The Resolution of the All Parties Conference (APC) on September 29, gave a pre-eminent position in governance to ‘national interest’. The APC resolution stipulates that “national interests are supreme and shall guide Pakistan’s policy and response to all challenges at all times”. It may be useful to examine the concept of national interest to enable greater clarity in the premise of government decision-making.
In Pakistan’s history, strategic decisions have occasionally been taken by invoking the ‘national interest’. These decisions have often had disastrous consequences — in the form of military takeovers — but sometimes positive ones too. In 1970-71 the military used force against the people of East Pakistan, the majority of Pakistan’s citizens who were demanding their democratic rights: a selective genocide was conducted by the state against its own people, presumably for ‘national interest’. This undermined the moral and political basis of a united Pakistan and led to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.
Similarly, the decision to nurture armed militant groups in Pakistan to conduct ‘jihad’ against Soviet forces in Afghanistan was taken in the ‘national interest’, which has laid the basis for violent extremism that has lacerated the fabric of society, polity and economy. Finally, the strategy of linking with some Taliban groups while opposing others (during the last decade) was to undermine not only Pakistan’s credibility in the comity of nations but was to erode state sovereignty within its geographic domain. By contrast, one of the few examples of a government decision taken in the ‘national interest’ with a positive effect on the welfare of the people, was the restoration of the judiciary in March 2009, but significantly this was done under popular pressure.
The APC resolution which seeks to establish the basis of reshaping Pakistan’s relationship with western countries and stipulates dialogue with “our own people in the tribal areas”, once again draws upon the concept of the ‘national interest’. However, the proposal of talking to the Taliban may have become problematic after Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the vice ameer of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s statement on October 3, which set two preconditions for the dialogue: (i) The government should reconsider its relationship with the US, and (ii) Enforce Islamic Sharia in the country. In view of this statement, whether the proposed talks can indeed be held, and if they are, whether they will be in the ‘national interest’ as the APC resolution assumes, remains to be seen.
Two questions arise: (i) Is there an institutionalised process through which the national interest can be defined at a particular historical conjuncture? (ii) Is there a mechanism within the governance structure through which the policy paradigm emanating from an earlier definition of national interest can be reformulated in the light of actual experience?
In mature democracies, national interest at key moments is determined through an institutionalised process of discussion and debate by professionals and politicians. In Pakistan’s case, however, due to the pre-eminent position of the military within Pakistan’s power structure, national security considerations as determined by the military, play a predominant role in defining national interest even during formally democratic regimes.
The weakness of the institutional structure for making policy choices in a complex strategic environment, could produce outcomes which are in fact counter-productive to the welfare of the people and the security of the state. This risk is immensely increased if there is no institutionalised mechanism for changing the policy course in response to obviously adverse consequences of earlier bad decisions. Maintaining links with selected militant groups considered as strategic assets, and the earlier peace deal with the Taliban in Swat, are cases in point. A governance structure that lacks adaptive efficiency, and is unable to change a demonstrably flawed policy paradigm, has a propensity to produce fresh calamities for the people. Thus, the very national interest it seeks to pursue is systematically undermined.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2011.