers posed by home-grown terrorists in the tribal areas and southern Punjab or about gangsters in Karachi, we need to ask what options these young killers have. They have effectively been denied any meaningful education and the opportunities that would flow from it. We criticise the mushrooming of madressahs but fail to tell poor parents where they should educate their children in the absence of the required state investment in education.

So when the country is near collapse, we should not just wring our hands over the end result but look at the causes behind it. And these are, I fear, all too evident: it does not require a rocket scientist to point out that when the state is unable or unwilling to invest in its people, frustration and poverty will drive them to desperation.

But it is not very helpful to go on beating the drum about the army's acts of omission and commission. After all, any institution that wields unchallenged power will use it for its own ends. Their vision confined by the blinkers of purely military threat perceptions, defence planners have failed to see that their 'hypnotic obsession' with India has bred internal foes that the army is ill-equipped to fight.

It is also true that India has done little to reassure Pakistan that it means us no harm. Over the years its defence budget has grown steadily and it has embarked on an alarming arms procurement and development programme. Whenever I have written about this, I have instantly been deluged with angry emails from Indian readers who loftily remind me that India is playing on a much larger stage and has preoccupations other than Pakistan.

While this might be so, it is scant comfort to Pakistani defence planners who see a huge buildup on their eastern border. It would be irresponsible for any military commander to close his eyes to such developments in his neighbourhood, especially given the antagonistic history India and Pakistan share.

Nevertheless, if Pakistan is not to become a failed state, it needs to get its act together. For starters, there needs to be a clear understanding of the factors that have brought us to the brink. Rampant population growth, illiteracy, corruption and lack of opportunity make a lethal mix. Thus far the military's attitude is that none of these issues are its problems and should be addressed by politicians and government functionaries.

But the reality is that after defence expenditure and debt servicing have scooped up around 90 per cent of the budget, there is very little left for the social sector. Until the military and the political leadership can negotiate a more rational division of resources, things will continue to go from bad to worse. The other side of the equation is the pressing need for a more equitable tax structure.

Both policy changes need political will and a spirit of co-operation across the political spectrum. Currently, I see neither on the horizon. But if the military wants to become a part of the solution and not remain a part of the problem, it needs to wake up to reality. It is of little use to deter the traditional foe if a home-grown enemy is wreaking havoc against ordinary Pakistanis.

Having paid heavily to sustain a huge military establishment over the years, surely we have the right to demand better protection than we have been getting. Had a guard I had hired insisted on manning the gate while a gang of armed robbers jumped over the wall to attack me and my family, I would have sacked him immediately.