Misplaced priorities pushing Pakistan to the brink

There are gaps in the national security policy launched a year back

Durdana Najam February 09, 2023
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @durdananajam

What does the recent ferocious attack on the law enforcement officers in Peshawar communicate? While it points to the incapacity of the state to build an inclusive anti-terrorism policy delineating the roles of the civil and military establishments, it also highlights gaps in the national security policy launched a year back with a fanfare that marked a sincere effort to return stability to the country. The attack also indicates the misplaced priorities of the security establishment having a firm control over the foreign policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan and India. Internationally, this attack — which is not an isolated event, though colossal indeed — has reignited the conversation on Pakistan’s policy to compartmentalise the Taliban as good and bad. It had also brought into question the Pak-Afghan relationship that has turned soured since August 2021, when the US and its allies made a hurried departure from their 22-year long and inconsequential warfare.

Since the Soviet-Afghan war, Pakistan has been accused of using jihad as its foreign policy. The US and Saudi Arabia spent millions of so-called petro-dollars in establishing the culture of jihad in Pakistan, from publishing literature to offering dollars for training jihadists on the outskirts of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan to building Islamic centres in universities and spreading the net of madrassas across the country. This ideological grounding of jihad as a mean to attain a glorified Islam did enable the US to defeat the Soviet Union, but left in its wake a serpent (read terrorism) that would refuse to leave Afghanistan’s and, consequently, Pakistan’s soil to date.

Pakistan was under a martial law when the Soviet-Afghan war began. The ten long years of military rule would further alienate the civilians from the foreign policy equation. Riaz Muhammad Khan in his book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity writes: “Pakistan’s Afghan policy was in the hands of the army and the ISI and dependent on input from midlevel officials. These officials often scoffed at a diplomatic or political approach and were enamoured of a romantic view of the Afghan Jihad, holding the hard-line Afghan Mujahedin leadership in veneration and remaining blind to its shortcomings.” He further writes: “Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg had made it clear that he could not allow the civilian government to control Pakistan’s Afghan and Kashmir policy.” As a result, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and later Imran Khan had to contend with the army’s input on strategic issues.

Sharif met a horrendous fate after the so-called Dawn Leaks. Though it hardly leaked anything, it reiterated what has been well known — the establishment’s penchant of using religious organisations in its pursuit of anti-India policy both in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The establishment’s dealing with terrorism, the gaps in National Security policy and Pakistan’s unending romance with the good Taliban can be best understood in the context of three events.

First event: The Army Public School massacre in 2014. It united the country in converging on the definition of terrorism, in bracketing every Taliban involved in the conflict against the state as a terrorist, and in coming up with a National Action Plan — a list of 20 objectives — to be collectively achieved by the civil and military law enforcement and intelligence forces to eradicate terrorism and extremism.

Second event: It combines three developments — police-backed military operation in Karachi in 2013; initiation of a military operation called Zarb-e-Azab in North Waziristan in 2014; and launch of an all-encompassing military operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in 2017 to support local law enforcement agencies in apprehending and eliminating terrorists’ sleeper cells across the country.

Third event: Coming into power of PTI after the 2018 elections. Many hailed it as a watershed that would allow both the military and the civilians to recast their constitutional roles. The change of heart did not seem farfetched, now that most of the corrupt politicians in the PPP and PML-N ranks had been thrown into jails or forced to leave the country. In due course, the National Security Policy was also resurrected from the dust of history. And General Bajwa, then Chief of Army Staff, would never tire of showing his ambitions to wean Pakistan off the security-state paradigm to the geo-economic governance model in vogue internationally.

All these momentous happenings did bring a semblance of hope and peace in Pakistan, but then the misplaced priorities of the establishment muddled the water again. It took two subsequent events to turn into debris all the good work and achievements earned in the last three events.

First event: The US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021, leaving behind an unhinged Taliban administration which, despite every assurance, could not stop its land from being used by the TTP to attack Pakistan. Since the US departure, Pakistan has been in harm’s way, with no respite from terrorism. One after the other every peace accord with the TTP has fallen through, while the organisation has been successful in killing hundreds of soldiers and officers of civil-military cadres. One is tempted to ask whether our forces are capable of fighting the war on terrorism or they have become too complacent due to their non-strategic role in Pakistan’s economic and political affairs.

Second Event: The vote of no-confidence that brought down PTI’s government and with it the edifice of lie, deceit and backstabbing that for long has been the hallmark of Pakistan’s establishment — a combination of judiciary, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, intelligentsia and army.

Today Pakistan is everything but a stable, reliable, trustworthy and internationally respectful country. The irony is that despite being bogged in the torrent of wrong policies, the decision-makers are not ready to course-correct to align their priorities with the mood of the domestic public and international players.

General elections may not solve all the problems besetting Pakistan, but they can become a starting point. However, for any such journey to begin, those who call the shots will have to dispense with their non-strategic role in electoral politics, which may also mean a stop to their ever-burgeoning non-strategic assets? Once this misplaced priority is aligned the rest will fall into places.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2023.

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