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Who defines national interest?

Published Nov 10, 2012 03:01am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (29) Closed

sharad Nov 10, 2012 01:08pm
very nicely written article . will military rulers take notice ? will parliament decide "national interest ? i doubt abt it as military has upper hand in your ;politics ..
Reddy sahib Nov 10, 2012 12:31pm
Excellent article as usual by Irfan, I have been reading his pragmatic articles since a very long time, I wish the pakistanis should read too,
Anonymous Nov 10, 2012 09:34am
very informative and well written article.
Keti Zilgish Nov 10, 2012 02:10pm
Its a simply story: if everybody stops robbing and lying nobody will feel insecure and all the energy being wasted on security will be available to providing the best of free education and healthcare for All. Expecting anything from religion is like trying to make love to a dead woman.
Vijay Sahgal Nov 10, 2012 11:49pm
Everything you said about the headstrong Army General's haughty role, control, and grip over Pakistan's affairs since the its birth, has been known to outsiders for many decades. It was quite obvious to many even within Pakistan. It's just that the wily politicians kept quite about it all this time because they themselves "used" the Army for their own personal benefit regardless of what that did to the nation. I still admire your honesty and clarity. Hopefully all major players (army, politicians and judiciary) will now get their heads together and get Pakistan out of this mess.
Amir Bangash Nov 10, 2012 08:56am
Who defines national interest?. It is me and every citizen of Pakistan.
Ather Malik Nov 10, 2012 09:32am
You raise points which are familiar to all. In aportioning blame your own prejudices clearly manifest and of course affect your judgement. Set up we have is corrupt from top to bottom including your own colleagues. They sell their integrity to the highest bidder.(case of Malik Riaz & tv anchors) Please when writing self reflect and be honest in your thinking by not allowing your personal interests influence your professional obligations. This is your duty and not a choice, to your country.
AK Nov 10, 2012 09:33am
Don't you think that military is finally learning its lessons? Still a long way to go but they have been giving more space to other institutions. But if politicians don't step up and grab the space provided to them by showing some clear leadership and good governance, all the gains could be reversed as there can never be vacuum in power politics. One example is Karachi... its affairs are completely in the hands of 3 politicial parties of the ruling coalition, yet law and order and civic services have gone from bad to worse in last 4 years. In such a scenario can you really blame the Army when even the city's traders have become so desperate and so hopeless about the govt that they are calling upon the Army Generals and judiciary to help them?
raghu Nov 10, 2012 05:07pm
It funny the author thinks pakistan can be redeemed from the mercenary army.The control lies some where else and the author hould have been bold enough to expose it.
pathanoo Nov 10, 2012 05:32pm
A brilliant piece with clarity of thought, deep insight in to the real problems the military has created for Paksitan and a challenge to the spineless politicians to do their job which, alas, will go unheeded.
T.n.krishnamurti Nov 10, 2012 10:59am
Saeed Nov 10, 2012 09:32pm
My my such praise for one so far removed from ninety nine percent of Pakistan is intriguing in the least. While I agree with the basic premise of the argument, the author has not succinctly or otherwise told us what to expect when politicians abdicate their responsibility, in exchange for freedom to loot the country at will.
Sehrish Amber Nov 11, 2012 07:36pm
Despite of the bitter realities, this round-the-clock media trial and mud slugging should be ostracised at once. We can not blame the whole army for the wrongdoings of a few Generals for their extra-constitutional acts. Repititive bullying would not only demoralise our Army but also put the defence of the mother land to risks of intrusion and conspiracies. Solidarity of our belove country is closely linked with the solidarity of our defenders. Defaming the armies of other states is one of the stratagem of enemy states and anti- state elements, which should be left to them, why we are playing the same role ?
Malick Nov 11, 2012 03:06am
Mr Irfan Hussain, U are right that national intrest is not defined in GHQ. It is debated in parliament. Who choose the parliament and who declare the parliament as rubberstamp. The idiot members of parliment like Mashahidulla, Fazalurehman, Khaja saad Rafique, Khajs Aasif, Imran Khan, Qureshi Mehmood, retired F/Ms and many more when declare parliament as ruberstamp. Does the parliament carry value to discuss or debate the national policies.Voters the chooser of parliament never confine these members not to disgrace own parliament. Parliament is defined as the mother of all institution, these disrespectable members abuse their own mother like parliament these members are shameless. On the top our media never think about the national security keep on discussing our NEUK. Media take money and keep on barking wrong or right. We all do not care about national policies like Obama and Romni.Media to display news, judiciary need justice who is to take care of our borders of country. If we send the whole media and judiciary in Balouchistan think what will happen? just determine your powers and work.
suresh Nov 11, 2012 12:31am
Thanks Irfan - a great fan, respect. Considering what is happening and the woeful state of Pakistan it is no wonder, people are asking what have we achieved under Army rule for so long and the consequences unleashed upon the common man who have suffered in vain thinking goodness will prevail. Shifting the blame will not help anyone, only critical analysis and admitting the mistakes will absolve the Generals from undertaking any future misadventures.
Mansoor Nov 10, 2012 05:44am
Mr. Hussain, Army leadership has had its faults, but what to say of these parlimentarian who neither know or understand the responsibility of their position.India focused foreign and defense policy has completly failed, and it has made Pakistanis less secured as money was diverted from economic development to an arms race with a rival 6 times the size and resources. Any student of economics can tell you that this is not a sustainable model. we can not blame the army for the problems in Pakistan without blaming the politicians. Let us be fair, in the las 5 years has the people's party made any serious attempts to solve any major issues facing the country." Sara awa tawa hi bigra hua ha. Mansoor USA
Shahjahan Bhatti Nov 10, 2012 05:55am
In a democratic country only the majority has the right to define the interest of the nation. At least no uneducated or half educated army man has any right to impose his whims upon the nation.
Mustafa Kamal Nov 10, 2012 05:48am
Brilliant Analysis. The military and Judiciary's role must be redefined in our country!!!
Usman Nov 10, 2012 09:34pm
I wish this column, as well as many others that you have written, could be published in an Urdu newspaper...............
Vikram Nov 10, 2012 08:48am
I second that ... and more!
gangadin Nov 10, 2012 07:29pm
National interest of Pakistan will be defined by the people of Pakistan. When I say that, I mean Punjabis, Pathans, Baluchis and Sindhis. If you can't connect your heritage to these four categories, sooner or later either you will have to leave or Pakistan will not exist. Lines are clearly drawn.
mohammad shafiq Nov 10, 2012 06:52pm
at the heart of our national interest is that unfortunate document known to history as the lahore resolution of 1940 whose implementation no self righteous national interest expounding pakistani will advocate.
Astro Nov 10, 2012 08:16am
Wonderfully stated. I admire your clarity of thought, your critical thinking and your ability to put your thoughts across boldly and succinctly. Keep up the good work.
Fahim Khan Nov 10, 2012 09:59pm
dronN, talibaN, pml-N, sunami khaN, balochistaN issue, altaf hussainN, choudary brotherN where N stands for Natonal Interests and most of them are supported by our Chiefs (Army and Justice) currently or at some time in the past WITH NO SHAME. Hates off to Irfan Hussain to say "Shut up" to both of them; in a nice way though. Parliament will work only when it will be allowed to work, for at least 3-4 times for full 5 years, to get it matured. PERIOD
raika45 Nov 10, 2012 12:09pm
Oh boy Pakistan! you really have a problem on your hands and minds.Well it is your problem ,not created by outsiders [baring the drones].You have to solve it.Writing or mulling about it to the extent of going at each other with one's views is not going to solve it.
Keti Zilgish Nov 10, 2012 01:53pm
The Senate is not directly elected and therein lies all the potential for corruption and hence lack of legitimacy in legislation. Judicial activism is the only outlet but without a balance between the two houses of parliament it is not effective enough but only appears to be so.
Majaz amin Nov 10, 2012 01:46pm
nice article
NASAH (USA) Nov 10, 2012 10:43am
In a parliamentary democracy of Pakistan -- it is interesting that an army General or a Chief Justice should define Pakistan's National Interest -- NOT the parliament.
Guest63 Nov 10, 2012 03:09pm
They are neither the Guardian of our Security ( in the past 55+ year , how many wars they have won !) Nor our Destiny ( under their watch we lost the place from where the movement of Pakistan factually emerged ) , They are the Conquerors and present a conqueror's mindset who is now seeing his Prized bounty slipping out of its hands , Thus the contradictory statement and lecture from the head of the pack , once again hoodwinking the poor nation to back him up because vested interests are putting a wedge between The Conquerors and the Conquered . Ever since the Quaid told the men in Khaki in unambiguous Terms " your duty is to be subservient to the civilian Rulers in carrying out your duty to safeguard the country from external dangers" , it has been laid out into the operation training of each and every new cadet officer , we have never to let " these Bloody civilians" rule us by letter and spirit and hence to the point you have mentioned " for 55+ years , who has the monopoly of the state security and thus the related policies "internal & external" that hon COAS is now telling the nation "no one institution or individual has any right to decide on these matters . How does it put your very Institution and yourself as a single person defining the rules of the game for the nation !?! Who has given the right to your institution and your job to even stand up and speak on the item which is non of your business from day one to indulge into ! remember the Rule the Qaid laid out to your budding brass heads in 1947 !?! Talk of the constitution , where does it allowed you to have even a day's extention in your post let alone two long term extensions you enjoyed , How fair and lawful it was for you to first seek and then manipulate to your advantage these extensions , how unfair and damaging your act has been to the very institution and budding and aspiring officers who wanted to be COAS in your place ! Sir please do a self search first before lecturing us what is acceptable and what is not