Navigating Pakistan’s National Security Landscape

The Islamabad Security Dialogue, spearheaded by Pakistan’s National Security Division (NSD) in collaboration with the leading think tanks, was held in the capital city to lay down Pakistan’s new strategic direction stemming from the Prime Minister’s overarching vision of development, peace and regional connectivity. True to its motto “together for ideas”, the two-day event (March 17 – 18) brought together an array of academics, policymakers, diplomats, and experts from all spheres of influence to discuss Pakistan’s national security landscape. Broad themes included regional peace and security, evolving world order and human security. The goal of the said conference was aptly summarised by Moeed Yousuf, Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on National Security and Strategic Policy Planning. Speaking on Day 1, he stated “our goal is to make it an annual event paralleling the world’s best security dialogues, where the world would come and talk to us on our soil, on our terms.” The dialogue further aimed at synthesising a coherent narrative from Pakistan delineating its true picture that could be broadcasted to the world at large.

A major highlight of the conference was the inaugural address by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Sidestepping the traditional security narrative, he emphasised on the need to understand and work upon the other dimensions of security, focusing on climate change and food security that lead to societal and political instability. He further elaborated upon the steps taken by his government to address both these issues, including the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, Ehsaas Program and other policies geared towards considerably increasing foreign direct investment into the country. Khan’s focus on expanding the security agenda by going beyond state and military domains is a much-needed endeavour since Pakistan does not fare well in any non-traditional security indicators. For example, Pakistan ranks 80th on the Global Food Security Index, 5th on the Global Climate Risk Index and 154th on the UN’s Human Development Index. Overall, Pakistan’s ranking on such global indexes presents a very bleak picture of where it is headed. In tandem with the Prime Minister’s vision, it is important to make appropriate efforts and launch relevant projects tackling the human dimension of security to liberate people out of poverty, build the country’s resilience to climate change and end problems like unemployment and hunger etc., at the national scale.

Khan’s focus on expanding the security agenda by going beyond state and military domains is a much-needed endeavour since Pakistan does not fare well in any non-traditional security indicators.

Another key takeaway from the dialogue was the launch of the advisory portal of the National Security Division by the Prime Minister. It is an excellent way to bridge the gap between knowledge and policy on the subject of national security. The portal will allow academics with expertise in a diverse range of subject areas to share relevant policy recommendations directly with the national leadership. It will enable the policymakers to make informed decisions in the face of progressive change and international integration. Through this unique initiative, the government will be able to apply the latest research to real-life security challenges and foresee the effects of their decisions. Such input from leading think tanks, universities and other stakeholders will assure the prevalence of an accountable, open, and pluralistic process of research, decision making and analysis, which is an indication of modern democratic societies.

The second day of the conference saw the keynote address by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He touched upon the need to look at national security from a broader lens as it is “not solely a function of armed forces anymore” and that the way forward is through “an interconnected, interdependent and collective sense of security.” In addition to Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process, General Bajwa also talked about stable India-Pakistan relations. He stated that “it is time to bury the past and move forward”, but the onus is on India to “create a conducive environment” for peaceful dialogue to take place. Also, he unveiled the country’s shift towards geo-economics based on four pillars: peace, non-interference, regional connectivity, and sustainable development. Interestingly, the dialogue took place in the wake of the truce between India and Pakistan, along with their commitment to end ceasefire violations along the Line of Control. Will both South Asian rivals put the past aside to engage in meaningful dialogue? This was certainly not the agenda of the conference and only time will tell.

The Islamabad Security Dialogue is a welcome effort on the part of the NSD that focused on important traditional and non-traditional security themes, bringing together an eclectic mix of people and providing a new platform to break the barrier between knowledge and policy. However, the real challenge is to translate the talked about ideas into practice. There is a need to inculcate fresh ideas into the overall security matrix of the country. It can only be done with the right amount of willingness and capacity to accept and implement these ideas, along with the inclusion of young minds in tandem with seasoned security experts. Instead of becoming a mere yearly extravaganza, the dialogue must establish an accountability framework that would determine the extent to which the government has adopted the prescribed initiatives and modified its policies accordingly. It is only when the knowledge gap will be filled, the newly launched advisory portal put to good use and policy translated into practice, will Pakistan’s future security challenges be addressed, and lasting change can be brought about as promised by the current government.

Zarmina Khan

Zarmina Khan

Zarmina Khan is a Research Associate at the Strategic Studies Institute, Islamabad (SSII). She has also served as a Visiting Faculty Member at the National Defence University and Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. Her research interests include political ecology, conflict resolution, politics of Asia Pacific and foreign policy analysis.

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