Aqil Shah is a post-doctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. He is writing a book on the origins and sources of sustained military intervention and weak civilian control in Pakistan. A former Rhodes Scholar, he holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University and has held fellowships at Stanford and the University of Chicago. Dr Shah has taught at Columbia, UChicago and LUMS. He has also worked for the International Crisis Group in its South Asia office.
On June 21, 2012 the Herald invited Shah to a live discussion about the allocation of the defence budget. The blog has been edited for space, clarity and grammar.
2:57 Comment From Safa. What are the reasons behind the secrecy of the defence budget?
3:04 Aqil Shah. The military’s standard argument for secrecy is that defence expenditures involve “sensitive national security issues.” Hence, it objects to any civilian scrutiny on the grounds that outside interference would undermine its professional capabilities. The actual problem is that the military’s political dominance has allowed the generals to place themselves above reproach. And for the most part, the military does not trust civilians, especially their ability to keep “secrets.” Neither does it have much confidence in civilian capacity and acumen to understand military affairs. So there is a “trust us, we know better” attitude at work. While all militaries are insular and secretive to varying degrees, and there is a case for not fully publicizing operational and intelligence matters, there is no convincing rationale for cloaking all military expenditures under the convenient pretext of “national security.” The public has every right to be informed about how their money is spent, a right that assumes added importance because of the military’s demonstrably poor recent professional performance (e.g. GHQ attack, Mehran base, U.S. raid to kill bin Laden)
3:06 Comment From M Anwer. Do you think the allocation of the defence budget is politically motivated?
3:09 Aqil Shah. Resource allocation is a political process. The military gets what it wants because it wields the biggest stick in town. Because military budgets are shrouded in secrecy andPakistan’s national security policy is what the military says it is, it is hard to determine the connection between military expenditures and actual security imperatives.
3:10 Comment From Umair Javed. Hi Aqil, Umair Javed here (was in your CMR class at LUMS). Do you think that all this talk about the army’s gradual withdrawal from active politics holds any weight, and more importantly, do you think its fiscal appetite can be curtailed by any means other than by direct political confrontation, possibly in the shape of a popular mass movement?
3:20 Aqil Shah. The military has left power, but it has yet to exit politics. Military extrication from government in 2007-2008 was primarily the result of the need to preserve its institutional reputation threatened by its close association with an isolated and deeply unpopular Musharraf. Put differently, the military withdrew to the barracks contingently, not out of a commitment to democratic norms. This conditional adherence to civilian rule means that the military continues to view itself as the only permanent custodian of the country’s ‘permanent’ interests, which makes civilian authorities ‘temporary,’ and hence, ultimately disposable. The military also reserves the right to exercise broad oversight of the civilian government and overtly or covertly challenge or reverse civilian policy initiatives that impinge on its national security prerogatives. In fact, intervention is still a legitimate option in the military’s institutional mind-set. In the words of COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, “military interventions are sometimes necessary to maintainPakistan’s stability…temporary bypasses that are created when a bridge collapses on democracy’s highway. After the bridge is repaired, then there’s no longer any need for the detour.”
I am a little sceptical of the actual “democratic” outcomes of “mass movements,” especially when they are based on violent means. Research has shown that non-violent mass uprisings have been more successful in achieving democratic ends in part because they are more likely to win broader domestic (and external) legitimacy. I think democratic institutionalization, a slow and uncertain process no doubt, may offer a more reliable way of clipping the generals’ political and financial wings.
3:21 Comment From Hassan. How does Pakistan‘s Defence Budget stands against that of India‘s? Is that something our policy makers look at? Our defence budget is 18% of total budget (please correct if wrong), does India also give roughly the same percentage to its defence budget?
3:26 Aqil Shah. The official rationale for the amount of defence spending is that Pakistan needs to match India’s military capabilities. India’s military budget is roughly four to five times higher than Pakistan’s total defence allocation in absolute terms, but India allocates a lower percentage of its government expenditure (15-17 % on average) than Pakistan (actually around 25-28 %). But remember, India’s economy is also bigger and growing much faster than Pakistan’s. So the real question is: can we really afford the existing levels of military expenditures given our national economic conditions/resources? When a country spends seven to ten times more on arms than primary education, there is something seriously wrong with its national priorities.
3:27 Comment From Qayum Khan. Pakistan has been under several martial coups, how does the shroud on the defence budget change in those years?
3:30 Aqil Shah. Military expenditures have rarely been transparent, regardless of who is in power. Under military rule, I believe even the perfunctory civilian oversight is diminished. At least in theory, democratic-civilian rule offers more space for debating military expenditures in the public domain than military authoritarian rule.
3:31 Comment From Dara S. What is the biggest problem with the defence budget this year? What is the issue most people have with it?
3:36 Aqil Shah. One of the biggest issues is the absolute lack of transparency and civilian scrutiny. We don’t know the real extent of the military budget. The official allocation for 2012-2013 stands at Rs 545 billion which is highly misleading. Some independent estimates put the actual budget at Rs 800-900 billion, almost double the allocated amount. This is because the estimated budget does not include internal security expenditures, military pensions, debt on military loans, arms purchases, etc. Second, the information disclosed indicates that salaries absorb almost fifty percent of the military budget, which is quite skewed in terms of the ratio between money spent on actual combat preparedness and on personnel maintenance. Put simply, the military spends less on improving its battleground effectiveness than on non-combat expenses.
3:44 Comment From Muhammad Faryad. Is it true that the changing nature of warfare (remote controlled weapons, cyber warfare, and terrorism, to name a few) requires more investment in educational, technological, and industrial development of the nation to be able to defend the nation from internal and external threats? Or is this just an exaggeration the military propagates?
3:47 Aqil Shah. There is certainly an argument to be made about the need to invest in human and technological capital amidst the changing tenor of modern warfare. But in a world of scarce resources, there is also a trade-off between what a country can spend on developing an advanced military machine and what it invests in building human capabilities and providing basic human security from hunger, disease and poverty.
3:48 Comment From Gul. They say that Pakistan’s foreign policy can be summarised in one word: India. Is this the sole reason for our oversized defence budget or does the Taliban also have a lot to do with it?
3:52 Aqil Shah. Traditionally, the size of military budgets has been driven by the perceived threat from India. Internal security threats, Taliban and the like, have become more salient especially since 9/11. However, the military’s main mission is still fighting India and its doctrines, training, perceptions are largely products of the threat from the east. The military establishment tends to see internal threats as part of “enemy/India designs” to destabilize Pakistan from within. Hence, domestic and external threats are deeply intertwined in its national security policies.
3:54 Comment From M Anwer. The government has to appease the media, the people and the army. Do you think this years’ defence budget has appeased anyone?
3:59 Aqil Shah. As far as defence spending is concerned, the civilian government has no real space to appease anyone except the armed forces. The military budget is usually not subject to change because of civilian preferences. The dominant right-wing sections of the media, as well as military-sponsored “defense analysts,” play an important role in constantly refurbishing the military’s “national security” narrative that helps legitimate large and unaccountable military spending. In that sense, you can say that the media acts as an additional pressure group that restricts the civilian government’s already limited room to manoeuvre.
4:01 Aqil Shah. I would love to answer more questions but the time has run out. Thank you for your participation.