These are stirring times in Islamabad, where the rich and the powerful gathered for the first-ever Islamabad Security Dialogue (ISD) on March 17-18. In Pakistan, the rich and the powerful are either politicians, businessmen or those in khaki, or even all three. And since it is they who run the country, what they say usually matters. The Dialogue was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan, while the keynote address was delivered by army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Of the two, it’s obvious who one would listen to. And it was quite something.
The ISD was organised by the National Security Division, a body originally set up under Nawaz Sharif to serve as the secretariat of the Cabinet Committee on National Security which replaced the Defence Committee of the Cabinet. Later called the National Security Committee, it was notified as the ‘principal decision-making body on national security’ in a move quite unlike the advisory role such bodies have in most countries. That it included the service chiefs hardly needs to be said.
At present, the division is headed by a secretary-level officer. An added post in national security bureaucracy is in the form of a special adviser to the PM, Moeed Yusuf, an academic from the US, who has been in the news for possible backchannel talks with India.
It is this division which seems to have initiated the ISD, together with five leading think-tanks of the country, the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Institute of Strategic Studies, Institute of Regional Studies and National Defence University's Institute of Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis.
The idea is aimed at bringing think-tanks and policy-makers together, in a praiseworthy effort to benefit both. Bureaucracies the world over are not very different from each other, particularly in South Asia, where there is usually a solid brick wall between the two. The first move to break that wall is the first ever advisory portal, an integrated platform to exchange ideas with universities, think-tanks and the bureaucracies. The second was obviously to get the army chief to lay down the proposals.
For decades, Pakistan’s idea of national security was simply India, and anything at all to do with what Delhi did anywhere. This permeated from top to bottom in the bureaucracy, leading to a somewhat lazy and hazy thinking about what Pakistan’s actual security constituted, even while outside experts pointed to a seriously water-stressed country, disease, lack of access to health, apart from the obviously unstable politics of extremism and intolerance.
This now seems to be changing, just a little. It started at the beginning of this year. In February, there was talk of Pakistan prioritising geo-economics over other issues. That was echoed by Foreign Minister Qureshi soon after Khan’s visit to Colombo where he rather surprisingly talked about Sri Lanka being part of CPEC. Now at the ISD, PM Khan is talking of comprehensive security astonishingly, saying that security is not just about defence. Unsurprisingly, he praised China’s model, as he does at every forum available. Equally unsurprisingly, Kashmir and self-determination went together, which doesn’t say very much of his understanding of his country’s national security priorities.
But the speech that has been uploaded in full is that of the army chief. And General Bajwa has much to say. First, he says national security is not the preserve of the armed forces alone. Then he places national security within ‘South Asia’, as the least integrated of regions. Someone in the audience could ask, whose fault that is, and the chief would have been hard put to answer. On Kashmir, he simply says, “It is time to bury the past and move forward. But for the resumption of the peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Indian-Occupied Kashmir.” Nothing on UN resolutions, self-determination or the standard phrases!
If that’s not astonishing enough, there is the offer of regional connectivity. That’s not just about China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though that is offered up as an ‘inclusive, transparent’ project for global and regional participation, particularly Afghanistan. What follows is best quoted in full. The General says, “Let me also emphasise that while CPEC remains central to our vision, only seeing Pakistan through the CPEC prism is also misleading. Our immensely vital geostrategic location and a transformed vision make us a country of immense and diverse potential which can very positively contribute to regional development and prosperity.”
In simple words, he’s offering up Pakistan as a node for regional connectivity. That’s something for a country that has stonewalled the SAARC regional connectivity proposals for years, refusing even the Motor Vehicles Pact that would have allowed passenger and cargo movement across the region. This means that Pakistan is ready for roads, railways and shipping to cross its territory into the rest of the world, including India. That’s turning South Asian politics on its head.
New Delhi’s hardened security experts will pooh-pooh a proposal from an army chief who is on extension, and will probably retire finally in November 2023, three years after he actually ended his tenure. Others will say with more truth that Pakistan is in a jam, given its crumbling economy, CPEC delays and a political milieu that is challenging to say the least. But the army chief is still the ‘go-to’ person for all foreign officials, distinguished or otherwise. What he says matters since he sits on top of the political food chain. It is as simple as that. Delhi had better consider this connectivity push and its pros and cons rather than dither about Bajwa’s hostile antecedents. Here is an opportunity. Take it up. It might mean money, and a lot of it.
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