Jul 13

NSC: Ifs and Buts

Posted on Friday, July 13, 2001 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The idea of a National Security Council in which the army constitutionally “shares” power with a prime minister was first mooted by General Zia-ul Haq in 1985 but shot down by a non-party parliament midwifed by him. It was raised again in 1991 by COAS General Aslam Beg but knocked out by his handpicked prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The NSC was floated a third time (in the shape of the Council for Defense and National Security) by COAS General Jehangir Karamat and President Farooq Leghari during the interim government in November 1996. But once again Nawaz Sharif would have none of it. Indeed, Mr Sharif went so far as to compel the president (who wanted to share power with him) to resign in 1997, and later put paid to General Karamat when he dared to persist with the idea in 1998.

Now COAS General Pervez Musharraf wants to implant the NSC once and for all. He believes it is a good idea whose time has finally come, not least because he expects to be in charge of the destiny (fate?) of Pakistan for donkeys of years and will make sure that no future prime minister can dispense with the army’s pet scheme. Is this realistic?

Everything will depend on the reformulated NSC’s aims and objectives. If it satisfies the demands of the present and future, it will become and remain a reality. But if it clings to the past, it will meet the same fate as its predecessors. Consider.

General Musharraf has ordered that there will now be nine members in his NSC presided over by the president and including the COAS, C-JCSC, the two other service chiefs, the four provincial governors and as many civilians as the president deems fit. In other words, the wise men in mufti will lord it over the imprudent men and women in civvies, and elected parliaments and prime ministers will exist at the pleasure of the COAS/President who will determine all issues relating to Pakistan’s “ideology, security, sovereignty, integrity, and solidarity, in light of the Objectives Resolution of 1949”. If this is not to be billed as a presidential system, one may safely note it as ‘guided’ democracy with a ring in its nose. How will such a NSC fare?

By straining the imagination, one may come to believe in a functioning NSC under General Musharraf. After all, two years in power have taught him the value of being more pragmatic and less ideological. But if a future NSC under an elected government is to become a permanent institution of the state overriding other players in the democratic set-up, then we must pause and reflect upon the conditions of its viability.

Ostensibly, Pakistan is an “Islamic” state with a strong disposition in favour of enforcing the Shariah under the Federal Shariat Court, despite an inchoate political model at the level of Islamic theory. Indeed, the Pakistan army since General Zia ul Haq’s time has become increasingly “Islamic”, with frequent born-again outcroppings among the officers’ corps. In fact, there is no institutional device barring the “Islamicists” from “taking over” and further subjecting the state to an unsteady process of “Islamisation”. But given Pakistan’s multiple crises, it needs more pragmatism today and much more pragmatism tomorrow than it ever did during the cold war. Thus the fate of the NSC is critically dependent not so much upon the feasibility of the power-sharing formula between the army and elected civilians per se as it is upon the NSC’s ability to steer a pragmatic and non-ideological path for Pakistan.

The fact is that a National Security Council can be useful only as long as a moderate, anti-isolationist general is head of the Pakistan army. He and his service chiefs can then actually cooperate with a beleaguered prime minister who is looking for rational and realistic options. In this situation, even an army chief under pressure from an “Islamicist” army can collaborate with the civilian government and strengthen its resolve to practise statesmanship instead of delivering on unpractical and extremist foreign policy slogans concocted during election campaigns. Such an army chief can reach a consensus within the National Security Council about Pakistan’s rapidly declining economy, the rising power of the jehadi organisations at the cost of the writ of the state, and the advisability of taking foreign policy decisions to avoid international isolation and censure. By the same token, acute problems are bound to arise if “Islamicist” generals espousing the same sort of creed as a couple of former ISI chiefs take over and are then allowed to dominate the discourse by virtue of ruling the National Security Council.

Fortunately, such “Islamicists” have never got to the top of the army. But the fact is that their hold on the army’s thinking is palpable enough and brings the army chief constantly under pressure. Indeed, the leaders of the Jamaat i Islami have already warned that when they “come to power two years from now” they will overhaul the structure of the armed forces to make them exclusively “Islamicist”. Therefore it is this threat rather than any perceived democratic “disequilibrium” in the power-sharing equation embedded in the NSC that should be of primary concern to us.

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