Feisal Naqvi

The price of sovereignty

In Uncategorized on June 7, 2011 at 4:57 am

On that fateful day when the world’s most wanted terrorist was found in Abbottabad, different people had very different reactions. Some people wept with sorrow. Some people were stunned at the magnitude of our security apparatus’ apparent incompetence. And some people were distraught at the fact that Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty had been so gravely compromised.

So far as I understand, the reaction of the military in Pakistan has been mostly in terms of the last option. The faujis concede that, yes, there was an intelligence failure of colossal proportions. But for them, the key issue is that an outside force came into Pakistan, invaded our airspace and could leave without being challenged. My understanding is, therefore, that many within the army have called for cooperation with the US to be reduced. Some writers have taken this position further and demanded that a formal complaint be lodged with the UN.

Obviously, I disagree with that approach. However, rather than get into a slanging match, I would like to explore the basis for these divergent views.

A patient inquiry is required because, notwithstanding our pretensions of being a parliamentary democracy, all major national security decisions are made not by our elected representatives but by the military itself. I understand the Constitution provides that the military is answerable to a civilian hierarchy. Unfortunately, Pakistanis live in an alternative reality in which the military (like Skynet) has become self-aware and has decided to take its welfare into its own hands. This may change in the future, as and when the Almighty decides to grace us with suitable political leadership. Till that blessed event happens, the only way to change our national security policy is by changing the military’s mind. Sneering at the faujis, while occasionally fun, is not going to help. Instead, we need to persuade them that their security paradigm needs to be revised, not just for our sakes, but for theirs as well.

My main argument for the consideration of the faujis is that sovereignty is a virtue not in absolutist terms, but in instrumental terms. In other words, sovereignty is a desirable attribute for a society because it allows the members of that society to live better lives — howsoever ‘better’ may be defined. If sovereignty does not produce a ‘better’ life for the citizens of the sovereign entity, then it is not worth having.

I presume that the answer to this contention is likely to be some outraged variation on the theme that one day of freedom is worth 100 years of slavery (or words to that effect). But is that really true? If the US or Canada was to offer free citizenship complete with jobs on arrival to each and every Pakistani, the number of people choosing to leave would greatly outnumber those choosing to stay. Yes, there would still be some diehard patriots determined to stay but they would be few and far between. So, let’s stop kidding ourselves: The people of this country do not value sovereignty with the same obsessive single-mindedness as the military evidently does. And since the military at least purports to be acting in the people’s best interest, shouldn’t it consider this fact?

For now, the answer from the military is ‘no’. General Kayani’s recent speech at PMA Kakul is now mainly remembered for the fact that he was holding fort only 800 meters away from the compound of Osama Bin Ladin (then still alive). However, what General Kayani said that day also bears remembering — that the nation’s honour should not be traded only for prosperity.

The obvious retort to General Kayani is that the military does not have to choose between honour and prosperity. Instead, the military gets to keep both its honour and its prosperity primarily because the entire nation sacrifices mightily for the benefit of the armed forces. Nobody disputes the fact that the massive size of our military budget robs the social sector (e.g. education and health) of much-needed funds. To put it simply, the army lives well on my tax dollars. Consequently, till such time that the army shares the pain we are forced to suffer, it has no right to tell me what choice to make. (not to mention the fact that the army has no business telling us citizens what choices to make in the first place).

A different and more considered response to General Kayani is that we need to move towards a different paradigm of sovereignty. The army clearly defines national sovereignty in terms of the state’s ability to prevent itself from being physically invaded and conquered (hence the outrage over the OBL raid). That is obviously one aspect of sovereignty but it is not the exclusive or even the dominant aspect of sovereignty. All those other aspects, however, are being ignored by the military. For example, nations are sovereign so that they can protect their people, keep them safe and allow them to be. But Pakistanis are not safe today: Instead, they are dying in record numbers.  Similarly, sovereign nations provide a safe haven for their citizens so that those citizens can become prosperous. But our ‘sovereignty’ is killing our prosperity.

A friend of mine made the interesting observation that the army only thinks about peace with India when it takes over because that is the only time that it is forced to take a broader view of things; the rest of the time it concentrates on preserving its institutional interests. We can’t afford that tunnel vision on the part of our military any more. If our armed forces don’t take a broader view of what constitutes our national interest, pretty soon there will be no nation left to defend.


This column appeared first in the Express Tribune on 7 June 2010.

  1. A good write-up!!! keep the spirits high and keep spreading awareness….

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