Pakistan’s new national security policy offers a middle ground to arch-rival India
This month, Pakistan’s government publicly unveiled an unclassified 62-page version of its first-ever National Security Policy. The new policy document, the first in the country’s 75-year history, identifies an integrated set of geostrategic and geo-economic prerogatives for the world’s fifth most populous country that is contending with rising external debt, surging inflation, and the fallout of a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Afghanistan.
The public version of the country’s new national security policy stands out for the clarity and decisiveness with which it advocates for a broadened definition of security encompassing both traditional and non-traditional security threats. It also maintains, if not reiterates, successive Pakistani governments’ call for a peaceful regional neighborhood, and the desire for a normalization of relations with all neighbors, including arch-rival India.
While there has been no official reaction to the new policy document from across the border, two former Indian High Commissioners to Islamabad have read the new document cautiously. There is no denying that the India-Pakistan conflict continues to cast a forbidding shadow on prospects for regional stability. Having fought four wars and dodged several others, defense spending in both India and Pakistan continues to overwhelm national expenditures already under the strain of a global pandemic. In 2021 the two counties conducted a total of 26 ballistic and cruise missile tests. And diplomatic relations between the two countries have been at a standstill since August 5, 2019, when India unilaterally revoked the statehood of the bilaterally disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
While there have been sporadic attempts to move past the impasse since 2019, including purportedly a series of backchannel talks that resulted in a recommitment to a cease-fire along the Line of Control (LOC) in February 2021, the domestic mood in both countries remains frosty. This is especially true for India where a BJP-led majoritarian government is known to derive domestic utility from invoking crisis with Pakistan. Pakistan, meanwhile, has maintained that the ball for normalizing relations lies in New Delhi’s court.
But even as both countries continue to hold to their positions, the formulation of prerogatives outlined in the newly released national security policy document, in the works since 2014 (incidentally the year that the BJP swept to power), stands out on account of its balanced realism, and has the potential to be interpreted positively should India’s foreign policy establishment choose to do so.
Pakistan’s new national security policy offers a flicker of hope on an otherwise dark regional landscape for enhancing geopolitical stability, should India counter constructively.
The first suggestion for this comes from the fact that while the new document puts the usual premium on defense preparedness, territorial integrity and protecting the country’s borders, it elevates economic security and solvency to the apex of Pakistan’s national prerogatives for the next four years. While India has historically consumed the lion’s share of the Pakistani establishment’s security focus, the new policy document does not peg Pakistan’s national security to India alone, instead taking a more comprehensive view of national security that is citizen-centric, with a new focus, for instance, on issues such as climate change, gender, food security and emerging technologies.
In many respects, this broadened focus cuts against the logic of hot conflict or war with India which would hurt Pakistan’s economic recovery, and implicitly suggests that an over-extended cold conflict, while not out of the question, would certainly be cost-prohibitive. This should not be an unwelcome signal to India that is also reported to be resource-constrained and militarily overstretched, given its ongoing standoff with China along its northern border which shows little sign of abating.
Second, while the new national security document maintains that a “just and peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute remains at the core of (the India-Pakistan) bilateral relationship,” the policy paper neither preconditions talks with India on a resolution of the dispute or specifies the BJP’s constitutional revocation of Kashmir’s statehood as a prerequisite for dialogue. This is not at odds with earlier messages from Pakistani officials implying that concrete steps by India to create a conducive environment (i.e. by improving the human rights situation in the disputed territory) could provide Pakistan’s leadership the political space to meet India halfway at the negotiating table.
Thirdly, the new national security framework lays emphasis on national cohesion and cultural diversity as counters to religious extremist ideologies and violent sectarianism at home. This formulation is not without implications for non-state groups and banned organizations operating in South Asia, which India has accused Pakistan of harboring, but which have also devastated Pakistan’s economy and cost the country thousands of lives. Pakistan has taken a number of steps under the FATF regime, meeting all but one of the criteria set out by the financial monitoring regime. It has also prosecuted individuals for terror financing. This latest policy-level reaffirmation of a zero-tolerance policy for violent extremism and terrorism thus offers the bilateral relationship a valuable common denominator that could get India and Pakistan back on the negotiating table.
Fourth, while the document shies away from explicitly discussing prospects of trade with India, given, no doubt, domestic sensitivities, it acknowledges the imperative of east-west connectivity and the need to focus on energy security. Regional electricity projects such as the CASA-1000 which already link Pakistan to Central Asia reflect Pakistan’s desire to take regional integration seriously, and could in turn doubly undergird the strategic logic of other infrastructural projects such as the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline.
Finally, fifth, Pakistan’s new national security policy reaffirms a rare civil-military convergence in the country’s fraught history on the need to streamline and reconcile a complex set of competing security requirements, externally and internally.
It may be early to speculate more definitively about the prospects of a thawing of relations between India and Pakistan in 2022, given five upcoming state elections in India including in the populous Uttar Pradesh and the BJP’s, by now, all-too-familiar propensity for stoking anti-Pakistan sentiment on the campaign trail. But Pakistan’s new national security policy offers a flicker of hope on an otherwise dark regional landscape for enhancing geopolitical stability, should India counter constructively.
- Fahd Humayun is a PhD candidate at Yale University and tweets @fahdhumayun.