Nawaz Sharif has been back in office for nearly two months, but has yet to convene the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), the prime minister-led advisory and consensus-building body on national security issues. The fact that Nawaz has yet to convene the DCC is disappointing. There were expectations that he would immediately push for the institutionalisation of the DCC as a medium for civil-military dialogue. For over a decade, his party has called for developing a permanent secretariat for the DCC and creating the role of a ‘federal security adviser’.
Shortly before the 1999 coup, none other than Sartaz Aziz drafted a proposal for revamping the DCC. The PML-N has not had an opportunity to realise the proposal, until now. But the party remained a vocal proponent of building up the DCC even when it was out of power at the federal level. In 2002, the PML-N again called for bolstering the body. The same proposal is mentioned in the 2006 Charter of Democracy, which the PML-N has co-drafted, signed and supports.
Despite being out of power, the PML-N has had the time to develop a concrete proposal for developing the DCC. It had perfect opportunity to do so in the past five years as head of the opposition and in the one-month transition period before Nawaz took power after the elections.
Instead, Nawaz has shown a tendency to deal with national security issues in a highly personalised fashion. He has given himself the defence and foreign affairs portfolios, though Sartaj Aziz plays the role of foreign minister. Rather than formally convening the DCC, he has relied on a kitchen cabinet and private meetings with the army chief and the security agencies.
The prime minister is well within his right to meet with whom he chooses to. But national security policy cannot be developed in the same overbearing way Lahore is run. It requires all relevant senior civil and military officials to be present in the same forum to discuss and debate pressing matters of national interest, enabling the prime minister to make an informed decision.
The DCC is effectively a national security council —- a term that evokes strong feelings among Pakistan’s political class. Previous military rulers, including Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, called for the creation of the National Security Council to serve as the anchor of a military-guided ‘democracy’. But the army, under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has backed away from such a perspective and instead has called on the civilians on multiple occasions to develop a national counterterrorism policy.
The PPP utilised a combination of the troika and the DCC to deliberate on national security policy, mainly in respect of relations with the United States. But after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was sacked by the Supreme Court, the DCC was convened less frequently and the troika meetings between the president, the prime minister and the army chief once again took precedence.
Nawaz has not only continued with this practice of personal meetings (though President Asif Ali Zardari has been excluded), but he has also attempted to use all-parties conferences (APC) as a mechanism to develop a national consensus. Already, his attempts to convene an APC have been hindered by Imran Khan, who left the country when Nawaz was to hold an APC. Imran also requested a private meeting with Nawaz and Kayani, arguing that an APC is of limited utility.
Imran is key given that his party runs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and strongly supports peace talks with the country’s primary insurgent threat. But in the end, the prime minister must own national security policy. And that ownership is best represented through the DCC, not through reserving ministries for oneself and holding one-on-one meetings. Consultation must ultimately take place through formal bodies with all major principals in attendance, so that the diplomatic economic, and security implications of potential policies are addressed and all senior officials are on the same page. Under the previous government, the DCC was dormant till the Mumbai attack. It might take a crisis for the current government to get serious about the DCC.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2013.