Pakistan’s National Security Policy Faces an Expectations Gap
Pakistan is the first South Asian country to issue a comprehensive national security policy, but the jargon-laced document, whose unclassified version is sixty-two pages, lacks fresh thinking and imaginative ideas.
For the past seventy-five years, Pakistan has relied upon the United States for economic and security aid in exchange for helping it with two wars in Afghanistan: the 1980s Afghan War and the Global War on Terror. However, this relationship, which was codified in two major security pacts with the United States, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization (also known as the Baghdad Pact 1955), focused Pakistan on addressing U.S. and India-centric security priorities, rather than on its economy or non-traditional aspects such as human, food, and gender security. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad slid down Washington’s strategic calculus, and, consequently, U.S. aid to Pakistan waned. This overreliance on the West prompted a major reset in Pakistan’s security paradigm as the nation reoriented its focus from geopolitics to geo-economics.
As a result, Pakistan launched its “first-ever” National Security Policy (NSP) that promised a “citizen-centric” approach on January 14, 2022. The NSP places economic development at the forefront of Pakistan’s new security vision by using Pakistan’s location as a primary channel for regional economic cooperation and connectivity. Further, the NSP shifts Pakistan’s national security focus from the military to the economy but does not view traditional and non-traditional security as mutually exclusive. Instead, it treats them as complementary, which can be enhanced by increasing the size of the national economic pie. In addition, the NSP also mentions avoiding camp politics against the backdrop of the U.S.-China great power competition. Rather, the NSP claims, Pakistan aims to act as a bridge between the two nations.
Critically, while the NSP opines that Pakistan does not want to be part of camp politics, it discusses Pakistan’s ties with China in various critical countries. At the same time, relations with the United States are elaborated under the rest of the word section. If the NSP’s classification of ties with the United States and China is viewed together with Pakistan’s move to skip the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy last December and its decision to participate in the opening ceremony of China’s Winter Olympics despite an international boycott, it is evident that Islamabad is taking Beijing’s side.
Pakistan is the first South Asian country to issue a comprehensive national security policy, but the jargon-laced NSP, whose unclassified version is sixty-two pages, lacks fresh thinking and imaginative ideas. For instance, the NSP’s claim of adopting a “guns and butter” as opposed to a “guns versus butter” approach to security is an old debate that was settled in the 1980s. In other words, the policy is old wine in a new bottle. Further, the NSP lacks clear benchmarks for measuring successes or failures and, more importantly, states objectives without outlining a strategy, goals without identifying means, and aims without specifying deliverables.
Likewise, the mainstay of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the central pillar of its security since 1947, Kashmir, has been discussed in one paragraph of 113 words. Notably, the shorter than expected section on Kashmir does not refer to preconditions, i.e., reversing Article 370 and 35A, for normalization with India. That this policy stance is free of preconditions like restoring Kashmir’s pre-August 2019 status for peace with India is consistent with Pakistani Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech at the Margalla Dialogue in 2021, which also did not predicate peace with India on any preconditions. If this assessment is correct, provided the confidential part of the NSP does not contain any preconditions, then Pakistan is accepting Kashmir’s status as India’s federal union territory as a fait accompli. Yet, while peace with India is identified as important for Pakistan’s economic development, no strategy is laid out to achieve this. For instance, India has long demanded that Pakistani stop supporting Kashmir-focused militant groups before a bilateral peace process can be reinstated. The NSP offers no clarity on Pakistan’s policy toward Kashmiri rebel groups.
Similarly, the NSP claims to be Pakistan’s first-ever national security policy, which is factually incorrect. The first National Internal Security Policy was launched in 2014 by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) government. Former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan initiated this policy, which elapsed in 2018, as well as an updated version in late 2018, the National Internal Security Policy 2019-2023.
Another critical factor is the timing of the NSP’s launch, which was announced when Islamabad is rife with rumors that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government would be ousted from power following the deterioration of its ties with the military establishment, plummeting public ratings, abysmal governance, and poor economic performance. If PTI is ousted, the next government is unlikely to adopt the NSP given the exclusionary nature of its formulation, where parliament and provinces were kept out of the consultation loop. Without this crucial parliamentary and provincial buy-in, the NSP’s aspirations of being “citizen-centric” in its approach are likely to be dashed.
Furthermore, it is important to mention that the National Internal Security Policy 2014-2018 was overshadowed by the twenty-point National Action Plan following the Army Public School massacre. Likewise, the PTI government did not adopt the National Internal Security Policy 2019-2023 because it was initiated during the twilight of the PMLN’s dispensation. Therefore, it appears that the NSP’s future will be no different.
A cursory look at Pakistan’s erstwhile laws and policies reveal that they aptly encapsulated the challenges confronting Pakistan along with proposing their solutions. However, their implementation always remained less than desirable. It seems that the PTI government has passed the NSP in a hurry to tick a box before being ousted from power. Finally, without addressing the elephant in the room, i.e., the civil-military imbalance which lies at the heart of Pakistan’s lopsided security priorities, the mere mention of expanding the economic pie in the NSP to complement traditional and non-traditional security is wishful thinking.
Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Follow him on Twitter @basitresearcher.