A welcome shift

Here’s what I wrote for The News about the Pakistan Army’s revised security and threat assessment

The Pakistan army has reportedly revised its security assessment and is now placing more emphasis on ‘internal threats’ rather than the external enemies

Media reports suggest that the Pakistan army has revised its security assessment and is now placing more emphasis on ‘internal threats rather than the external enemies which have informed its strategy as well as operations. This is a welcome development. The details of its new doctrine are unclear but there have been three indications in the recent past. First, the tacit support to the civilian government’s thaw with India and undertaking the unimaginable: trade with India. Second, the chief of the army staff, Gen Kayani, while speaking at an official ceremony, cited the threat of extremism and reiterated the moderate ethos of Islam. Thirdly, the continued battle against militants in the northwest of the country continues without any major policy reversal.

There are two issues with the internal shifts, if any, with the way military is proceeding with its strategic rethink. First of all, due to its structure and institutional culture it is not an open and engaging entity. Decisions are centralised and are taken by a coterie of top commanders. Secondly it is also learning to readjust its power and influence within the context of a changing Pakistan.

After five years of civilian rule and emergence of new power centres (judiciary and media), its exclusive monopoly of power had been eroded. For instance, launching a coup though not impossible is a far more complicated endeavour. In this fluid political environment, the Army has yet to find a comfortable equilibrium with the political forces and the parliament. It might have been more useful had the army tried to engage with the national security committee of the parliament thereby giving its rethink more depth, public input and long term legitimacy.

Let’s not forget that the ideological propaganda of al Qaeda and its affiliates has penetrated various sections of the Pakistani society. Whilst the Pakistani population does not want a Taliban type regime that bans women’s education, a vast majority of the population considers the US as an enemy of Islam and the Muslim. More often than not the West – as a vague construct – is also employed in the xenophobic and violent ideology of resistance. This narrative had gained ground in the country whether we like or not.

Sadly the elements of the state, especially the military, have added to this paranoia by firstly allowing the torchbearers of this ideology to live safely in the country for over a decade and secondly to operate from within the country. In this lax environment, the al Qaeda and its junior partner, the Taliban, have mad some local alliances and established more bases beyond the rugged mountains of the north. Media reports again inform us that sectarians groups are also in alliance with the Salafi Islamists and many places in mainland Pakistan such as Karachi, South Punjab etc are the new havens.

Therefore, the military may have changed its doctrine but the internal efforts cannot be accomplished by it alone. Its past record of internal reform and restructuring is not that encouraging. The reforms led by military machine have been transient at best. Without political praxis this feat will be partially successful if not entirely fruitless. Secondly, the media which has also imbibed the decades of influences in the form of a faux identity would need to partner in this effort. It can only come about with a better regulatory environment. Not the kind of gagging that takes place under the garb of ‘regulation’ but an effort by the owners and editors of placing more emphasis on filters, fact verification, avoidance of unnamed sources and presentation of ‘opinion’ as facts. This is a plague that has engulfed our collective consciousness and media personnel are not immune to this societal attitude.

However, the assumption here is that there is a move towards a reassessment of the way our soldiers and their commanders look at security and threat. Recent events have been chilling.

The cold blooded attack on Peshawar air base on Dec 15, assassination of Bashir Bilour on Dec 22 in Peshawar, the execution of 22 Levies on December 29 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the subsequent murder of dozens of Shia pilgrims in Balochistan have shaken the state as well as the population of Pakistan. However, the response of Gen Kayani was intriguing. In an official statement, the enemy was called ‘amorphous’ at the Pakistan Naval Academy.

The truth is that our strategic assets are not being that asset-like. Hakimullah Mehsud, his leader Mullah Umar and their spiritual master ie al Qaeda chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir are promoters of anti-Americanism. Al Qaeda Inc in Pakistan holds the Pakistan Army as just targets of attacks due to its alliance with the United States.

Why cannot the military leadership see that coalitions such as Defence of Pakistan Council are part of this larger security problem. Why do they have to be pandered and used like the 1980s when the world and the country have moved on?

While we look at the way military is dealing with the internal threats, we cannot absolve the civilian leadership of its massive oversight of taking charge of the extremism. It may have been expedient for the PPP leadership to outsource the security policy to the army but as a constitutional entity elected for delivering governance it cannot absolve itself.

The opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has been too busy responding to the populist antics of Imran Khan whose understanding of foreign and security policy is problematic to say the least. Thus far Khan has found two punching bags: the United States and the Pakistani liberals (one often wonders who are they?) and held them responsible for extremism and terrorism. This simplistic worldview makes for good headlines and content for shallow TV debates but it surely weakens the consensus against which Pakistanis need to be part of. The brave ANP has been fighting it out amid severe challenges and loss of its leadership and workers but it needs support from other parties, especially the mainstream parties.

In this milieu, Pakistanis are the victims. On the one hands they are under the illusion that elected leaders have all the powers to fix the country especially its security climate, and on the other hand they are also getting indoctrinated by the continuous anti-American propaganda and conspiracy theories. The army is still figuring out ways to stay relevant in its regional ambitions with respect to Afghanistan and rising power of India and the politicians are keen to play it well for the forthcoming elections.

Given such a complex environment and the real challenges that the security establishment faces, it makes one wonder where did the idea of launching Allama Tahirul Qadri come from? Allama’s plans to turn Islamabad into Tahrir Square are a formula for chaos. Unlike Egypt, Pakistan is a democracy and gearing for a general election. Allama is a scholar of note and has millions of followers but that does not imply he understands politics or the unenviable art of governing Pakistan. At best, he is being played by forces which always want to achieve ‘positive results’ to use a Zia ul Haq phrase, from the electoral process. It is some measure of satisfaction that the major parties are united in their resolve not to let Qadri and his backers derail the parliamentary system and constitutional provisions.

But how can the civilians and the military fight extremism if they will not work towards political stability and a focus on policy making through open and transparent means? It is time that a concerted effort is made which involves the political parties, the military, the media and the civil society to agree on a long term policy on combating violent extremism.

To begin with, we need to limit our ambitions in Afghanistan, start getting serious about mosque-madrassa reform, and decide on the multitude of proxies that have turned against us. Once the state and its lords show resolve, Pakistanis will follow.

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