Perhaps the worst-kept secret of Pakistan is that it is a national security state and that the imperatives that underpin this reality have been overwhelmingly defined by the DeepState — as opposed to political parties outlining a national mission. The thinly disguised and widely recognised truth is that articulation of the dramatised existential threats to national security, strategies to deal with these threats and the military being the sole spearhead of the defense against these real and imagined threats is virtually wholly defined by the security establishment.
Over the decades, as the country has seesawed between representative and martial rule and reaped the whirlwind sowed by alternating national focus on the people’s welfare and military domination over the polity in these cycles, confusion has compounded in the popular imagination as to the nature of the demons afflicting the state. Confusion on such a fundamental aspect of statehood and national mission, of course, suits the khakis more than it does politicos. Without having to be accountable to the public, the security establishment has at its disposal a wide margin to manipulate both the message and the meaning. The politicians, of course, are forever on the back foot defending day-to-day disappointments.
For most of its existence in general and the last three decades in particular the civilian rulers in Pakistan have had to struggle to define themselves as arbiters of the state’s future. This in big part because the propaganda machine of the security establishment has been more powerful and well-oiled than any public messaging that could have been deployed by the usually divided political forces. The result: the mounting security challenges to the state’s very existence resulting from the follies of unaccountable usurpation of the mandate of political forces are defined only through a narrow prism of obfuscation and oversimplification of complexities.
Civilianising threat perception
All this, though, may have changed in the last few days. The government has produced a simplistic National Internal Security Policy (NISP). The significance of the 100-page document is not trivial. Is the first time that not just a serious effort has been made to capture key challenges to national internal security in a seamless single narrative by an elected dispensation but that it identifies gaps between the state’s responsibilities and actions and offers solutions to address these deficiencies. But perhaps the most important aspect of NISP is that it offers the first integrated sweep of the challenges and solutions from a civilian perspective. This is a radical departure from the frustratingly oversimplified military-defined threats facing ‘Islamic Pakistan’ from obscure or imagined sources based outside Pakistan rather than the internal threats that the NISP focuses on.
There has been much talk over the years — as the political forces consolidated themselves over the national polity, seizing space slowly but steadily from the khakis — about the need for fashioning a comprehensive policy that outlines a roadmap for restoration and rehabilitation of a functionally secure state even as it unraveled at the seams at an alarming pace. The Nawaz Sharif government has managed to finally do what an elected government hasn’t been allowed to do — identify the problems from a policy perspective and diagnose the solutions from a governance viewpoint on the terms of civilian forces not just the military mindset of being the judge, jury and executioner. And by doing so, it is a big step forward in weaning control of the narrative that defines the purpose of the state as being in service of its subjects rather than vice versa.
While the purpose of this article is not to examine the NISP contents but to attempt to capture its core significance, it is difficult to escape the impression that the long time the policy took to gestate itself represents the fundamental challenges facing the political forces in Pakistan as they struggle to wrest away the narrative from the security establishment on the national mission of peace and marry it to the priority of development. For sure it is, at its heart, essentially a basic document that aims to offer the desirable twinning of policy objectives with outcome methodologies, but this in itself is a milestone by Pakistan’s standards as it redefines in practical terms how to get where everyone has been trying to go by hitherto going nowhere fast.
The buck stops (w)here?
NISP is not just a first by being a clear civilian perspective on a turf traditionally dominated by the security establishment but also bold in its diagnosis in policy articulation. From acknowledging that religion in its worst avatars such as sectarianism is tearing the country apart to emphasising that the two dozen security agencies are competing for resources rather than supplementing efforts for shared outcomes; from finally confirming that hate is indeed being taught in educational institutions leading to intolerance to rejecting demands for extremist interpretations of religion by the state; from accepting the compulsion of building institutional capacities on counter-terrorism to pledging to eliminate implementation gaps that allow margins for militant groups to dictate terms to the state, NISP looks like it is not just some stop-gap style as a substitute for substance.
While we can celebrate the miracle of a policy document of this significance actually materialise, it is clear as rain that NISP will be only as good as the extent to which it gets owned up by key stakeholders and implemented. Yes it still needs to be figured out if the interior minister or prime minister will accept that the buck stops at their table (and it’s rather clear where it should) and then there’s the small matter of belling the cat (now that it’s been decided it will be belled).
We’re not even done with the ownership battle. While the policy has been placed before the parliament — the first time a national security policy (with a mysterious part secret) has been placed for wider endorsement — it is imperative that it be graced with approval so that the government can employ it and create even more space for political forces to take the risks necessary for success.
After all NISP is the start of a process rather than its conclusion. Broad political support for it will help the first government in 40 years coming in with the expectation at the outset to last its whole 5-year tenure strengthen the case of political forces as the rightful agency for achieving national security. It’s time the driver decides where the vehicle will go, not the vehicle like it has disastrously been so far.