Volume 22 Issue 8, August 2018


The National Security Council (NSC) which is the highest civil-military coordination forum meets periodically to review issues impacting Pakistan’s foreign, domestic and security matters. Headed by the Prime Minister and composed of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Chiefs of Army, Air Force and Navy, and Foreign, Finance, Defence and Interior Ministers, the NSC is perceived as a body which is heavily influenced by the men in uniform.

Is NSC a viable forum to deal with issues related to national security or it is used by the military to exert pressure on the civilian government to take action against those perceived to be a security risk for the country? Why has the fragility of democracy in Pakistan become obvious because of weak political institutions? Can the supremacy of the parliament and the civilian institutions be achieved in the years to come?

The term national security is a source of enormous controversy. Traditional security paradigms focus on military security and defence-related threats whereas, in the post-cold war era, the whole gamut of security has undergone a sea change. Security is primarily a zero sum game unless human and comprehensive security also account for a core policy on national security.

A forum dealing with security issues is not something strange. Many countries, including the United States, have an institutional arrangement like the National Security Council (NSC). In the White House, there is a room called the ‘situation room’ where the NSC meets in the event of a grave crisis threatening American security. But Pakistan’s predicament is fragility of civil-military relations because, in 71 years of the country’s history, the military was at the helm of affairs for more than three decades.

Weak political institutions provided enormous space to the military which asserts its position and dictates so-called civilian governments. No political party in Pakistan can claim that it did not receive patronage from the security establishment.

Insecurity of political leaders and their weak credentials means they lack the courage to take a stand on issues where interference from non-political forces is quite visible. The National Security Council in Pakistan, although headed by the Prime Minister, does not reflect the supremacy of civilian rule because of two main reasons. First, when the issue of Dawn leaks tested the authority of the Prime Minister to withstand the pressure of the military to take action against those high ups of his government who were blamed for compromising on national security policy by leaking the proceedings of the NSC meeting, Nawaz Sharif relieved the Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid and Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Tariq Fatemi. Second, recently when an interview of the former Prime Minister, which he gave in Multan and was published in Dawn, led to a sharp reaction from Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and a meeting of NSC on the demand of the military was called.
Nawaz Sharif in his interview had talked about terrorists sent to Mumbai from Pakistan which led to the bloodbath in the Indian city on November 26, 2008 thus earning a bad name for Pakistan at the international level. The SC meeting, which was chaired by the Prime Minister on the insistence of the military participants, condemned the interview. After the meeting was over and Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi left, he did not utter a single word against Nawaz Sharif despite the fact that he was widely criticized by almost all the political parties. They said Nawaz Sharif had compromised on national security by subscribing to New Delhi’s contention about the involvement of Pakistan’s security establishment in Mumbai’s terrorist attacks in 2008.

Logically speaking, the National Security Council can be a useful forum composed of civil and military personnel to engage in brainstorming sessions concerning issues which are perceived to be a threat to the country’s national security. It all depends on the strength and authority of the civilian government that how it presents the case and how it is able to assert its position. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistan when many political parties and their leaders got their patronage from the military and the intelligence agencies, how one can expect them to take an independent positions on vital issues? Sadly, in the meetings of the NSC the real issues of national security pertaining to environmental degradation, acute water shortage, economic crisis, low quality of life of the people and poor educational and health facilities rarely get any attention from the participants. NSC meetings usually focus on external security matters concerning India, Afghanistan and internal security threats emanating from extremism, violence, terrorism in Balochistan, FATA and other disturbed parts of the country.

Human and comprehensive security issues which should have been the priority of the National Security Council have failed to get the attention of committee members. At least, four security issues require the immediate discussion of the NSC. First, severe shortage of water as Pakistan is now the third water-deficient country in the world and if immediate steps are not taken to build water reservoirs and water is not saved before flowing into the sea, Pakistan will plunge into a serious water crisis.
Particularly, Karachi a mega city of more than 20 million people, will face a situation like Cape Town like where zero hour has reached and the residents of the city now have strict rationing of water.

Second is environment which is like a time bomb as the rise in the burning of fossil fuel and deforestation will cause a further rise in temperatures and their lethal implications on 200 million people of Pakistan. It is predicted that if Pakistan is unable to enhance its forest area from existing 2.5% to 20%, and control the use of fossil fuel, it will face an environmental catastrophe. It is a critical issue of national security which should have been seriously examined and in detail by the NSC.

Third, issues like the low quality of life of the people, lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, poor health facilities, frustration among the youth because of the sub-standard educational system and meagre employment opportunities should have been a matter of discussion by the members of the NSC but perhaps, for them these are peripheral issues and do not fall into the realm of mainstream national security issues. If proper investment for the uplifting and empowerment of the youth is not done, it would mean jeopardizing the future of Pakistan because youths constitute around 65% of the population of the country.

Indifference and apathy on the part of the elite sections to deal with issues which constitute a threat to national security of Pakistan is a fundamental reason for political, social and economic backwardness of the country. The lack of ownership and misuse of national security on the part of the ruling elite is responsible for putting Pakistan at number 144 in the human development index.

Finally, while the NSC gives some preference to deal with the economic predicament of Pakistan, it is certainly not focusing on how to enhance exports and foreign exchange reserves of the country. The dangerous level of foreign and domestic debt, which is now equal to the GDP of Pakistan, should have been the priority of the NSC but its meetings are devoid of examining such issues as the grave impending economic crisis.

The military and security establishment must redefine national security priorities. This would require a change in the mindset of not only the military but also the bureaucratic and political elite. They need to realize that national security is not just about the country’s defence and enhancing the conventional and nuclear arsenal but also about improving the state of human security in the country. As long as people remain insecure because of the low quality of life and inadequate access to basic necessities of life, Pakistan will remain an insecure country.


The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi.    
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