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Who defines national interest?

November 10, 2012

WHEN General Kayani said recently that no institution or individual had a monopoly on defining the national interest, he failed to mention that for decades, the military establishment has enjoyed precisely this unilateral control over Pakistan’s destiny.

The most recent example of this misplaced arrogance came when (mercifully) retired generals Aslam Beg and Asad Durrani both admitted their involvement in sabotaging the PPP’s re-election bid in 1990. Leading this gang of visionaries was their don, the late, unlamented Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

In their collective wisdom, they declared Benazir Bhutto a security risk and decided to beef up the opposition by forging the IJI alliance, and by doling out funds to a bunch of unprincipled politicians. What other skulduggery they got up to in order to achieve their end God and the intelligence community only know.

From the early days of Pakistan, the army has used an infant nation’s fear of India to force through a militarist agenda that survives to this day. By manipulating politicians and buying and bullying the media, the army has forced us into a strategic straitjacket that has all but eliminated options.

While his predecessors had begun it, Ziaul Haq took the whole process of indoctrination to another level by defining Pakistan’s ideology. Thus, the army became not just the guardians of our physical boundary, but of our ideological frontier as well.

And to ram the fundamentalist message home, he encouraged a number of extremist groups to rampage across the country. Of course, his cause was aided by the fortuitous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where militant groups soon waged a jihad at the behest of the US and Pakistan.

By conflating faith with national interest, our military rulers sought to harness religion and nationalism to unify the nation behind them. In the event, they only succeeded in unleashing forces that were soon out of their control. They also set us on a path to confusion and chaos.

Those who followed the third debate in the recent American presidential election will have noted the close proximity in the positions taken by both candidates on foreign policy. This is because there is a consensus on national interest, and this united approach dictates US foreign policy, irrespective of who’s in power.

No such consensus exists in Pakistan, and when our leaders talk of seeking one, they are actually kicking the ball into the long grass. When President Zardari recently spoke of the need for a consensus before an army operation could be launched in North Waziristan, he was actually making an excuse for inaction.

But to be fair, there is considerable unanimity between Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif over the need for peace with India. The only apparent reason progress has been so painfully slow is that the military establishment has been dragging its boots over the issue.

While the army once filled the political space by virtue of its overbearing presence, it is suddenly facing competition from other players like the judiciary, the electronic media and an increasingly vocal public. Its confidence and its morale dented by repeated terrorist attacks on its installations and personnel, as well as the American raid in Abbottabad, the army is feeling it has lost control over the public discourse.

Yet our mainstream politicians have been unable to shed the inhibitions caused by years of subservience to the military. Thus, they have been overly cautious in calling our generals to heel. When Gen Kayani spoke recently, he forgot — or just did not know — that the national interest is not defined in GHQ: it is debated in parliament. Of course, the military has an important role in advising the government on security issues, but ultimately it is the elected government that determines exactly where the national interest lies.

Confusion over this was underlined the other evening at a dinner party in Karachi. Present were two old friends who are sophisticated and widely travelled. Both are highly intelligent and articulate, but ended up in a shouting match over the use of drones, the Kerry-Lugar act and the war in Afghanistan.

Granted, the loud argument broke out at a certain point in the evening when voices are often raised, but the passionate disagreement in a well-appointed drawing room just shows how much confusion exists over what constitutes our national interest.

Are drone attacks (that, by the way, seem to enjoy the covert blessings of the government and the army) in our interest or not? Is the Kerry-Lugar act against the national interest? Many think it isn’t because it seeks to keep the army out of politics. Indeed, should Pakistan have a close and warm relationship with the US at all?

All these issues remain cloudy due to the massive confusion we are prone to because thus far, the military has assumed the exclusive right to determine what’s best for Pakistan.

Now, for the first time since the fall of Dhaka over 40 years ago, our generals are under the spotlight. But if they don’t have a monopoly over determining the national interest, neither does the judiciary or the media. Will our members of parliament please step out of the shadows and do their job?

But forging a consensus does not mean paralysis and inaction. After the Salala incident last year, months passed before the army, the National Assembly and the government could agree on a face-saving escape route from the tough stance taken earlier.

Leadership consists of occasionally taking unpopular decisions in the national interest. What happened then illustrates the need for clarity and decisiveness.

One thing our politicians will have to get used to is that the 24/7 news and chat show programmes aren’t going to go away. Other governments function under this constant scrutiny and manage to deliver, but our elected rulers seem to be as dazzled by the cameras as rabbits by the headlights of an approaching car.

To begin a discussion on the national interest, we need to know where we stand, and where we want to get to. The duty of every state, after ensuring internal and external security, is to seek the wellbeing and prosperity of its citizens.

It can be argued that in making Pakistan a safer place, the military has utterly failed. And by supporting such a huge defence establishment, our people remain poor.

Perhaps the military needs to examine where its own true interests lie: as an overbearing Praetorian guard, or a loyal defender of the state?

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com