SEPTEMBER has acquired a colloquial connotation of ruthlessness (sitamgar) in Pakistan, mainly due to the way political events have unfolded during this month over the years past. Many political commentators believe they can see bad omens hovering over the government during this particular month.
As in the past, this September too has a great deal of political and diplomatic frenzy in its fold: the Panama hangover is not yet over, the NA-120 by-election continues to heat up political debate on TV screens, and the BRICS declaration has revived internal and external security discourses. Still, September seems relatively normal this year. The smiling faces of the Pakistani delegates at the United Nations General Assembly seemed to reflect no stress. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi appeared quite confident when he told the UN that Pakistan was not ready to fight the Afghan war on its soil and was fully prepared to befittingly respond to any Indian aggression.
September last year was extremely stressful for Pakistan amid increasing diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of the Uri military camp attack in India. The civilian and military leaderships were struggling to effectively respond to and counter Indian diplomatic coercion. The speech of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the UN General Assembly could not influence many because of India’s successful anti-Pakistan campaign. Before the Uri attack, India was facing global criticism for mishandling the Kashmiri resistance movement and human rights violations. But the terror attack changed the situation radically in favour of India.
This time last year Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships were struggling to counter India.
In Pakistan, the externalisation factor was in full swing and the approach was to pretend to be strong without exposing any weakness. But as action to address internal weaknesses was missing, the approach was not working ie external crises could not be dealt with, which eventually made our diplomatic posture defensive. The establishment blamed the civilian administration and diplomatic corps for the failure. The beneficiary was once again non-state actors who thrive during such crises. The civil-military relationship was on the verge of collapse last September and further deteriorated in October after the so-called Dawn leaks. November brought some respite after the new military leadership assumed office. The role of China and Russia notwithstanding, Pakistan’s security forces’ action against anti-state and foreign militants in the bordering region with Afghanistan also helped in easing international diplomatic pressure.
However, the opportunity to review the traditional approach towards certain conventional militant groups responsible for Pakistan’s diplomatic stress was not fully exploited. That was the time to tell ourselves and the international community that the problems of terrorism and extremism are complex and require an innovative and unconventional approach, and contemporary practices may not be completely helpful in Pakistan’s context. The idea of disengaging with and deradicalising conventional militant groups had the potential to convince our international partners — but it needed a sound plan.
Sadly, Pakistan considered temporary relief as a victory, which not only extended the internal militancy problem but also deepened the illusion of externalisation. Former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was the main advocate of the externalisation approach; he failed to avail himself of the opportunity.
When the state did not act, non-state actors did. The idea of mainstreaming militants was exploited by establishing political parties, which is worrying the world even more. We should not be too naïve to realise what is bringing more pressure on Pakistan from friends and foes. US President Donald Trump’s speech and the BRICS declaration, though they had different tones and expressions, carried a similar message.
Although the internal dynamics have not changed much, a realistic position taken by the prime minister and his foreign and interior ministers on addressing the problem at home has given them the confidence to interact with international leadership more frankly. Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa’s statement on Defence Day, declaring war as a right reserved for the state, was a clear warning to those who hide behind the state’s strategic narratives.
After the militancy problem, Afghanistan is another major diplomatic challenge for Pakistan whose desire to not be seen through Afghanistan’s lens will need efforts to build trust with Kabul and the Afghan people. Luckily, the trust-building process has resumed and this time it should be taken to its logical conclusion. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in his speech to the UN, appealed to Pakistan for dialogue. Similarly, recent interactions between the Pakistani military leadership and Afghan representatives also triggered optimism. China has already extended its help to repair the trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The structural issue of the civil-military relationship also needs to be taken into account. Non-state actors are an irritant here too, as Dawn’s report last October revealed. This is the issue that we need to resolve consensually, without external help. This challenge has many dimensions ranging from institutional interests to supremacy on policy discourse. This is also an intellectual challenge and needs a break from the cycle of monotonous policy thinking.
The role of a strong parliament should come under discussion; parliament must assert itself as a supreme body to guide and lead the debates on all critical national and international issues and challenges. The upper house of parliament is taking a lead in initiating debate but it needs support from the lower house and the provincial assemblies as well.
The civil and military leaderships have to evolve a common approach on internal and regional issues. Parliament should revive its dominance over the policy discourse in the country. Intellectuals and opinionmakers should welcome new ideas. This is the only way to transform and make normal our Septembers, Octobers, and other months and the years beyond.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2017