What Pakistan’s New National Security Policy Leaves Out

The country’s first official strategy document fails to take a hard look at pressing internal challenges.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.
Security officials and relatives attend the funeral in Pakistan.
Security officials and relatives attend the funeral in Pakistan.
Security officials and relatives attend the funeral ceremony of a policeman who was killed in an attack claimed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Chaman, Pakistan, on Jan. 28. ABDUL BASIT/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, Pakistan released an official national security policy document for the first time. The unclassified version makes for interesting reading, both for the themes it addresses and for those it leaves entirely untouched. The strategy doesn’t say a word about Pakistan’s deep fiscal crisis, its unsustainable military budget, or the sectarian strife that has become endemic in parts of the country. And although commendable, its recommendations at times contradict themselves or fail to consider present-day political realities.

The new national security policy was issued by the office of Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security advisor. In principle, Yusuf’s office reports to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. But in practice, the policy document likely takes into account the interests of the country’s powerful military establishment. Given the military’s significant influence in Pakistani politics, the national security strategy should be seen as a reflection of the military’s priorities.

Early on, the policy document says Pakistan grapples with both traditional national security concerns and increasingly with nontraditional security challenges, including natural disasters, pandemics, and unbridled population growth. In the same breath, it highlights the dangers that terrorism poses for Pakistan and the region. For the most part, these concerns are reasonable, especially given Pakistan’s limited institutional capacity to deal with emergent challenges.

Last month, Pakistan released an official national security policy document for the first time. The unclassified version makes for interesting reading, both for the themes it addresses and for those it leaves entirely untouched. The strategy doesn’t say a word about Pakistan’s deep fiscal crisis, its unsustainable military budget, or the sectarian strife that has become endemic in parts of the country. And although commendable, its recommendations at times contradict themselves or fail to consider present-day political realities.

The new national security policy was issued by the office of Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security advisor. In principle, Yusuf’s office reports to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. But in practice, the policy document likely takes into account the interests of the country’s powerful military establishment. Given the military’s significant influence in Pakistani politics, the national security strategy should be seen as a reflection of the military’s priorities.

Early on, the policy document says Pakistan grapples with both traditional national security concerns and increasingly with nontraditional security challenges, including natural disasters, pandemics, and unbridled population growth. In the same breath, it highlights the dangers that terrorism poses for Pakistan and the region. For the most part, these concerns are reasonable, especially given Pakistan’s limited institutional capacity to deal with emergent challenges.

However, the policy suggestions for tackling these threats are vague; the only concrete initiative it mentions is an already launched health insurance program for underprivileged citizens. Although it acknowledges that climate change is likely to result in environmental stresses in Pakistan, it merely points to the fact that the country has dedicated the Ministry of Climate Change with its own climate change policy rather than approach the issue from a security perspective.

The policy document then begins to wade into fanciful territory. It identifies the preservation of Pakistan’s distinctive Islamic identity as one its key policy objectives while simultaneously calling for a celebration of the country’s ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. The security strategy fails to recognize the tension between these two goals; its authors seem to ignore that a shared commitment to Islam alone failed to hold the two wings of Pakistan together and led to the country’s 1971 breakup and Bangladesh’s independence. For the most part, Pakistan’s elites have failed to come to terms with this event, leaving Pakistan vulnerable to further ethnic strife.

The new security strategy does include fairly candid discussion of horizontal inequalities within Pakistan, which have periodically led to violent regional grievances. Parts of the country, such as south Baluchistan, Sindh, and the disputed areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, suffer from chronic underdevelopment. The national security report suggests that new policy initiatives are designed to address these economic disparities. However, its analysis and prescriptions gloss over a fundamental issue: that these grievances also reflect unaddressed demands for local autonomy based on regional and ethnic identities. (In the case of Baluchistan, the Pakistani state has mostly met these demands with repression.)

By overlooking the significance of these grievances, the report fails to address the fundamental fault line running through Pakistan. Worse still, it doesn’t consider the likely adverse impact of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that has already stirred resistance in Baluchistan for fears that few of its benefits will extend to the local population. Already, Baluchi rebels have carried out periodic outbursts of violence against China’s presence in the region.

Pakistan’s new national security policy takes predictable swipes against its long-standing adversary, India—albeit couched in anodyne language. For example, while discussing Pakistan’s territorial integrity, the strategy argues a “regressive and dangerous ideology gripping the collective conscience in our immediate neighbourhood” significantly increases the likelihood of conflict. It requires no stretch of the imagination to infer that this sentence refers to militant Hindu nationalism in India. Concern about this trend is understandable, but militant Hindu nationalism remains primarily a threat to India’s religious minorities—and thus to India itself.

Knocks against India are expected, but Pakistan’s national security policy exhibits a stunning lack of reflection when it comes to illegal activities on its own soil. In addressing internal security, the strategy document says, “Pakistan pursues a policy of zero tolerance” for terrorist groups within its borders and asserts that the country has received global recognition for its “positive strides” toward preventing terrorist financing. To the contrary, Pakistan remains involved with a host of terrorist groups, and it has narrowly escaped the United Nations Financial Action Task Force’s black list. (It instead remains on the gray list.)

Even when it concedes that Pakistan faces significant internal challenges, the policy document offers up trite suggestions—for example, calling for the urgent need to promote “interfaith and intersectarian harmony.” In a country where many politicians rarely lose an opportunity to exploit religious tensions, this call rings hollow. The report doesn’t mention the abuse of Pakistan’s pernicious blasphemy law, which leaves religious minorities in considerable peril and offers little legal recourse to the accused. Just last month, a woman in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, received a death sentence for sending allegedly blasphemous messages over WhatsApp.

Finally, the document’s approach to foreign policy is largely formulaic, repeating Pakistan’s familiar refrain about its steadfast commitment to Kashmir’s self-determination. Intriguingly, it does call for expanding its cooperation with the United States beyond focusing on counterterrorism. But it avoids the relationship’s recent erosion for reasons well known to Pakistan’s policymakers: its duplicity in counterterrorism cooperation, especially in Afghanistan. Given that its military apparatus remains involved with the insurgent Haqqani network, it is hard to see how Pakistan can serve as a viable U.S. partner there.

The overweening role of the armed forces in Pakistan’s politics makes it hardly surprising that its official national security strategy glosses over certain issues. For far too long, the country has failed to confront deeply ingrained shortcomings, instead seeking palliatives or attempting to project these issues as emanating from elsewhere. Its first national security policy document offered an opportunity for the government to face them head on, but it ultimately shows that a host of pressing security threats remain outside the realm of discussion.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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