By Zubeida Mustafa
SO the ‘inevitable’ has come to pass. The government has announced that the defence budget will be increased by Rs109.8bn in the current fiscal year — from Rs442.2bn to Rs552bn. And from where will the funds come? The public-sector development programme is to face the axe.
For decades, defence and security were treated as holy cows not to be questioned. Defence spending figured as a one-line entry in the federal budget that allowed the armed forces the privilege of being above accountability. Thus they were shielded from the prying eyes of the public even though they were the main beneficiaries of the taxpayers’ money.
Security would be jeopardised if confidentiality were not observed. Besides what did we ordinary mortals know about such highly technical issues that figured in the jargon-filled statements of defence experts who were after all trying to protect us from the enemy? Things have changed but not radically. We still cannot debate what weapon system is actually needed by our men in uniform and which strategies are good and which are not so good.
Is it then surprising that Patrice Legace writing in La Presse (Montreal) asks bluntly, “If Pakistan had $1.4bn to acquire fighter planes (F-16) from Lockheed very recently, why doesn’t Pakistan have $460m to help its own ‘drenched’ citizens?”
True there is slightly more transparency in the defence budget today than before. But not enough and misappropriations are regularly reported by the auditor general. On Friday, parliament was told that Rs2.5bn was lost in 2009-10 due to “commonly occurring irregularities” in various departments of the armed forces and the defence ministry.
Moreover defence continues to be a subject one cannot freely debate. But more openness in reporting has opened the door to more questions being raised and criticism being voiced. Thus no sooner had the media reported the increase in the defence budget than the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives expressed its concern at the reordering of budget priorities at “a time when educational, healthcare, rehabilitation and other social needs of people have multiplied due to high inflation and the recent floods”.
Greater anger was expressed at the failure of the authorities to reduce “non-productive expenditures through better management and efficiency” and generate more revenues.
The country paper, presented by the government to the International Monetary Fund, also indicated plans to reduce the overall expenditure by Rs68.4bn and increase revenues by Rs197bn. Now all this will have an adverse effect on public policy especially national security. What can be expected is more indirect taxation, as indicated by the finance minister, that will further boost the spiralling inflation and burden the poor even more.
Cuts can be expected in the health and education budgets, though the finance minister has been denying it. Is he to be believed? Already cuts have been announced in the development budget.
Why is this bad defence planning? We first have to identify our enemy. To me it seems that the greatest threat we face is from the Taliban. Even the prime minister is on record as saying that the greatest danger to the country’s security comes from the “internal threat” the country faces. But we seem to be strengthening ourselves vis-à-vis external enemies — and who are they but the Indians?
Will the 36 F-16s priced at $3bn and being purchased currently be used in the war on terror to destroy Taliban strongholds? Apart from the fact that aerial bombing produces more collateral damage — civilians become innocent victims — this siphoning off social-sector funds will affect our social capital which in turn will weaken our societal fabric.
Can we afford this?
The problem lies basically in our failure to recognise the changing nature of warfare in the modern world. There is the additional failure to understand that when extra-regional powers like the United States extend us a helping hand they do so to promote their own selfish interests in the region where we are located. We try to act smart and exploit American strategic imperatives. With the US now poised to withdraw from Afghanistan, has Pakistan planned its own post-US exit strategy? In 1989 when the US disengaged from the region after helping the Mujahideen (via Pakistan) to drive out the Russians, we were left at the mercy of the squabbling Afghans — a situation that gave birth to the Taliban phenomenon which continues to be our nemesis.
We have played the foot soldier to Washington in the region as we continued to fight a war on two fronts — hostility towards India hardly ever abated. As a result, our economic priority has always been massive defence spending. It is here that our failure to understand the changing nature of warfare has proved detrimental to our national security. In an age when wars are total and the defences too have to be total, Pakistan has concentrated on buying arsenals, recruiting soldiers and building bombs, including of the nuclear variety.
All along the country’s domestic policies have created the social, cultural, economic and political conditions that have nurtured prejudices, ignorance and social insecurity that now pose a grave threat to the country’s stability and cohesion. Greater liability was created by the armed forces by their alleged training and arming of militants such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba to fight their proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Concurrently they spawned obscurantist thinking and bigotry by whipping up irrational religiosity that became a deadly mixture in an environment of poverty, ignorance and despair.
In this climate the advantage goes to the enemy within, with which we are locked in a total war. A strategic policy that ignores this adversary to seek arms to be used in future battles against an external foe does not make sense. We need to remember that in the post-1945 years more than military defeats economic implosions have destroyed nations. These states have invariably failed to realise that an arms build-up only hastens this process.