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Turn Pakistan from national security state to a people’s welfare state

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 18 December 2008

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The News, December 17, 2008

Our India myths

Much has been made of the Indian government’s ”irresponsible” accusations directed at the government of Pakistan following the Mumbai attacks. It is implicitly assumed that Islamabad is entitled to lodge a “defence,” given what is said to be lack of concrete evidence corroborating New Delhi’s claims that Pakistanis were responsible for the carnage.

And so, the Pakistani military has jumped into the fray. After a gap of many years, the old narrative of national security in which “Muslim” Pakistan is pitted against “Hindu” India is once again centre-stage.

This is no small matter given the events of the past seven or eight years, in particular the “war on terror.” Washington’s fresh interest in the region forced Pakistan’s security establishment to at least rhetorically commit to a change in its strategic policy by prioritising the “war on terror” over the traditional concern with the Indian “threat.” The Indian government’s admittedly tempestuous polemics in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks precipitated statements from the GHQ suggesting that the Pakistani military could be pulled from the country’s western border to counter a possible build-up of Indian troops on the eastern border.

These statements were not veiled “threats” to the United States; the Pakistani generals would not make any hasty decision to abandon the “war on terror” without the approval of the Pentagon. Academic opinion seems to back up Pakistan’s “threat” perception. A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid suggests that Washington should acknowledge Islamabad’s concerns vis-a-vis India if it wants Pakistani generals to put their heart and soul into the “war on terror” effort.

It is beside the point whether or not Indian government officials could have been more circumspect in their reaction to the attacks on India’s financial and cultural capital. What should be of concern to us is whether or not the national security paradigm built around the “threat” of India should continue to determine how the Pakistani state is constituted and its basic orientation.

It has been little more than a year since the Pakistani military was subjected to unprecedented public censure following Gen Pervez Musharraf’s de facto martial law. The protests may have been led by lawyers, but there was broad consensus within the wider society against the indulgences of the military top brass. Despite the best intentions of many a retired general and other apologists for the establishment who insisted that Musharraf alone was to blame, the military as an institution was being asked to answer for its dominant role in the polity.

The military has since gone a long way towards rehabilitating its image. The present chief of the army staff is described as a “professional soldier” with no interest in politics, and one of his first steps after taking command was to recall some–definitely not all–serving military men within civilian institutions. Many other obvious and not-so-obvious initiatives have been taken to repair the damage that Musharraf presided over. These initiatives have served to rehabilitate not only the military’s image, but the national security paradigm itself.

What is the national security paradigm other than a mandate for the military to continue playing a larger-than-life role in state affairs? The obsession with India has ensured the military’s dominance because it has been the institution charged with ensuring “national security.” In short, the default state ideology has been that protection of the territorial sovereignty of the state is primary, while everything else is secondary.

This is no doubt a very compelling narrative, and explains why such a large chunk of public resources has always been allocated to the military. Unfortunately, our very weak political parties have tended to reinforce this narrative rather than offering an alternative which recognises the imperative of sovereignty and that of civilian supremacy over the military. Meanwhile, “public opinion” is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that successive generations–mostly in Punjab–have been made to believe that everything can be sacrificed in the name of “national security” vis-a-vis India.

Much of the discontent that was expressed during the agitations precipitated by the fallout between the Musharraf junta and the superior judiciary can be understood as an implicit demand for the military to cede its dominance to the people of Pakistan in the form of an uninterrupted political process. That the reinstitution of this process has not magically solved Pakistan’s problems should not be a surprise. Our political parties are fractured and it will take quite some time for the political process to produce new and better options, but at least this process can open up democratic spaces that simply do not exist when the “guardians of the state” are given a blank cheque.

An honest and objective reading of history (as opposed to the selective and doctored readings that are preferred by the establishment) will reveal that India, let alone any other country, has never been single-mindedly committed to the eradication of the Pakistani state. The Indian state, like its Pakistani counterpart, is without doubt concerned with shoring up its own power, legitimating its domination and crushing dissent. But it is not that obsessed with Pakistan that all of our resources should be consumed in “protecting” ourselves from it.

It is high time for serious introspection over the imperative of “national security.” In some ways the current attempts by the military establishment to reignite the flame of anti-India sentiment are a test as to the long-term durability of the national security paradigm, particularly in the wake of the widespread resentment that was directed at the establishment in the last few months of the Musharraf dictatorship.

Ordinary people in the Punjab may finally be realising that India is not responsible for everything that goes wrong in Pakistan, whereas ordinary Baloch, Pakhtuns and Sindhis have been going on for decades about how “national security” has only deprived them of their basic rights. The intelligentsia would do well to play its role as the critical conscience of society and oversee a transformation of the national security state into a people’s welfare state in which military men are no more equal than the rest of us.