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Let’s discuss security

June 01, 2011

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THE disorganised discussions on matters related to national security in the wake of the Abbottabad operation, and the havoc wrought by militants at PNS Mehran in Karachi betray a whopping decline in the quality of collective thinking.

There is great emphasis on peripheral matters while essential issues are being ignored, and one suspects a method in this madness.

This has happened earlier, whenever vested interests have wished a public debate to be diverted away from core issues and towards incidentals. For instance, the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 was blamed on Yahya Khan for his drinking and womanising, not on the system over which he presided.

As regards the Abbottabad operation, nearly all questions raised both at policymaking sessions and non-official chat forums relate to the US decision to ignore its loyal ally and the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. In view of these, the need to review Pakistan-US relations is being stressed.

These matters are no doubt important but far more critical is the issue of the inadequacy of the security cover — the failure to detect Bin Laden’s hideout and the US surveillance post in Abbottabad and the failure to register the US helicopters’ arrival in and departure from Abbottabad, even though newspapers had promptly reported the crashing of one of the aerial machines.

These aspects of the matter generate fears of intrusion into Pakistan by other elements and the possibility of undetected attacks on vital assets and installations. All that we have by way of an answer is routine rhetoric about impregnable security arrangements and assurances that the nuclear weapons will not be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemies of Pakistan, assurances that sound utterly hollow after the Abbottabad and Mehran debacles. The public wants credible assurances that not only will the nuclear weapons be protected against thieves but also that the people will be protected against radiation in the event of an unplanned explosion.

Likewise, much effort is being expended on finding out whether the militants who captured the Mehran base and kept the security forces at bay for many hours were four or six or 20; official spokespersons are busy retracting a statement — that the Mehran incident was no security lapse — and thus denying credit for the goof of the decade. The real issues are: the lack of security against militants, the quality of the raiders’ training and their discipline, the possible existence of militants’ accomplices within the services and the overall responsibility for national security.

After a fairly acerbic haggle the government has announced a five-member commission to probe the Abbottabad affair.

Unfortunately, the composition of the commission and disregard for the process of due consultation, especially with the opposition, have been criticised. Even after these objections have been met, it may be useful to bear in mind the difficulties faced in the past by bodies formed to probe matters in which the holy cows of the security establishment have been involved.

During the Musharraf reign a senator only wanted to know whether the government was going to set up a commission to probe the Kargil misadventure. The question was killed by the Senate chairman in his chamber. Even when commissions are set up their reports are usually not made public. What happened to the Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s report is history. The report of the judicial commission set up in 2010 to inquire into involuntary disappearances remains a secret. The government does not have the courage to release it and the judiciary is yet to take notice.

One should like to hope that whatever shape it eventually assumes the commission will look at the Abbottabad affair as one of the symptoms of the malaise that has been eating into the vitals of the state for decades. A better proposition should be to probe not only what happened on May 2, 2011 but the entire gamut of the security establishment’s relationship with the extremists and their activities in Pakistan and elsewhere. For this the commission may, if necessary, follow the Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s example and enlarge its mandate.

The stark reality everyone in Pakistan, regardless of one’s affiliation with the civil or military establishment, must face is that public faith in the efficacy of the system of planning and implementing security policies has suffered a huge blow. The political authorities are being blamed and rightly so for leaving security matters exclusively in the hands of military leaders.

True, the military must be largely responsible for carrying out security plans but it cannot be trusted with the task of fixing security objectives and priorities. That responsibility must be shouldered by elected governments under the closest possible supervision of parliament. Of course, the military has a right to express its views while policies are framed, and this never in public, but it cannot have veto rights. Any society in any part of the world that has violated this principle has come to grief.

A major issue, therefore, is the need to strengthen accountability mechanisms in security-related areas. What may be claimed to be in place at the moment might not meet the test even for internal audit. Bringing military planning under government control and all military expenditures under the purview of the auditor general and the Public Accounts Committee should help revive public confidence at least in the procedure if not the outcome.

There is no need to hide people’s reservations about the perks the military leaders enjoy and appear keen to flaunt in public. A large number of people have begun to share Gen Atiq-ur-Rahman’s anxiety and disgust at the top military officers’ love of ostentation and their casual approach to spending public money (see his memoirs, Back to the Pavilion). The people expect the defenders of their territory to be austere and self-abnegating, at least a shade more than the accursed politicians.

It is also necessary to review the security doctrine embedded in Gen Zia’s or President Leghari’s design for a National Security Council which gave the armed forces a decisive say in all fields of governance — from social welfare to foreign policy. Pakistan will become stronger and its security will be better guaranteed if parliament and civil society are allowed to debate and contribute to the security planning processes.

This obviously means that the Foreign Office and the people cannot be excluded from the process of reviewing or recasting Pakistan’s relations with the US. Or with India, China, Iran or any other state for that matter. What Pakistan needs today is not only a thorough probe into the circumstances leading to Abbottabad and Mehran but fresh thinking to avoid being a “disappointment to its people and a danger to the world” as a British magazine has put it.