The Cost of National Security | Afiya Shehrbano

udging by our media, we must be the most insecure country in the world. On a daily basis, there is no newspaper that won’t carry a column by (whatever qualifies as) a security analyst or a TV channel that won’t run a programme on National Security.

Despite the refuge of such exhaustive introspection, if our leaders happen on an impromptu meeting with their Indian counterpart or, if there is any border activity, we fall apart riddled with insecurity and run to our mikes and pens to deliberate on how to secure ourselves again.

National Security was a booming business in Pakistan long before 9/11. But the ‘war on terror’ enabled the state to franchise Security, maybe for the first time, to the civilian sector, too. It was the Musharrafian way. His wardrobe in itself signified this duality. The uniform that symbolised National Security was his superhero outfit for saving us from democracy. The civies that he would don to film festivals, fashion shows and musical evenings was to show that he was also invested in the fake Enlightened Moderation project that was going to defeat terrorism through sufi-ism and ‘culture’. Look how well that turned out.

Musharraf successfully co-opted the pliable courts, Islamists, corporate and banking sectors and threw a few crumbs at the NGOs and bought a protest-free decade in return. Meanwhile, National Security was torn to shreds, civilians and democrats were silenced and murdered, Islamists wormed their agendas into state institutions strengthening bigotry and exclusion, girls’ schools got bombed and culture was getting lynched in Swat, Peshawar and Punjab University…until the Lawyers’ Movement said effectively, #NoThankyouMusharraf.

So, while the state remained in full control of the large-cap Security narrative, it leased out domestic small-cap security of life, livelihood and rights to the private sector. This visibly changed the landscape of the country and untethered citizens from the state. From the corporatisation of neighbourhood chowkidars into full-fledged security guards businesses, to the spawning of ‘security analysts’ that clamoured the hotel halls of Islamabad and TV channels – the notion of security of person and livelihood became a lesser and insignificant issue.

NGOs that used to work in different sectors suddenly became lumped into something convenient for the donor community – ‘civil society’. Mergers and franchises and apex multi-donor funding mechanisms and takeovers of local NGOs turned the latter into gated donor headquarters. Human development became redefined through the lens of security and ‘conflict’ projects boomed.

Women survivors who used to flee to these NGOs for help and activists who would hold their non-funded regular meetings at these sites now faced guards, barbed wire and security checks to access their right to justice and freedom of assembly. Human security became convenient collateral damage to the chattering over the self-made, but now called ‘existential’, crisis of saving the state itself.

From the unaccounted figures squandered by the Musharraf regime as the ‘front-line ally’ in the ‘war on terror’, to the limitless funding of a non-accountable Zarb-e-Azb, security has been defined by those who benefit most from national rather than human security. For over a decade the only thing analysed and produced in PhD theses were ‘Islamists’, ‘extremism’ and now their corollary, ‘sectarianism’.

Even today, Pakistanis in Western academia milk the security-defined track towards tenure. The plethora of counter-intuitive research findings and theories that invested revolutionary ideals in the ‘anti-imperialist’ Taliban and which spun romantic stories about ‘democratic’ Islamists and faith-based development by Islamic leaders have been exposed, disproven and trashed no sooner than the ink of their publications had dried. All this does not shame these over-paid opportunists nor make pause in their well-written but rubbish and conceited ‘research’ funded by Western academia and donor agencies.

So, now that most agree that we have saved the state (most aptly summarised under the ironic hashtag, ThankyouRaheelShareef), can we ask the question: who have we saved it for and what exactly are we to do with this National Security? Is it not incumbent to assess the financial but also social and political cost to this completely tilted and redefined concept of security?

Let’s be clear. It hasn’t been just about the money. Other sectors have become empowered in this leasing out of security business. Communities that used to be ‘secured’ by local patriarchs were already being challenged by modernity, education and often defiant women who would access the state legal structure. Now, with the post-9/11 security paradigm of including and strengthening religious actors in every donor development scheme, the previously discredited local maulvi has become an important gatekeeper on family planning, maternal and child healthcare and vaccination drives (note, all women-related issues). This has made women’s reproductive health and mobility privy to another layer of patriarchal control.

Similarly, charity work and humanitarian intervention has been leased out to jihadi outfits that run such relief enterprises. This has enabled such (often banned) outfits to embed themselves and set up community projects such as madressah networks, religious gatherings and even Islamic justice to replace the secular cultures and activities of communities. This is not just in rural peripheries but in cosmopolitan Karachi, where polio vaccinations are now met with unprecedented refusals, girls from ‘sensitive’ UCs (Pakhtun-dominant) are purportedly not allowed to attend schools and nikahkhwans resist insertions into the nikahnama stating the legal contract to be ‘unIslamic’.

Neither are the democrats to be excused of their neglectful political apathy towards security. While tribal Balochistan and Fata debate their genuinely difficult role and relationship within the newly-defined security paradigm, there is no excuse for the inability to reclaim and deliver around the concept of the basic right to security of life and liberties in the other provinces.

Take, for example, the health policies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both provinces are run by saviour-leaders who posture as upholders of peoples’ rights, yet neither address the crucial and most attacked national resource by way of the Lady Health Workers. Without the LHWs, the nation’s reproductive health programme would near collapse. Yet, across the nation, for decades these women had insecure livelihoods, are still not paid salaries regularly and are exploited by donors and government alike. Recently, LHWs have been murdered for their polio work for which they get pittance, and in KP one has been allegedly gang-raped for her service as well.

If ‘security’ is not revalued and all our policies are not redefined to include citizens’ rights to basic services and the safety of providers, then we do not have National Security. If we leave our communities vulnerable to the greed of the private sector and to the proxy services of organised religious groups with their agendas, then we can never hope to achieve real National Security in the future either. Securing the borders does not inspire confidence in the nation – securing basic rights does.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi.



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