Examining the National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022-2026

On 14 January 2022, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the public version of the National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022-2026 (NSP); the entire policy, including classified contents, was approved by the federal cabinet almost a month prior.

The public version of the NSP is well-structured, coherent and contains all the lingo necessary to trigger widespread discourse, even more so considering there is an emphatic recurrence of the word “economy” and its derivatives in recurring paragraphs. The particular emphasis on “non-traditional” elements of national security also strikes the right balance and is a welcome change.

Before commenting on the security and foreign policy contours outlined in the policy, it must be remembered that Pakistan has a historical problem with transparency and openness, more so when we restrict ourselves to the “national security” context. The unofficial norms, as they have been up until the passage of the NSP, was that matters like these could only be discussed behind closed doors or “in-camera” briefings before the parliament. Institutions responsible for territorial defence, and in some instances even Law Enforcement Authorities (LEAs) also, have jealously safeguarded discourse around their areas of interest.

The little space to discuss and debate upon security and foreign policy matters was enjoyed by select think tanks. Not surprisingly, these were themselves recipients of official or semi-official patronage and therefore on the “approved” list. With the passage of the NSP, local academia and intelligentsia have been empowered with the confidence necessary to promote a more inclusive nationwide discourse on the foundations of national security.

Key Features

The visible transition from traditional notions of national security toward a balanced and symbiotic relationship with non-traditional elements is most prominent. It has officially been promulgated and accepted on record. For those familiar with Pakistan’s bureaucratic machinery, this signifies the consent of all relevant stakeholders. Time will tell whether this consent was intended only for acknowledging something on paper or actually executing it.

The NSP fails to acknowledge the systemic shortcomings and institutional weaknesses that have hindered the journey toward good governance.

At the heart of this transition is the re-conceptualisation of national security from “state-centric” to “citizen-centric”. Since its involvement in the Afghan War and throughout the US-led Global War on Terrorism, Pakistan has been engaged in protracted regional conflicts to the severe detriment of its national development and citizens’ well-being. As a “frontline state” and a “major non-NATO ally”, Pakistan had willfully chosen to play the role of a regional security guard for extra-regional powers. The tone and contents of the NSP declare, albeit subtly, that Pakistan is no longer desirous of being viewed solely through the prism of “geopolitics”. It is economic security that would, henceforth, dictate the state’s strategic orientation and diplomatic engagements.

The NSP fails to acknowledge the systemic shortcomings and institutional weaknesses that have hindered the journey toward good governance. With rising inflation, mounting external debts, political pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and failure to achieve political consensus with the parliament on important legislation, it is the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) itself that will have to take the first steps toward national cohesion. Until and unless there is space for healthy discourse and cooperative lawmaking with the support of opposition parties, Pakistan will not be able to focus on the external front and derive long-term national benefits, be they economic or even political.

Interestingly, the NSP acknowledges policymaking contributions initiated during the previous political government of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The NSD was instituted only in August 2013 when the PML-N government restructured the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) to become a Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS), later changing its name to the National Security Committee (NSC). The NSD, thus, was turned into a secretariat of the NSC in an advisory role, while the actual decision-making remained with the federal cabinet and armed forces chiefs. The task to conceive an NSP was assigned to the NSD in 2014, which became a reality after seven years. During this timeframe, both the PML-N and PTI premiers failed to summon sufficient periodic meetings of the NSC and matters were mostly discussed through one-on-one interactions between the Executive and the services chiefs.

Noteworthy Shortcomings

  1. Dubious Covering Period: The fact that the NSP declares itself to cover the period 2022-2026 is a major setback. The PTI government’s ambitions notwithstanding, its mandate will end in 2023; if another party takes charge of the federal government post general elections, past trends indicate the NSP will most likely be scrapped altogether in favour of new or delayed policymaking. The opposition parties are already head-over-heels accusing the federal government of excluding them from prior consultations.

Thus, while the PTI can claim it has achieved a “feat” in rolling out the NSP, the timing is very peculiar and leaves little room for evaluation of subsequent implementation mechanisms. Almost a year into general elections, the federal government itself will be prioritising electoral campaigning while throwing the NSP to the backburner.

  1. Ignorance of the Changing Character of Warfare: The so-called “surgical strike” on Balakot (2019), which led to uncertain escalatory signalling, involved the offensive role of the Indian Air Force and aggressive patrolling by the Indian Navy’s nuclear-armed submarine INS Arihant. Pakistan’s land forces had a comparatively lesser role in national defence.

While India’s improvements to its conventional warfighting assets and strategic arsenal continue uninterrupted, a massive rethink also places growing special emphasis on the concept of “Non-Contact Warfare”. Pakistan’s high-level security planners have failed to acknowledge that greater standoff capabilities encourage long-distance engagement with the adversary, prompting greater investments in missile and cyber technologies. The traditional notion of industrial-era warfare with troops fighting in field formations is fast becoming a thing of the past.

  1. Inadequate Appraisal of Cyber Security: The NSP does not discuss the adverse implications that could arise from continued delays in parliamentary debate/approval of cyberspace legislation, such as the Personal Data Protection Bill. The policy guidelines on “Space, Information and Cyber Security” again emphasises the need to enhance the “surveillance capacity” on cyberspace to (purportedly) combat disinformation and influence operations.

The PTI government had set up a politically-convenient Digital Media Wing (DMW) within the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting with the stated aim of countering fake news and curbing propaganda. This body exists in parallel to a long-existing Cyber Wing mandated for the same purpose. Despite instituting these measures, there has been no proactive state-led effort to counter disinformation and propaganda en masse.

On a related note, the policy also ignores recurring efforts to enforce draconian cyber laws and regulations that focus more on curbing free speech and controlling dissent instead of enabling a thriving ecosystem in cyberspace. Furthermore, efforts are underway to promote the securitisation of national cyberspace affairs by placing them out of civilian management.

  1. Visionless Diplomatic Outlook: The narrow, skewed vision of Pakistan’s diplomatic posture can be gleaned from the “Conduct of Diplomacy” policy guidelines. Extraordinary emphasis has been placed on “countering negative perceptions” and engaging with the diaspora of overseas Pakistanis. There is not even a token mention of any desire to establish new diplomatic relations and/or partake in diplomatic initiatives that could secure stakes in new and emerging technologies.

A comparison with India, to indicate contrast, is imperative. Following its changing relationship with IOR island countries, India’s Ministry of External Affairs undertook restructuring by establishing a new Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Division (2016). This was followed by the establishment of a New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies (NEST) Division to collaborate with allies and partners in 5G and artificial intelligence (2020). During the same year, a new Oceania Division (2020), which overlooks both the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN divisions, was constituted.

India regularly hosts regional and multilateral forums on cyber security under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Colombo Security Conclave. In 2019, when India organised a “Cyber Workshop” for SCO member countries, Pakistan preferred to remain absent. During the 2021 iteration of the India-hosted workshop, Pakistan sent a delegation but chose not to publicise it. Pakistan had decided to abstain from multilateral participation in cyberspace matters simply because of its animosity toward India.

Pakistan’s NSP does not discuss the potential benefits of reorganising and restructuring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), which is becoming more and more incompatible with shifting geostrategic encampments.

Until and unless there is an overhaul of MoFA’s structure, it would be imprudent to expect derivation of long-term benefits. Pakistan will need to thoroughly define its geostrategic outlook toward countries by revamping existing divisions, setting up new ones, and defining a clear outlook on securing economic and technological interests using its diplomatic machinery.

  1. Maritime Blindness: The NSP acknowledges India’s dubious role as a self-professed “net-security provider” in the IOR. It does not deliberate upon the growing general interest toward the IOR by extra-regional actors, particularly the US and certain European countries’ “Indo-Pacific” strategies and an emerging great power competition in the Western Indian Ocean. China and the US are projected to lock horns in East Africa to establish a bulwark against mutually-perceived hegemony in regional seas. Israel, which only recently joined the United States Central Command area theatre, has already set its eyes on politico-diplomatic relations with countries in the Western Indian Ocean, including some island countries (Comoros) where India maintains a growing influence.

There is also no mention about the potential flashpoints that could trigger conflict with a belligerent Iran that proclaims itself guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. Contestation between and among different power players has been completely overlooked. This has less to do with political expediency and more to do with the grim reality that decision-makers from land forces continue to dominate high-level security policymaking.

Continued adherence to continental policymaking will not only ensure complete maritime blindness for Pakistan but encourage continued disproportionate allocation of the defence budget. Awarding the lion’s share of the defence budget to the army (land forces) is a trend that would require a strategic rethink. In Pakistan’s Annual Defence Budget 2021-22, nearly 48% was allocated to the Pakistan Army, 21% to the Pakistan Air Force, while a meagre 11% was given to the Pakistan Navy. This is remarkable, given that air warfare is assuming greater prominence (with the continued induction of Rafales by India), and India’s maritime interdiction powers are being enhanced through the fast-track construction of stealth destroyers and the activation of a maritime strike squadron to cover the IOR at large.

  1. Geostrategic Timidity: If Pakistan’s national security policymakers had thoroughly deliberated upon the long-term economic salience of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), Africa and Asia-Pacific would not have been brushed aside into a compact of “miscellaneous” regions, alongside Australia and Latin America. It is a testament to the policymakers’ strategic myopia. Ironically, this very same construct is the basis upon which India is attempting to position itself as a regional hegemon through alliances and partnerships with members of the Quad, Russia and even France.

On a related note, when the NSP discusses multilateral forums, it mentions the usual South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and United Nations (UN). There is no mention of Pakistan’s futile efforts to secure membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which India forcibly resisted.

Bangladesh is the current chair of IORA for a term of two years. It is a matter of great irony that even a country like Russia joined IORA as a dialogue partner. Pakistan appears to have given up any hope of joining this less-discussed forum; hence it finds no mention in the document at all. Not so long ago, Pakistan failed to secure membership of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the UN that develops and manages regulatory frameworks for shipping, maritime safety, environmental concerns, technical cooperation and maritime security.

Pakistan’s interest in the IOR is limited to a few educational, military and humanitarian engagements with the usual list of island countries (Sri Lanka and the Maldives). In contrast, India and China are boosting their military-diplomatic influence in East Africa and throughout the IOR island nations. From the outset, it would appear that China, more than Pakistan itself, is trying to establish strategic depth in the Western Indian Ocean. In such a predicament, if Pakistan is content with remaining a mere observer, it will find itself hedged between the US-China regional competitions.

This dilemma can best be explained through Pakistan’s geostrategic timidity that transformed the country into an inward-looking sub-regional state during and after the Cold War. India, which continues to (absurdly) call itself “non-aligned”, has displayed a more confident and outward-looking regional assertiveness appreciated by opposing actors in various regional and sub-regional conflicts. Pakistan’s national security policymakers will need to shed this garb of timidity by removing self-imposed restrictions of not looking beyond the North Arabian Sea. The vast expanse of the IOR, and the technological prowess available with new entrants to the regional arena, provide opportunities to take proactive decisions and secure long-term national security interests.

  1. Hollow Rhetoric on Extremism: The NSP notes: “The exploitation and manipulation of ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines through violent extremist ideologies cannot be allowed[…]Action against those producing and disseminating hate speech and material will be swift and uncompromising”.

It is a fact that the incumbent government not only ceded space to violent religious extremists but also absolved them of any wrongdoing. This was against the principles enshrined in National Internal Security Policy 2018-2023. Furthermore, by not highlighting the hybrid model of aggression engineered by groups such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the PTI government has cleverly avoided confronting the former’s ranks and left space for itself to form an electoral alliance in the near future.

  1. Ignorance of Supply Chain Threats: The NSP does not discuss threats that could arise due to a politically-influenced lack of access for Pakistan to certain critical technologies and products necessary to keep the “system” running. Most of the essential components in financial, medical and security sectors used by citizens and the state in Pakistan are manufactured by foreign-origin firms based overseas. There is no discussion about diversification of supplier base, establishing a reserve of backup suppliers, prioritised funding for R&D in critical technologies’ R&D (such as semiconductors etc.) or even a basic period review of supply chain risks.

Limitations

  1. Unnecessary Secrecy: While a “policy” is generally intended to provide broad guidelines, it also aims to inspire the derivation of various (domain-specific) “strategies” by the quarters concerned. For example, the NSP should ideally lead to the development of a National Health Strategy, National Climate Action Strategy, National Military Strategy and so on by the ministries concerned. The NSP itself advocates the creation of “dedicated strategies” to create broad consensus on important national security issues.

The rationale behind keeping certain sections of the NSP (which is not a strategy) as classified is unknown. Segmenting the broad umbrella document itself (into separate “Public” and “Complete” versions) is baffling.

  1. Rudderless Implementation: Since the NSP does not mention the need for any institutional reforms across Pakistan and accords a rather blunt appreciation for “administrative reforms” undertaken by the PTI, there is little to no likelihood of anything practically manifesting toward achieving the cherished “symbiotic” relationship between traditional and non-traditional security.

The civilian and military bureaucracy together forms a behemoth that has reaped the fruits of the status quo since Pakistan’s independence. Shifting toward new-age security management would necessitate drastic (top-down) systemic changes which, if history is correct, were fiercely resisted by this behemoth. The usual stakeholders have been validated for their past activities, lending them encouragement to continue with the methods they see fit.

Conclusion

Although the contents of NSP’s public version are sufficient to promote informed discourse, they do not inspire confidence about subsequent implementation. This document will most likely become as “effective” as the National Internal Security Policy 2018-2023 passed by the PML-N during its last days in the federal government.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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