Jun 232008

The step towards some transparency is commendable, but more is needed. Equally, informed debate requires equanimity and talking to each other rather than at each other

The defence budget for FY2008-09 has been placed before the Senate and is already under discussion. On the plus side, for the first time it is more than the sentence, ‘PKRX bn to be spent on defence’. It gives service-wise break-up of total allocation and then allocations within each service to personnel, operations, civil works and general expenditure. The document also shows allocations to inter-services organisations (ISO) and defence production (DP).

Even though the budget at PKR295.306 billion is a 7 percent increase on the last fiscal, given official estimates of inflation at 14 percent (independent estimates put inflation between 18 to 22 percent), it is a decrease in real terms. Expectedly, however, that has not precluded senators and analysts from kicking off the guns versus butter debate.

There are two problems with how this debate unfolds. One, it is unnecessarily conducted along adversarial lines; two, both sectors — security and development — for reason of being inimical, refuse to contextualise it.

For instance, the development side argues that the development sector gets lesser allocations than defence. But while they are all too ready to quote absolute figures and percentages, they eschew the fact that the development sector has traditionally under-utilised even the smaller pie it gets — i.e., even the less money it gets it cannot spend!

The problem lies with disbursements, wastages, lack of capacity and integrated planning etc. These are structural issues and in need of reforms. Even if the defence sector were getting zero rupees, that in and of itself would not make the development sector more efficient.

But try veering the discussion towards this angle and some would argue that reforms are not possible unless you pump in more money. The only problem with this argument, and it is a major one, is that the literature on institutional capacity does not show that more funding can necessarily make institutions more efficient.

Point this out and the proverbial cat comes out of the bag: the concern on the development side that given low allocations, it is important to make noise for more funding or one runs the danger of losing even the smaller pie. This concern is genuine, no denying. But it also goads the development enclave, given the battle-lines between the two sectors, into asking for funds than concentrating on effecting the structural reforms vital for improving institutional capacity for efficient performance.

The development versus defence premise is essentially confrontational and means neither side will argue holistically or empathise with the other. The tendency is to just push for one’s own viewpoint without entertaining the other’s perspective or trying to find common ground. The coin only has one side. That obviously is wrong.

So when the development sector juxtaposes Pakistan’s case with states that do not have pressing security concerns, the argument eschews the geo-political realities. Similarly, when the security sector talks about secrecy and eating grass, the argument is reduced to meaningless shibboleths.

There is no point in securing a state where people are steadily losing the quality of life and where they are deprived of even basic human needs. An additional problem is the conception among civilians — justified, one may add — that the military has run this country as its fiefdom. This puts a question mark on the whole idea of national security and its determinants. Whose security and conceived by whom?

This question is not mere rhetoric. Indeed, it can be proved that the military has managed to mix up the two distinct categories of national security and national military strategy, with the latter, the tail, often wagging the former, the dog.

Ironically, the civil-military imbalance is a wider problem and does not directly relate to defence allocations. For instance, civilian governments don’t end up slashing defence budgets. Yet, military interventions have done much harm to the military itself and contributed to a sense of unease over defence allocations.

The icing is the military’s absurd argument that the defence budget should not be debated — that it is not debated around the world. That is bunkum. Dr Ayesha Siddiqa wrote recently (“Is it transparent now”; Dawn, June 20):

“Broadly speaking, there are two patterns of transparency in military expenditure. The first relates to the NATO definition of defence spending which clearly specifies that it would include all activities, even those in the civilian sector and by paramilitary forces, which are designed to strengthen the military’s capability….

“The other pattern relates to the Indian definition of the defence budget that provides certain…details but does not meet the NATO definition. The Indian budget gives breakdowns for the three services and also figures of annual capital expenditure versus operations spending…”

The argument for secrecy is also a non-starter because no state today can acquire weapon systems and platforms, essentially big ticket items, secretly. There is no such thing as a state mounting a surprise on the adversary during a conflict by pulling a secret weapon system out like a conjurer does a rabbit — unless it has produced one such indigenously and has also managed to defy foreign intelligence from smelling out such an effort.

All concerned states, their intelligence agencies and defence experts around the world have up-to-date knowledge of such transactions. Institutions like SIPRI, IISS, Jane’s etc keep a close watch on what’s going on, who is spending what and coveting what weapon system. They also bring out regular analyses on trends etc besides a number of other estimates.

In fact, quite often, it makes sense to put out the capability, especially force-multiplier platforms, to keep the adversary at bay. In today’s world, especially in South Asia, inter-state wars are becoming increasingly unlikely and military capabilities are meant more to allow a state better bargaining power and prevent it from being coerced than actual war-fighting. This requires transparent, not secret capabilities.

So, what is it the military wants to keep secret? Not surprisingly, it does not want a debate because it suffers from huge wastages and its spending decisions are marred by structural problems that need to be reformed. But reforms can only come when spending becomes transparent and is actually debated at various levels.

Like all huge bureaucracies, the military wants to retain unchallenged control of its turf. That the civilian enclave, including the Ministry of Defence, does not have the capacity to understand the security sector and question the military on its spending decisions makes it easier for the latter to frustrate any attempt towards transparency. (The only systematic work in this area so far is the 2001 book by Dr Siddiqa, Pakistan’s Arms Procurement and Military Build-up, 1979-99: In Search of a Policy.)

The debate must therefore be conducted by realising that Pakistan has genuine defence needs which must be met, but without compromising its development needs. Both sides must begin to look at the other side of the coin. This requires reforming both sectors: in the case of the development sector to see why it under-utilises and under-performs; and, in the case of the security sector, why wastages take place and how they can be plugged so the money can be spent more efficiently and, if need be, diverted towards other sectors.

The step towards some transparency is commendable, but more is needed. Equally, informed debate requires equanimity and talking to each other rather than at each other.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at sapper@dailytimes.com.pk

Source; daily Times, 23/6/2008

 Posted by at 8:05 am

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