Prioritising economy versus security

Ismail KhanThe following column originally appeared in The Daily Times on December 3, 2009.

The economy and security can work in their own domain and yet both can contribute to each other. A country with a better economy enjoys greater international influence

The other day, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Information Secretary, Ms. Fauzia Wahab, made a revelation that the differences between the COAS and the President relate to the “threat perception” of India and that while the COAS believes in a “security-centric relationship”, the President wants an “economy-centric relationship” with India. No one from the Presidency or the COAS can surely acknowledge the veracity of the revelation, as it would be tantamount to publicising these differences.

In fact, no one needs verification. There is little to suggest that that would not be the case. Forget the present COAS; any person associated with the military is expected to think in defense and security terms. The military cannot be asked to chart a relationship based on trade. Similarly, due to the institutional memory of Pakistan’s military, it has to somehow believe in the threat perception of India, no matter how hard someone tries to convert it to a different point of view.

Similarly, political rulers in Pakistan have tended to reach out to India via trade. It is in their political interest to open up economic opportunities for the country so that there is more butter than guns at home. However, political leaders, when in opposition, have adopted a hawkish stance but when in power, they have reached out to India. Here, Sharif’s second tenure deserves special mention when he reached out to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Economic realities have to be faced by any ruler. Not only civilian, but also military rulers have tried to unfreeze long standing issues. Irrespective of how history might judge General Musharraf, he did make important headway with India on the Kashmir issue. It was only when he found himself embroiled in domestic politics in 2007 that the plan could not move on.

Back to the issue. If the military man is thinking of security and the president is thinking of the economy, why does the ‘revelation’ become disturbing news? After all, what’s wrong in having an argument over the threat being real or perceived or believing in security as opposed to the economy?

It pains the stomach of many because of its influence in unsettling the internal power play. Remember when Mr Zardari said that India does not pose a threat to Pakistan, he was grilled for it; later, he had to rephrase it by saying that the India threat is a perception. Although partially accepted, these are two of the entries in the political obituary of Mr Zardari.

It is wrong to think that Mr Zardari alone believes in it. Even Musharraf has warned against having too much focus on India. But again, there are dangers too. A case in point was the fate of Mr Mahmud Durrani. Although he has been muddied a lot, it is forgotten that he believed in improving ties with India. So much had he endeared himself that when he was made Ambassador to United States, he was dubbed as “General Shanti” by Indian commentators. In fact, the very economy versus security argument, which Ms Wahab is referring to, is addressed in his book, “India and Pakistan — The Cost of Conflict and the Benefits of Peace.” However, when he ‘revealed’ that Ajmal Kasab is a Pakistani, he was kicked out for bypassing the proper channels.

Of course, this does not mean Durrani should have bypassed the proper channels. After all, given the damage it caused internally, it is questionable for people to go public over such issues. Irrespective of what one believes, realities cannot be altered and there is a need to bridge the gaps inside the state’s institutions. If there is resistance, history will be repeated more severely. And worst of all, due to its unsettling tendency, the differences will be more clearly acknowledged in public.

Pakistan, for instance, hardly has proper institutions, which address the question. At times of conflict between economic crisis and security, temporary institutions are designed. For instance, before Pakistan could conduct a nuclear test in 1998, it formed a committee to review the potential economic fallout. This is not to downplay the test; what is important is a real-cost benefit analysis. Even the then-Minister of Finance, Mr Sartaj Aziz believed that due to the “economic imbalance”, Pakistan had to conduct nuclear tests to restore the balance. But the question arises why the imbalance in the first place?

It is an obvious result of disassociating the economic question from larger goals. Not that the military is reluctant to look beyond security matters. In their defence, it is not their job to settle questions pertaining to the economy. The different mechanisms of governance are supposed to look after it.

The absence of economic intelligence is one such example. Presently, in many countries, especially after the global economic turmoil, there has been prominence of economic intelligence. It is not wrong to argue that in the US, a key foreign policy goal has an economic dimension to it and where, for instance, references to China’s devaluation of its currency are high in commentaries. In Pakistan, forget economic intelligence. The country’s primary intelligence outfit is military in outreach and the references to India are full of historical allegories. Thus, instead of finding out potential markets in the region, it is into the traditional military-centric intelligence operations. This despite the fact that our neighbours, both India and China, owe their rise to the economy.

The economy and security can work in their own domain and yet both can contribute to each other. A country with a better economy enjoys greater international influence, be that influence from revenue of natural resources, as in the Middle East. Without it, the resemblance is that of a semi-naked beggar shouting at the guards of a posh house — and that too, from a distance.

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