The Resolution of the All Parties Conference (APC) on September 29 gave a pre eminent position in governance to the “national interest”. The APC resolution stipulates that “national interests are supreme and shall guide Pakistan’s policy and response to all challenges at all times”. It may be useful to examine the concept of the national interest, to enable greater clarity in the premises of government decision making.
In Pakistan’s history strategic decisions have occasionally been taken by invoking the “national interest”. These decisions have often had disastrous consequences, but sometimes positive ones, for the people. Examples of the former were repeated military takeovers, in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999, which mutilated democracy and established the structure of aid dependence and persistent poverty. In 1970-71 the military used tanks and guns against the people of then East Pakistan, the majority of Pakistan's citizens who were demanding their democratic rights: a selective genocide was conducted by the state against its own people, presumably in the "national interest". This undermined the moral and political basis of a united Pakistan and led to the emergence of independent Bangladesh.
Similarly the decision to nurture armed militant groups in Pakistan to conduct “jihad” against Soviet forces in Afghanistan was taken in the “national interest”, and yet laid the basis for violent extremism that lacerated the fabric of society, polity and economy. Finally, the strategy of linking with some Taliban groups, while opposing others (during the last decade) was to undermine not only Pakistan’s credibility in the comity of nations but was to erode state sovereignty within its geographic domain. By contrast, one of the few examples of a government decision taken in the “national interest”, with a positive effect on the welfare of the people was the restoration of the judiciary in March 2009, but significantly this was done under popular pressure.
The APC resolution which seeks to establish the basis of reshaping Pakistan’s relationship with Western countries and stipulates dialogue with “our own people in the tribal areas”, once again draws upon the concept of the “national interest”. However this proposal of talking to the Taliban may have become problematic after the 3rd October statement of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the Vice Ameer, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which set two pre conditions for the dialogue: (i) The government should reconsider its relationship with the United States, and (ii) Enforce Islamic Sharia in the country. In view of this statement, whether the proposed talks can indeed be held, and if they are, whether they will be in the “national interest” as the APC resolution assumes, remains to be seen.
Now two questions arise: (i) Is there an institutionalized process through which the national interest can be defined at a particular historical conjuncture? (ii) Is there a mechanism within the governance structure through which the policy paradigm emanating from an earlier definition of the national interest can be reformulated in the light of actual experience?
In mature democracies, national interest at key moments is determined through an institutionalized process of discussion and debate by professionals and politicians within the government, legislative bodies, the opposition parties, specialized think tanks and academia. In Pakistan’s case however, due to the pre eminent position of the military within Pakistan’s power structure, national security considerations as determined by the military, play a predominant role in defining national interest even during formally democratic regimes. In the absence of an institutionalized and transparent process of mobilizing the best knowledge for reasoned policy debate, there is a danger that the definition of national interest and the associated policy choices could be terribly wrong. Pakistan’s history is replete with such tragedies.
The weakness of the institutional structure for making policy choices in a complex strategic environment could produce outcomes which are in fact counter-productive to the welfare of the people and the security of the state. This risk is immensely increased if there is no institutionalized mechanism for changing the policy course in response to obviously adverse consequences of earlier bad decisions. Maintaining links with selected militant groups considered as strategic assets, and the earlier peace deal with the Taliban in Swat, are cases in point. A governance structure that lacks adaptive efficiency, and is unable to change a demonstrably flawed policy paradigm, has a propensity to produce fresh calamities for the people. Thus the very national interest it seeks to pursue is systematically undermined.