Notes in Circulation # 7: Comment on the proposal for an economic security council

The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), an Islamabad based think-tank, has “suggested forming an economic council under NSC comprising the government, leaders of the opposition in the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate), all four chief ministers and the representatives from top military brass.” This may sound like a harmless proposal. After all, what Pakistani could fail to appreciate the need for a platform for coordination and cooperation among the political class of the country to secure the nation’s economic prospects? Should we all not embrace this proposal? We should think twice before supporting any such proposal, which is not as benign as it seems. Inclusion of representatives from the top military leadership should ring alarm bells. I argue that in making this recommendation, the SDPI is in fact giving technocratic cover to the military as it subsumes economic policy and management in Pakistan within its ambit. If the proposal is institutionalized, it will not only damage Pakistani democracy but also indirectly damage the economics profession in Pakistan.

Readers might recall that at the start of this calendar year, a national security policy document was published through the national security division of the Prime Minister’s Office. The national security advisor at the time, Mr. Mooed Yusuf, gave interviews explaining, defending and advocating for the document. While pretending to give precedence and pride of place to economic security, growth and distribution, that document was really about the military exercising control over the economic policies of Pakistan. While the document itself was vague enough to not arouse such suspicions, in an interview with Al-Jazeera English Mr. Yusuf pretended to be politically neutral despite being an official in the Prime Minister’s office. That distancing from the PTI, combined with his insistent and confident claim that it “is a document that no Pakistani government, I can guarantee you, will go back on”, gave the game away: future governments will have to abide by this vision because it comes straight from the military. The news that “Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa recently approached the US administration with the explicit permission of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for an early disbursement of funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)” seems to confirm that the present coalition government signed onto the vision of the national security policy before forming a government.

But let us give the proposal the benefit of doubt. Could this proposed council make a new contribution to the existing institutional framework for economic policy and management of the country? Article 156 of the Constitution already defines the role and composition of the National Economic Council (NEC), which gives enough flexibility for opposition leaders to be appointed to the NEC. The NEC can also coordinate with the Council of Common Interests (Article 153), whose composition has an overlap with the NEC anyway. In fact, the NEC was reconstituted by the President in early June. The key difference in the economic security council being proposed by the SDPI is the inclusion of “representatives from top military brass”. This proposal comes at an interesting time, as experts and non-experts alike discuss civil-military relations. The news of this proposal came days after Mr. Uzair Younus (director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center) wrote an article for Nikkei Asia. In this article, Mr. Younus notes that the military “operates a multibillion-dollar corporate empire across various sectors” and argues for a doubling down on the military’s role in the Pakistani economy: “It is time to accept that rather than trying to cut this empire down to size, it may be more fruitful to develop Military Inc. 2.0: a corporate empire that is globally competitive.” The SDPI’s proposal and Mr. Younus’s article are part of the continuing mainstreaming and legitimization of contracting democratic space in Pakistan in relation to the expanding role and influence of the military.

The SDPI’s proposed economic council, if it goes through as suggested, would be part of the formalization and actualization of the vision of the National Security Policy document, and in doing so would help the military further entrench its power. This would in turn tip the balance of power further away from democratic forces in the country. (Dawn’s editorial was an important criticism, and certainly not the only one, of the army chief’s intervention.) Furthermore, since the SDPI is a think tank, the fact that the proposal is originating there is extremely worrying. Democracy is not just about elections. Independent organizations and platforms which help bring forward and sift through ideas and proposals are important. The integrity and independence of scientific disciplines, including the integrity of economics as a social science and a source of policy ideas, is also crucial for a democratic society. As such, the formation of this council should be opposed, especially by economists who claim to espouse democratic values. This is important, both for the sake of Pakistan’s democracy but also for the sake of the economics profession in Pakistan, which may be at risk of becoming an instrument in service of the anti-democratic ambitions.