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Pakistani leaders want to ‘reimagine’ the nation but must cut lavish defence spending first

Conceptualising a new Pakistan would require imagining a grand strategy different from the National Security Policy 2022, which the NSD hurriedly put together.

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As scores of civilians succumbed to a suicide bombing in the northern city of Peshawar on 30 January and millions crumble under the pressure of rising inflation in Pakistan, a bunch of politicians, civil servants, and intellectuals have begun talking about ‘reimagining the country’. Seminars were held in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and more are planned in Punjab and Sindh. The seminars will bring together members of the urban middle class and all those dissatisfied with the Shehbaz Sharif government’s handling of politics and the economy.

Although the group includes a former member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), it is mainly noticeable for its dissidents from Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), especially senior leaders such as Miftah Ismail. Shahin Khaqan Abbasi, who reportedly resigned from the PML(N) on 1 February, is also a part of the group. It was Abbasi who the party banked on as a replacement for PM Nawaz in 2017 when the latter was forced out of office. He goes long back with the Sharifs. His father, Muhammad Khaqan Abbasi, and Nawaz Sharif had started their political careers together in the early to mid-1980s when Pakistan was under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. Miftah Ismail joined the PML(N) in 2011 and served as an advisor to the party on financial matters in 2017. He also served as the finance minister under the Shehbaz government for six months in 2022. Furthermore, there is Fawad Hasan Fawad, a senior retired civil servant who practically managed Pakistani affairs while Nawaz Sharif was in power.

Clearly, this is an effort to rejig the PML(N), which was considered until recently as the only party capable of countering Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Although Khaqan Abbasi keeps denying that he has left his party, inner sources say he resigned the day Maryam Nawaz was elevated to the position of senior vice-president of the party.

Others are also ready to break ranks and join the group if something concrete emerges. An important player in Punjab losing significant leaders does not make for good optics. There are no clear signals as yet that a new political party is in the making. Fawad Hasan Fawad, whom I spoke to, said that they were not out to create a new party but to work as a pressure group to draw the attention of various parties and other societal and government stakeholders. While Pakistani-British economist Yousaf Nazar, known for his recent commentary on Pakistan’s dire economic straits, approves of the exercise, the discomforting issue is that the debate lies outside parliament. Moreover, it is focused on governance and economics.

However, it is worth wondering how far the group will take the debate as there are no signals to question the huge amounts spent on national security or the necessary military reforms.

Notwithstanding that re-imagining pertains to a major transformation of the State and its political and decision-making systems, let me, for the while, stick to the military dimension. This is mainly because many in Pakistan shy away from engaging with the issue.

Also read: 4 times Pakistan came close to making peace with India. Civil, military rifts didn’t let it

Start robust dialogue first

Conceptualising a new Pakistan would require imagining a grand strategy, which would be different from the kind that was hurriedly put together last year by Pakistan’s National Security Division (NSD) in the form of the National Security Policy declared last year. It is not just about resetting the goals of the State but reassessing objectives determined on the basis of a balance between military strategy and State politics and economics. I would refer to American political scientist Barry Ross Posen’s work to argue that military security cannot be achieved without synchronising it with the State’s domestic politics and economic realities. While military-strategic goals reflect the politics and economy of the State, they end up impacting the latter too. This interrelation of these three dimensions – politics, economics, and military strategy — requires a robust dialogue that brings together the State, society, and military at a level of co-existence and necessary compromise.

In today’s Pakistan, there are few who talk about the country’s excessive spending on security. Economist Kaiser Bengali suggests that instead of increasing fuel prices and burdening the public, the government ought to cut non-development expenditure. Based on some of my older research (dating to the mid-2000s) on defence spending, I’d argue that wastage under this head is far higher and could be reduced by 25-30 per cent instead of just a billion that Bengali suggests. There is little reason to revise these estimates as the Pakistani military has become even more powerful through the years.

Also read: Pakistan’s plight isn’t solely because its elite are corrupt. Their values have failed too

Less of a public good today

Military security is generally expensive but becomes even more so if there are no mechanisms to rationalise the spending. It soon becomes less of a public good. Over the decades, the Pakistani army has gradually destroyed the structure created by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government during the mid-1970s to manage the armed forces through the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC). These two were meant to increase efficiency, improve civil-military balance, and make security affordable.

The JCSC, set up in 1976, was designed as the internal mechanism to cut duplication of activities, prioritise procurement and planning, and cut wastage. Instead, it has become a burden today. Sources mention how indulgent the JCSC is — keeping around 450 expensive vehicles with no accountability for fuel or usage. Meant to create joint planning, it lost its spirit a year after it was established.

According to the first JCSC chief Gen Muhammad Shariff, whom I interviewed, the spirit of equilibrium was lost the day General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977. As President and army chief, he was both service chief and boss. No one cared about the other four-star general in the room Gen Shariff. The other nail in the coffin was driven by Nawaz Sharif giving additional charge to Gen Pervez Musharraf in 1999 when it was Naval Chief Fasih Bukhari’s turn to become the JSCS chief. Then on, the JCSC became a parking place for senior army generals and officers. It was after Musharraf’s martial law that the organisation’s top position was monopolised by the army. Interestingly, this happened after a debate in the GHQ to close down the JCSC as officers did not see any use. Perhaps, they then eyed the place as an option to place officers and monopolise pay and personnel expenditure. A calculation of pay and personnel cost versus output would be eye-opening.

Reading the autobiography of Masood Hasan, Pakistan’s first secretary, defence production, responsible for making the most of Pakistan’s major weapons production installations, I realised that the cost of defence must be excessive as all structural processes for decision-making that Hasan tried to establish are now gone. The MoD itself is nothing but a department subservient to the General Headquarters (GHQ) and is meant to rubberstamp decisions. The incapacity of the MoD has also increased procurement costs that Pakistani leaders talk about only in whispers.

What ‘reimagining’ Pakistan needs

The level at which the failure of State structures is most severe is parliament itself, where members shy away from questioning military expenditure. It happened last in 1985 — much to the displeasure of General Zia-ul-Haq — when Muhammad Khan Junejo was the Prime Minister. Junejo rattled the generals with his demand for cutting costs. One remembers times when bigger vehicles used by brigadiers and major generals were turned over to the police. Why not use State assets where they reap the highest dividend?

The rationalisation of defence spending won’t come easy. It will require a re-setting of military-strategic goals based on the grand national strategic narrative. The National Security Policy aims to turn Pakistan into a hub of economic activity from being just a frontline State for others. This will not be possible without ensuring peaceful relations in the region. More importantly, this transformation will require an intense dialogue between the civil and military leadership — building bridges and allowing de jure leadership to play its role while maintaining a level of confidence between both of them. This cannot just be an exercise in needless one-upmanship. In October 2018, I remember being snubbed by then-DG Inter-Services Public Relations and current Corps Commander Quetta, Lt General Asif Ghafoor. I asked him to think about a strategic reset of civil-military balance, and he thought it was redundant terminology. A new Pakistan cannot be re-imagined until generals and their juniors acknowledge that they cannot win if civilians continue to lose.

The sink-or-swim moments are very precious and cannot be lost if Pakistan’s ruling elite plans to change its course. It is time leaders rethink their options, and not depend on a friendly State throwing money their way to survive for a few more days.

Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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