Is it a Necessity?
An NSC strengthens the writ of the government at many levels and reinforces democratic values through a wide-angle view.
In the last few decades, a public debate has raged periodically in Pakistan about the need to have a National Security Council (NSC) for higher policy formulation. Historically, an NSC was first formed in the late 1960s during President Yahya’s regime with a view to advising and assisting the president on national security and foreign policy issues. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, he disbanded the NSC and replaced it with the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC). In the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif sacked Army Chief General Jahangir Karamat for merely suggesting a need for an NSC during a question-answer session at the Pakistan Navy War College in Lahore. After the 1999 military coup, General Pervez Musharraf made the NSC functional but it was made redundant in 2009 during the Pakistan Peoples Party’s regime. Ironically, it was Nawaz Sharif who again revived the NSC in 2013.
The existence of an NSC in a country’s policy-making structure is not a bad idea, per se. It exists and serves the purpose of institutionalized inputs in a number of countries, such as the UK, the U.S., Turkey, India and Iran, to name a few. Every state albeit has devised its own methodology for consultations on complex policy issues at a forum like the NSC. These methodologies, by and large, ensure that foreign and security policy recommendations are harmonized and inclusive rather than exclusive of inputs from any important state institution.
In the UK, the NSC is tasked with overseeing all issues related to national security, like defence, intelligence co-ordination, cyber security, resilience, energy, resource security and defence strategy. In the U.S., an NSC has existed since the end of WWII even though the country has a highly empowered Congress and Senate, apart from a number of ‘think tanks’ which independently and routinely brainstorm global issues and throw up the best possible security options to serve the national interest. The US National Security Council acts as the President’s principal arm for coordinating policies within various government agencies in the U.S. and with counterparts in other countries.
The US Congress or the Senate does not feel threatened by the NSC encroaching on its political space because, over a period of time, it has evolved into a strong political entity in its own right. The NSC, as such, is considered a supplementing agency comprising dedicated personnel to help the Chief Executive towards robust and quality decision-making in defense and foreign policy domains. The Turkish NSC, known locally as the Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, MGK, develops the national security of the country. In Iran, the Supreme National Security Council, as it is known, determines defence and national security polices and co-ordinates political, intelligence, social, cultural and economic activities. It is also responsible for exploitation of material and intellectual resources to face internal and external threats.
In India, where democracy has had a longer run, the NSC functions at three levels. At the top, NSC meetings are chaired by the Prime Minister with key ministers in attendance but no representation from the armed forces, although they can be invited for important sessions to get their point of view whenever required. At the next level, the Cabinet Secretary holds consultations with the army, navy and air force chiefs for strategic planning along with secretaries of key ministries and the governor of the central bank. At the third level, known as the National Security Advisory Board, the members are area experts but not from the government. This structure has an advantage where recommendations are put up by independent professionals without the usual concerns about dominance of one institution over the other.
One common strand running through NSC organizations in different countries is that in all cases, the adopted mechanism, by whatever name, is designed to improve policy matters affecting security of the nation and integrates different aspects such as foreign, military, economic, fiscal and internal security. This helps formulation of all-inclusive policy recommendations through area specialists. There is no friction or any turf war between different branches of the state or organizations since the government otherwise has a vast spectrum of policy areas to contend with, such as agriculture, interior, health, education and welfare, civil services, commerce and so forth.
It is unfortunate that in Pakistan, in spite of ten elections in the last seventy years, the parliament, barring
The post-9/11 scenario raised the benchmark of challenges facing Pakistan.
a few instances, has so far not displayed political sagacity. This lackluster performance creates a vacuum for other forces to step in. Put another way, if the parliament, is responsive to public sentiments on crucial issues and enacts legislation, regardless of self-interest of its constituents, there will be very little for the NSC to ingress into. The argument that the popular democratic process in Pakistan is still in its transition and nascent stages and should be given space to grow, can cut both ways; the opposite view being that parliamentary practices and legislation should inspire public confidence with discernable positive indicators towards maturity which has sadly been lacking.
Another reason why the need arises to bring crucial foreign policy and security issues under discussion at a forum like the NSC in Pakistan is the neglect suffered by the foreign, defence and finance ministries under successive governments for the past so many years for self-serving reasons. This has created institutional and structural weaknesses in these key ministries and reduced their capacity to come up to the demands of routine functions of statecraft. Normally, in more stable countries, it is the strength in these three ministries which synergizes national capacity and potential towards sound national policies.
Balance of power is a delicate matter and ideally it should always be in favour of the ruling politicians. To achieve that, political parties have to get their act together. Shenanigans like Memogate and Dawn-Leaks do not help the balance of power or the national security of Pakistan. Till such time that our political mechanism takes stronger roots, the NSC can play a vital role in policy formulation. It should thus be seen in a wider context as an organization to strengthen areas where it needs support. The post-9/11 scenario has raised the benchmark of challenges facing Pakistan and having a National Security Council has become a question of necessity, not choice.