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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s new National Security Policy makes some apt suggestions but its core purpose is suspect


Pakistan released a 62-page redacted version of its new National Security Policy (NSP) on 14 January, thereby becoming the first South Asian nation to publish such a document. The remaining portions of the full version that consists of 110 pages were deemed confidential and were hence not made public. The released document, on the face of it, seeks to convey the impression that Pakistan, after building up decades of international ill-repute as a disruptive and unreliable nation that has been the most virulent sponsor of international terrorism, has now woken up to the damage that such an image has caused it, and it consequently desires to convey a willingness to make amends.

The NSP, while continuing to emphasise on military security, lists economic security as its top priority. It says, “Pakistan’s vital national security interests are best served by placing economic security as the core element of national security. The country’s security imperatives in the next decade will be driven by the need to realise its economic potential while ensuring national cohesion, territorial integrity, internal security, and citizen welfare”. The chronic financial ill-health that Pakistan has had to endure has meant that it has become untenably reliant on regular bail outs from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others just to stay afloat. The approach of seeking peace with its neighbours and exploring opportunities to make Pakistan a trade and investment hub that has quite vaguely been suggested in the NSP needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt, though. That is because although the aspirations find adequate reflection in the document, how these wishes are going to be fulfilled does not seem to have tickled the imagination of the NSP’s drafters at all. The document does not provide any real framework for implementation of the NSP’s recommendations, and the reason for that is not difficult to decipher.

Despite the claim that the NSP is citizen-centric, the contents and the tone of the document makes it amply evident that any benefit or advantage that would accrue to the average Pakistani as a result of the adoption of the new policy was only of secondary importance to the drafters. The primary objective appears fairly and squarely to be to attract the attention of the Western world, which for quite some time, and especially since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, has shunned Pakistan. The NSP is a crude and ill-disguised attempt by Pakistan to dangle before the United States (US) a fresh deceptive narrative of a “reformed” Pakistan, one that was worthy of resumption of support and largesse.

Seven years in the making, the NSP is designed as a “comprehensive national security framework” and it covers a period of five years from 2022-26. It seeks to ensure “safety, security and dignity of the citizen of Pakistan”. Apart from economic and military matters, the NSP also covers issues related to foreign policy, terrorism, water security and demography.

Rabia Akhtar of the Atlantic Council, pointing out some of the positives of the NSP, wrote on 20 January that it “has taken a comprehensive approach to security, anchoring its drift in human security to achieve economic security. Whether it is about securing a citizen’s constitutional privileges, or about protecting a regular Pakistani from all forms of extremism, crime, terrorism, and violence –including war– the new NSP has it covered. This is also the first time in the history of Pakistan that gender security has found its place in the NSP document aiming to protect the citizens of Pakistan from structural violence, including inequality in workplaces and gender-based violence. These are not minor successes for a country which has been focused for the past seven decades on defining national security primarily in terms of territorial security and through the lens of traditional security battling internal and external threats”. Akhtar added that “In order to prioritize human security, the NSP makes specific references to the rule of law to be upheld for all citizens, ensuring a responsive justice system that is impartial and holds all citizens accountable equally… Pakistan has had a slow start in accumulating capital and building productive capacity to alleviate poverty in its society. This NSP brings our focus to improving Pakistan’s socioeconomic indicators. Pakistan will not be able to achieve socioeconomic development if it lacks a people-centric approach, whereby protection of the human rights and human needs of its own citizens is not at the heart of building such corridors. The good news is that through this NSP, the State of Pakistan has signed a new social contract with its citizens”

Others such as Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), the US, and the United Kingdom (UK), also welcomed some aspects of the NSP but remained ambivalent about others. She wrote in the Pakistani daily Dawn on 24 January that “Offering a comprehensive approach by placing as much emphasis on the security of citizens as State security is a welcome initiative. This has long been urged by many in the country who pointed out that the security of a country can neither be assured nor be meaningful for citizens without human security”. Lodhi, however, also pointed out critical flaws in the document. She wrote, “The key question now is whether the government has a strategy to implement human security or indeed the NSP’s other lofty objectives. Seeking to be all-encompassing the document lists numerous well-known challenges but without identifying credible and executable policies to achieve objectives. Instead, it offers a series of platitudes. A policy document must align goals with resources and capacity, and ends with means so that it is in sync with realities. That’s what makes policy enforceable. The NSP disappoints because it states objectives without indicating a strategy, goals without specifying means to secure them and aims without identifying criteria for deliverables. Long on verbiage it is short on ideas. It is silent on allocation of responsibilities to promote the goals it sets. Who will align the varied goals? It should also have been able to show how national security challenges overlap and are interconnected and how an integrated approach is to be crafted and implemented to set off a virtuous cycle. It claims to provide an overall policy direction but does so in a generalised and superficial way. It is as if a tick-the-boxes approach is adopted, which treats issues in a cursory manner and leaves priorities unclear”.

Lodhi has pointed out specifics examples to buttress her case. She believes that the thinking behind making the economy the pivot of national security is sound, but the lack of attention to Pakistan’s economic weaknesses and to ways to address them renders the NSP hollow. She wrote, “It devotes few sentences to fiscal management and states only this about the goal: ‘a manageable fiscal deficit through a consistent increase in government revenues requires continued focus on tax reforms'. But it offers no ideas, no ‘direction’ on what this involves. If the economy is to be the pivot of national security — and it should — the NSP should have spelt out how this aim would be secured. Goals such as increase exports, achieve sustainable growth and secure energy supplies are set out but these have long figured as declarations of intent in almost every official economic document. As implementation is everything, it is necessary to explain how goals are to be achieved. Absent that, objectives remain little more than a wish list”.

Lodhi also believes that “Three other challenges with enormous economic and security impact are dealt with in passing — population growth, extremism and the education deficit”. She further asserted that “The section on foreign policy shows a lack of ideas and imagination. The document lists Pakistan’s principal bilateral relationships saying little about how to manage or balance them in an era of shifting geopolitics and multipolarity. It does not indicate strategic priorities while regurgitating the old theme of leveraging Pakistan’s location to advance its interests, which however are not clearly spelt out. Surprisingly the NSP doesn’t mention the crucial role of soft power in promoting Pakistan’s diplomatic goals. Only two policy guidelines are offered which are generalised formulations of what every country seeks to do anyway, for example, ‘cultivate broad-based relationships’”.

Another reason why the NSP would fail the test of a serious document is because the critical issue of Pakistan’s large defence expenditures, which have pre-empted spending on vital human development sectors such as education and health and had serious implications for “economic security”, has not been touched upon at all. The first claim to Pakistan’s revenue has always vested with the military, which has displayed no desire to divert resources from defense to other sectors and brooks no investigation into its vast network of business enterprises and real estate for the benefit of its officers and men. Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf made it a point to underline that the NSP had the full blessings of the military. Quite clearly, the military has no intention of allowing the transformation of Pakistan from a military security State to a State where the military competes with other State institutions for resources.

The aspects relating to defence in the NSP highlighted the challenges posed by hybrid war and threats to cyber security, in addition to issues pertaining to conventional capabilities and strategic deterrence. Prime Minister Imran Khan linked the military’s dominance of the national security vision to the “insecure environment” in which the country found itself since its creation because of security threats from India. The NSP noted that “lingering border disputes” continued to pose security threats, and that the use of force by India could not be ruled out. Noting the expansion of India’s nuclear triad and its investments in advanced weaponry and technologies, the NSP declared that Pakistan’s deterrence regime was vital for securing regional peace.

The NSP linked problematic ties between Islamabad and New Delhi to the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) dispute, but it proffered no fresh solutions. Pakistan has clearly been rattled by India turning the terms of engagement with Islamabad on its head in the last few years. New Delhi has taken J&K off the table and is ready to use military force in response to major terror attacks launched from Pakistani soil. Unlike in the past, the West is no longer pressuring India to accommodate Pakistan on J&K. The US is eager for India’s support in balancing China in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite the document claiming that “Pakistan remains committed to normalisation of relations with its neighbours based on mutual respect, sovereign equality, and a collective effort to find pathways for conflict resolution with the belief that shared economic opportunities are cornerstones for achieving prosperity in Pakistan and the region”, an underlying hostility towards India reverberates through the NSP. Without cooperative relations with India, Pakistan’s quest for “achieving prosperity” will inevitable be stymied. India is by far the largest country as well as the largest market in South Asia. The hostility, therefore, is indicative that the NSP is not entirely honest in its stated intentions, and that its real aim is significantly more convoluted.

The brazen attempt in the NSP to downplay Pakistan’s extremely close ties with China and its recommendation, despite the humiliation of repeated rejection by US President Joe Biden, that mending Islamabad – Washington DC ties become a priority provides a window both into Pakistan’s deceptiveness and its real aim through the NSP. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at Washington’s Wilson Centre opined that “Pakistan may be trying to send a message that Beijing doesn’t occupy as dominant a role in its national security calculations as many believe it does”. Expressing the desire to diversify the Pakistan – US relationship through “mutually beneficial” engagements, the NSP says that “Communicating Pakistan’s concerns to policy makers in Washington while seeking to broaden our partnership beyond a narrow counter-terrorism focus will be a priority. Pakistan will continue to seek areas of convergence with the United States in trade, investment, connectivity, energy, counter-terrorism, security, and intelligence cooperation”.

C. Raja Mohan, Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, summed up the international environment that has shaped the contours of Pakistan’s NSP appositely when he wrote on 18 January that “Barring the United Kingdom, Pakistan’s equities in the West have steadily diminished. Although its all-weather ties with China have gone from strength to strength, the unfolding conflict between Washington and Beijing has put Pakistan in an uncomfortable strategic situation. Meanwhile, it has squandered its traditionally strong ties in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan’s support for violent religious extremism has also begun to backfire. Militant groups once seen as valuable instruments for Pakistan have now turned against the state. A permissive environment for terrorism has now attracted severe financial penalties from the international system”. Raja Mohan added, “Pakistan’s triumph in bringing the Taliban back has had big costs in its relationship with the US. It is one thing to defeat the world’s sole superpower, but another to endure its wrath”.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not only led to the lessening of the latter’s salience to the US, but has also rendered Pakistan’s dubious role in the US defeat more obvious. US lawmakers have accused Pakistan of “double-dealing” and “unraveling its aims” in Afghanistan, and the Joe Biden administration has promised to “reassess” its ties amid calls for a “strategic downgrade”. The steady stream of negative headlines about Pakistan that have been appearing in the international media has added to the country’s reputation as a major global problem. Alarmed by the implications of this, the Imran Khan regime egged on by the Generals seems to have treated the NSP as a timely opportunity to project an alternative narrative that casts Pakistan as a responsible and peaceful regional player, even if the reality is anything but. Ayesha Siddiqa of the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has asserted that though Pakistan is trying through the NSP to signal to the world that it is a normal country, much is about pretence rather than what it really wants to change.

The primary objective of Pakistan’s new NSP appears to be perception management, and to that extent rather than being a national policy that ought to diligently be implemented, the NSP comes across as a crude exercise at narrative-altering that has little hope of succeeding.