Over 50 parliamentarians, bureaucrats, advocates, technocrats, media men, prominent members of the civil society and politicians assembled at the National Defence University to conceptualise the contours of Comprehensive National Security. The participants of this five-week intellectual activity interacted with a resolve to ‘seeing beyond perceptions’. This group cut across all ethnic, sectarian, social, gender and political strata. All federating units, and even political parties not having seats in the Assemblies, were represented.

In the beginning, it was a rowdy crowd trapped in the shells of respective identities and perceptions engraved in stone. The learning process began with the exposure of participants to experts of all contributory fields of national security. Each discourse was followed by discussions in an environment that afforded complete freedom of expression; the participants spoke their heart out, at times, breaching the limits of logic. The academic part was followed by visits to the three services headquarters, military-industrial complex and provincial capitals. At the services headquarters, the participants questioned the senior military leadership about their spending procedures and ability to respond to security threats, keeping in view the Abbottabad and Salalah attacks.

Discussion about turbulent civil-military relations, especially with reference to the Abbottabad attack and memogate were indeed, lively interactions. Also, the lack of inter-services coordination during the attack on Mehran was thrashed threadbare. The high mark of this activity was an event when a politician mother and her son, a serving senior general, confronted each other on sticky issues impacting national security. At the provincial headquarters, interactions with government officials broadened the horizon about the way they function.

This was followed by a group exercise, ‘Qaumi Salamti’, encompassing evolving of ‘national purpose’, recasting of vital interests and formulation of strategy to tackle all major issues besetting our State, government and the society at large. Eventually, prejudices gave way to tolerance, the unruly bunch became a decent team with collective approach and due regard was given to difference of opinion. Logic began to prevail; emotional outbursts gave way to candid debate and discussion. Going by the collective wisdom became a norm. It was, indeed, a cathartic experience. The final conclusions of ‘Qaumi Salamti’ were prudent and interesting.

Paradoxically, a significant portion of the threat to Pakistan emanates from the space that lies between the boundaries of national defence domain and the outer parameters of national security. This, however, does not mean that there is no significant military threat; moreover, difficulties residing in the areas beyond the traditional defence domain are coming back in circles to further accentuate the military component of threat.

The major concerns to our national security radiate from international isolation, poor governance, shaky economy, lack of control over non-State actors, an aura of insecurity among the general public, no-go areas in the context of imposition of State’s writ, penetration of foreign influence in our domestic media, lack of our outreach to international media, and the ability of foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate into our socio-political fabric. Ambiguities as to whose war are we fighting have resulted in a huge perceptional gap between the national policy (both political and military) and public opinion. This dichotomy has the potential of tearing apart the fabric of the State. This gap is being filled by the hostile States, both regional and extra regional, to create fissures and promote separatist trends.

From the military perspective, the biggest challenge is to restore public confidence in the ability of the armed forces to provide security to the people; the Abbottabad and Salalah incidents have eroded their confidence. The next challenge is to secure our strategic assets against a false flag operation by extra regional forces. Though the judiciary functions with moral ascendancy, its vital component - the bar - has yet to learn the ropes. For example, some defence lawyers in the memogate trial are resorting to sensationalise an issue of vital importance to pressurise the State institutions, including the judiciary.

Our electronic media, too, has to attain maturity; it continues to be speculative. It has failed to evolve a robust mechanism of self-accountability. A section of the electronic media has a tendency to breach the limits of ‘media freedom’ and enter the domain of ‘media terrorism’. Once again, the coverage of memogate in some of the talk shows is indicative of the monetary linkages of some of the channels and anchors. There is a need to appoint a media ombudsman to afford relief to the victims of media terrorism and scrutinise the funding sources.

Nevertheless, a concerted effort is on to create gap between the civilian and military components of national leadership with an objective to tarnish the State’s image and paralyse the government. The army and the ISI are targets of vested interests aimed at demoralising the troops, as well as the public at large.

Pakistan, however, is not a source scarce State; most of its vows emanate from poor governance. The economy can be re-railed by tapping natural resources, improving human development indicators and making a transition from traditional to knowledge-based economy. Unrest in Balochistan can be overcome through a dual strategy of mobilising the patriotic Baloch leaders and ending the appeasement of troublemakers.

Anyway, the silver lining of the workshop was that Pakistan, indeed, has a bright future. The challenges that we face today are of transient nature, and can be overcome through national resolve and by following an approach of comprehensive national security.

Hopefully, the workshop would significantly contribute towards dispelling negative perceptions about our State institutions and cultivating sustained cordiality in the civil-military relations.

  The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.