Why Pakistan Failed To Develop A Grand Strategy?
Umar Farooq explains why Pakistan fails to institutionalize its policymaking and how the absence of a coherent foreign policy and a grand strategy hurts its interests diplomatically.
Pakistani state and its institutions have only been reactive to strategic challenges and security threats it has come across during the last two decades without making any effort to develop a grand strategy that could harness the limited resources at its disposal to be used in best possible ways to meet the challenges and threats. We see state institutions dealing with national security, becoming active only when they come face to face with growing threats — both internal and external — and when the public pressures them into action. Anticipating a threat or averting a surprise is just not within their capacity to do.
To say that there is an institutional vacuum existing in Islamabad – with existing institutions either lying dormant or lacking proper authorization from political and military leaders – would not be an exaggeration.
Top decision making body on national security matters – the National Security Council (NSC), which is comprised of both civil and military leaders – meets only irregularly and that too only when there is a publicly visible threat emerging on the horizons. For instance Prime Minister Imran Khan presided over a meeting of National Security Council twice in the first and second weeks of August, 2019 – the entire military leaders and senior ministers of the government participated in these meeting – to discuss Kashmir situation. This was the time when situation in the Indian held Kashmir had gotten out of hand and India was increasing military pressure on the Line of Control (LoC). In response, Pakistan’s National Security Council met on August 4 and 7, 2019 to discuss the Kashmir situation. Before these meetings, the NSC met in February 2019 and that too to discuss the Kashmir situation. So there was a gap of five months between the meetings of NSC, which makes it obvious that the national security policymaking elite is taking the issues relating to national security in a very casual manner or alternatively the decision-making is taking place in a very non-institutionalized environment.
It seems that the forum of the National Security Committee or Council was meant to serve all other purposes but formulating the National Security policy – that too in a country internationally considered a security state par excellence.
Consider this: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presided over a meeting of the National Security Committee on April 7, 2016, when the Panama scandal had just surfaced. At the time the political observers described the hurriedly called meeting a tactic to gain political mileage to ward off an impending political crisis, which the emergence of Panama scandal had brought upon the Sharif government. Ironically, this meeting was taking place after a gap of 17 months.
PML-N government’s attempt to use the meeting to ward off a political crisis was not at all surprising for the political observers as some of them were of the opinion that it was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who proposed civil-military dialogue at the time of the restoration of National Security Council.
PPP government, on the other hand, was not even interested in retaining the National Security Committee as a policymaking institution, declaring it to be a vestige of the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq.
This, however, is not a question of abolishing or retaining the National Security Council as a decision-making institution. It is rather a question of institutionalizing the decision-making processes relating to national security. For instance, the PPP government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was in favor of abolishing the National Security Council, created during Musharraf’s period, and reviving in its place the Defense and Security Committee of the cabinet (DSCC). The members of DSCC are the same as those in NSC and it is also presided over by the Prime Minister. Therefore, they intended to retain the principle of civil supremacy on papers at least.
Two issues are worth considering when it comes to decision-making and policy-making relating to national security and defense policy in the present political situation. These are as follows.
1 – Why Pakistan’s policymaking is taking place in a vacuum despite the presence of a well-structured policymaking institution
Pakistan has an elaborate policymaking institutional structure. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government introduced a variety of Higher Defense Organizations (HDO) into the decision-making structure in 1976. However, during the period of their existence, most of these organizations under HDO remained dormant. Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee – of which three services chiefs are members with Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in the chair – is the only active organization created by Bhutto but that too meets occasionally with its secretariat and organization dominated by the Army, thus the smaller forces – air force and Navy – pushed into the background. Later the technological and political developments in the country led to the addition of several other high defense organizations. The most prominent among these organizations are those created in the wake of Pakistan declaring its nuclear status in May 1998.
Pakistan’s nuclear explosions were conducted under the supervision of the Combat Development Directorate of General Headquarters headed at the time by a Lieutenant General. However, this organization was later converted into the Strategic Plans Division, which acts as a Secretariat of the National Command Authority.
This is a command organization, which controls the deployment and the use of nuclear weapons, both in peace and war times. Strategic Plans Division (SPD) draws its workforce from all three services and it acts as a think-tank as well as a secretariat for National Command Authority.
At least on paper, all these High Defense Organizations are built on the principle of civilian supremacy as Prime Minister or a civilian member of the government presiding over these organizations. But ironically, all the organizations in these structures, which are presided over by the prime minister remain dormant in normal circumstances and are activated only when there is a national security crisis – like the Kashmir situation recently, or a horrendous terror attack, or a military threat from India. They are only held for the publicity requirements of the incumbent government.
In the past decade or so, institutions like Cabinet Committee of the Defense, National Security Committee, or National Security Council, were only activated when there was either a threat from India, like in the wake of Mumbai terror attacks, or when there was some major terror attack within Pakistan. The meetings of these security bodies failed to become a permanent feature of governance in Islamabad, reinforcing the impression of ad hoc-ism in security-related policymaking.
No public information is available about the functioning of these organizations. Some of the experts do however point out that the civilian part of these organizational structures remains a silent spectator in the National Command Authority. Normally, it is Foreign Office, which represents Pakistan on the forums on arms control and disarmament issues. In the years immediately following the nuclear explosions, Foreign Office’s Disarmament Division, headed by a senior diplomat, used to formulate the policy line on disarmament issues to be taken at the international forums. But over the years this has changed. Now Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which acts as a secretariat of National Command Authority and is manned exclusively by the military personnel has its own disarmament division and it wields the final say on anything related to the nuclear issue.
All this network of high defense organizations is functioning on the central principle that everything related to security and defense is a secret and no part of it can be revealed to the public. This axiom, however, completely ignores the fact that the country’s political positions on national security and defense-related matters cannot afford to be a secret.
Every now and then the country’s political leadership has to make its position public on peace and war and these dreadful weapons. For this purpose, the input of political leadership is required both behind closed doors and in public.
When former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif restored National Security Council (NSC) in August 2013, he pointed out that it was with the view to bring the civil and military leadership on the same page. This proved to be a false expectation as subsequent years saw many tensions developing between civil and military leaders and the institution even failed to help reconcile the differing positions of civil governments and military leadership on the questions of national security and foreign policy. So much so that some of these differences proved to be fatal for the civil government of Nawaz Sharif.
2 – Non-functioning institutions and absence of grand strategy
One of the results of non-functioning institutions is lack of coherent policymaking processes, which in turn leads to absence of any grand strategy – by grand strategy we mean the optimum utilization of resources available to the nation that can be put to use in order to maximize the impact and to achieve best possible results in foreign policy and regional security.
Look at the way Pakistan has been conducting its foreign policy: there was an uprising in Kashmir and we started observing Fridays as days of solidarity with our Kashmiri brothers. Diplomatic channels were activated to bring human rights violations in Kashmir to the notice of the international community. We never bothered to examine the impact of the Kashmir crisis on the stability of Pakistan’s political and economic structures. We never raised the question of whether the crisis in Kashmir could lead to military tensions with India or even war in the region. In other words, there was no systematic analysis or study of the Kashmir crisis and its impact on Pakistan.
Then, there was a demand from Washington for the Pakistani government to play its role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. There was no consideration of how Pakistan’s intelligence services’ role in the Afghan peace process would impact the country’s foreign policy in the region. Pakistan is surrounded by countries that have been accusing Pakistani intelligence services of maintaining secret relations with the Taliban and even supporting them with weapons and money. Pakistani intelligence agencies’ active role in the Afghan peace process would mean that Pakistan had exposed these linkages before the international community. How would Pakistani diplomats now defend that Pakistani intelligence services had no connection with the Taliban, especially when the latter would engage in violence inside Afghanistan and Pakistan would not be able to do anything about it? Is Pakistan ready to deal with the pressure that the international community would exert on it in such a situation?
Neither Kashmir nor the Afghan peace process is an isolated incident. Both these issues have ramifications, which will affect Pakistan’s position in the regional and international settings.
It seems Pakistan’s decision-makers have shown vigilance on Kashmir issue only to gain political mileage in the domestic political situation and shown willingness to participate in the Afghan peace process to make inroads into Washington’s security establishment. Both these short-term gains and objectives are hardly conducive to a coherent foreign policy or development of a grand strategy.
Pakistan’s reactive foreign policy is not a specialty of the current PTI government. This has been a norm in Pakistan’s strategic culture since the very beginning. The absence of a thinking non-governmental sector – as the Americans and Indians have in Washington and New Delhi respectively – is the prime reason behind the lack of any intellectual base of Pakistan’s foreign policy. And this is the reason why Pakistan has failed to develop a coherent foreign policy or a grand strategy.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.