National Security Council
need it remain a puzzle?
Brig Gen (retd) SHAHEDUL ANAM KHAN, ndc, psc
Every so often the manner in which the National Security Council (NSC) issue is presented in the media, often quoting ranking members of the administration, creates confusion regarding its set up, structure and function. A recent report appearing in a Bangla Daily, again quoting an adviser has helped confound the confusion. The impression one gathers is that the concept of NSC remains unclear even now. It's difficult to think of a situation in which one's perception of a proposal that is likely to be implemented soon is at best nebulous and at worst imprecise. We shall dissect the advisor's comments later in this article, but for now it is enough to say that a national security council is everything but what he wants us to believe.
|With increasing security threats including violent extremism, a National Security Council (NSC) is the need of the time
NSC had existed as more than a concept in the eighties, when Ershad tried unsuccessfully to get it off the ground. The reason it floundered had more to do with the mindset of the opinion makers than the substance of the scheme. The redeeming feature this time is that those that had opposed it to the hilt have by their silence now lent their support to it. And in their reform measures the leading political parties have included it as one of their agenda. But the rather hazy idea about its composition and tasks that occupied the discourse on it then, is yet to crystallise fully.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the NSC is the need of the time. It is surprising to see the gingerly way the caretaker government is treating the issue now after having displayed so much of enthusiasm about it not very long ago. It will not be wrong to surmise that not only is opinion divided, there is perhaps also a great deal of conceptual difference among those on whom lies the onus of taking the final decision on the matter. It may be worth mentioning that the British government, which had so far relied on the cabinet committee system, has recently decided to set up a NSC to better formulate and coordinate policies on foreign and security matters. There must be some merit in the NSC to have warranted the consideration of a government that has so far conducted the matters of the state and coordinating the works of various agencies and collating their inputs in formulating national policies through various committees.
The view that there is lack of accord of thought on the issue has been reinforced by the recent comments of the advisor in charge of home ministry justifying the formation of NSC in Bangladesh. These comments will only help in further reinforcing the apprehension about the fundamental motivation behind the idea. Such a mind set is not unique to our situation. In fact that India had its own brand of NSC only in 1998, after more than fifty years of its independence, has been ascribed by some Indian scholars to Nehru's “misperceived distrust of the Indian Armed Forces arising from the then contemporary developments where the military in countries which had recently gained independence from the colonial rule had taken over the reins of the government.” Nehru thought it wise to sideline the military from any role in the security decision-making process, and in it a pliant bureaucracy, who feared the dilution of their authority, aided him.
Thus at this point it may be worth dwelling briefly on the misperceptions about the NSC.
The first is that the set up is predominantly a military organisation if not fully so (going by the adviser's comments, that is perhaps what is being contemplated for Bangladesh).
Let us take two examples, both flourishing democracies, one in our region and the other the lone super power, to show that such need not necessarily be the case. The Indian NSC is a three tiered set up in which the military chiefs form a part of only the second tier, the Strategic Planning Committee, consisting of about seventeen members. The first tier is made up of six members only. As for the US NSC that was set up in 1947 and subsumed in 1949 within the Oval Office with the national security adviser as its head, has only the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as its member. Even in Pakistan the NSC has the three chiefs and the Joint Chief's head asits members (out of a total of about 13). Therefore, all the apprehensions about the military hogging the organisation stems primarily from asymmetry of information about it. It is neither a defense organisation nor an appendage of the defense ministry, and national defense forms but only one aspect of its consideration.
Let us now examine what the advisor for home had to say about the proposed NSC, which he did to a local TV channel and which was reported in a Bangla Daily the next day (The Bhorer Kagaj, July 4, 2007). He said that the NSC would be a bridge between the government and the military (although he says 'senabahini' which literally means the army). One fails to comprehend the logic of the argument. In suggesting such a role the impressions he has conveyed is that there is a gap between the government and the military and also that the military is a separate entity altogether. He also suggests that the NSC should be set up under the aegis and the initiative of the armed forces, which is also rather puzzling. In no country in the world is an organisation like this the preserve of the military. If we are quick to point out at our neighbours to justify the establishment of a security council we will do well to also look at how the NSC has been set up in these countries. None of theirs is dominated by the armed forces.
Needless to say, our system must be germane to our own psyche and requirements. Its responsibilities and the terms of reference must be geared to our needs. But let us not forget the fact that this organisation is primarily to formulate national policies on foreign and security issues or appropriate response on state matters based on the inputs from various agencies, and to coordinate implementation of the policies and crisis management.
While no doubt it is the armed forces and the intelligence machinery that will have an important role to play in any NSC set up, they cannot have a predominant role for the reason that the core group will be composed of the political leadership headed by the chief executive, who will task the composite elements accordingly.
The need to streamline our long-term planning process on national issues and integrating all the agencies for the purpose of higher security management cannot be overemphasised. And this should be done with due deliberations. It cannot be just another set up in the decision-making hierarchy. It should be 'the' decision making body on matters of national policy encompassing all aspects of our national interest. Experiences of our neighbours may be studied, if only to be aware of their shortcomings if any that we ought to avoid.
The author is Editor, Defense & Strategic Issues, The Daily Star.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007