time Monday Dec 19 2022

Since NSC's creation no PM has effectively utilised the forum

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairs the meeting of the National Security Council. — Twitter/File
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairs the meeting of the National Security Council. — Twitter/File

Given Pakistan’s political and governance history and the charring civil-military relations, there is a sense of hope and positivity linked to the public resolve by the military leadership to remain within the confines of its constitutionally-mandated role and to never again interfere in the politics of Pakistan. Not only will this help the country move forward towards consolidating effective democratic governance, but it will also allow for greater focus for the institution and its personnel to further hone their professional skills and excellence.

It is also worth noting that such a resolution could have only been made possible through a process of sustained and unbiased introspection within the institution which speaks volumes of the professional maturity and discipline that our armed forces are known for. However, for this resolve to translate into a sustained reality for Pakistan, it is equally necessary that other state institutions and actors, including leading political parties, undergo somewhat similar self-analysis and soul-searching.

The centrality of the issue of our civil-military relations in bringing Pakistan to the state of utter misgovernance requires another serious acknowledgement: the regression in civil-military relations in the past 7 decades took place due to a complex web of thinking styles and judgments of individual leaders, institutional structures and peculiar value systems of various institutions and organisations and internal and external challenges fuelled by regional and global influences.

This gulf that developed over time in the thinking, perceptions, behaviours, actions and reactions of the military and successive political leadership, as also in state and society, required to be bridged only through a strategic re-think and an institutional process. While those at the helm of affairs on each side must have tried and failed at any attempts made at various times, either sustainable options were not created or these were not fully utilised.

Evolving an institutional system of decision-making on national security issues is one such fundamental failure. There is a legitimate and necessary requirement of effective governance to invite and involve the input of national defence institutions in national security and defence-related decision-making. Every functioning country provides for one or the other kind of institutional setup to seek and utilise this input in critical decision-making.

At various times in our history, there have been several attempts to create forums where institutional input could be sought and incorporated into defence and security-related national decisions. From various models of defence committees of the cabinet under civilian governments to a law-based but unwieldy National Security Council under military rule, such forums were created but maybe due to the intent behind each creation could not be sustained over time, leading to a wider chasm in institutional relations.

One of our key recommendations to successive governments that PILDAT developed alongside a group of eminent citizens from various walks of life, including former military officials, to bridge the gap between civil and military thinking and perceptions, creation of a forum of consultation on defence and national security decision-making was the key. Such a forum was needed not only to institutionalise decision-making on such a key area but to also serve as an institutional medium for regular discussion on strategic issues that cause such huge divergence in thinking on both sides that often lead to the derailment of the entire process of democracy.

The recommendation eventually led to the creation of a National Security Committee (NSC) in 2013, first time with a complete and independent secretariat in the shape of a separate National Security Division (NSD) charged with the responsibilities to convene meetings of the NSC and collect, coordinate and collate proposals and input from all relevant ministries and organizations for the consideration of the NSC. Among other functions, the NSD was the line ministry on national security and was responsible to brief parliament and its committees.

The creation of the NSC would fill the huge void that existed in our policy-making and would institutionalise decision-making, it was hoped since perspectives of the security sector were delivered through un-institutionalised and one-on-one interactions between elected premiers and successive military commanders before. Pakistan, which has continued to face myriad security challenges and is often called a security state, the forum of the NSC was especially crucial to formalise irregular and personalised interactions into the formal and regular presentation of policy advice and its consideration for national decision-making.

Despite taking such a huge policy step in the right direction, sadly it was former prime minister Nawaz Sharif himself who paid little attention to effectively utilising this critical forum. Soon after the first few meetings, he preferred to manage relations with the military through personalised, one-on-one interactions bypassing the NSC. History is clear how these personalised interactions did little good for his holding of the office but a major opportunity was squandered for the much-needed institutionalisation of this crucial relationship.

It is important to note that forums like the NSC which exist and function effectively as central forums of national security decision-making in countries including the US, UK, India, Israel and Turkey, among others, are convened weekly by the respective heads of government in these countries.

As prime minister, Nawaz Sharif only convened nine meetings of the NSC in his four years and two months. After his exit, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as PM tried to actively utilise the forum and convened and chaired 14 meetings in his 10 months of the premiership.

Former PM Imran Khan whose government began the mantra of a "same page" relationship with the army also did little to institutionalise the relationship and decision-making in this crucial area. In his entire tenure of three years and eight months, he only convened 12 meetings of the NSC though he held 32 one-on-one interactions with the army chief alone and 104 interactions in the presence of the army chief.

Since assuming the office of prime minister eight months ago, Shehbaz Sharif has only convened and chaired a sole meeting of the NSC — though of course he too has met the outgoing and the new COAS several times in individual settings.

The important forum of the NSC has been only convened by successive premiers in the case of critical emergencies. For instance, the lone NSC meeting convened by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif a few days after he took an oath of office as PM was to have the NSC reiterate that the vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan was not due to a foreign conspiracy as was alleged by Imran Khan. Earlier as prime minister, Imran Khan held NSC meetings in his last year in office only to discuss issues like the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the strategy to discuss the end of the TLP march towards Islamabad at the time, and his last NSC meeting while facing a vote of no-confidence to discuss the alleged US conspiracy to oust him and sending of diplomatic demarche. Only one of his last four NSC meetings was held to approve the National Security Policy 2022-2026.

In practice then, the past nine years since the creation of the NSC show that none of the elected prime ministers (with the possible exception of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi whose term was very short anyway) has worked to effectively utilise the crucial forum of the NSC. Instead, successive civilian and military leaders have pursued the same old informal, ad-hoc, transient and personalized manner of dealing with issues. The NSC has remained dormant and neither the quality and pace of the relationship nor the process of our national decision-making has improved.

Our recent history is categorically clear on the calamitous management of individualised relationships. Despite their lingering tendencies to choose the same path, the relationship must be reset on an institutional basis. The NSC is the only forum for institutionalising this liaison and for institutional decision-making.

The NSC meetings must be convened every week; its rules of business should be changed, much like Rule 20 of the Government of Pakistan Rules of Business, to define a periodicity of weekly meetings. It is equally important that periodic meetings of the NSC are devoted to discussions on long-term strategic issues of inter-institutional relations to reset each institution’s role and domain according to the constitution.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.