Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

OVER A COFFEE: Is the Pakistan army a learning organisation?, The Daily Times, October 18, 2014

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An organisation cannot become a learning organisation if it shuts its doors to the outside world and prefers to examine the surroundings through its own organisational beliefs

Dr Haider Shah

On television shows we often hear some jubilant anchors asking whether Nawaz Sharif has learnt from his past mistakes. If a politician does not learn he or she can be taken to task through constitutionally provided mechanisms. What is more important is to see whether those organisations that have a big say in the affairs of the state have learnt anything from the past. In this coffee session I am raising the question in respect of our security establishment as many debacles in our history can easily be traced back to poor decision making inside our military organisation.

Peter Senge popularised the concept of a “learning organisation” in management literature. He defined it as an organisation where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. We already know that in order to survive we have to evolve to remain the fittest. Dinosaurs were big and powerful but even they could not survive when the environment changed. Germany and Japan were very powerful nations both militarily and economically in the 1930s but as they failed to adapt to the changing world order, they had to learn the hard way. Nokia was the world leader in the mobile phones sector but it proved too slow to see the wave of touchscreen technology bringing havoc to its market. No one is powerful enough to survive without adapting to the changing surroundings. Pakistan cannot be an exception.

Is Pakistan’s military a learning organisation? There are some indications that make us believe that, yes, it is. In 2012, in the Green Book, which is widely distributed within the army and is considered to be the official publication on military doctrine, it admitted that the security paradigm had changed and threats posed by “sub conventional warfare” had become the number one security threat. If the Inter-Services Public Relations’ official magazine, Hilal (crescent) is browsed, it is seen to contain writings on topics like democracy and the constitution contributed by well-known authors. In the past, the military discourse hovered around India-fixated issues. Now, India still remains an important topic but the thinking horizon seems to have seen some expansion.
Critics will say that these publications hardly represent any significant change for real. Even if there is some realisation that homegrown terrorists have become a security threat, they are unable to see the link between our India-fixated doctrines and the emergence of jihadi terrorism. Our overarching desire to influence regional politics by using jihadis as an instrument of diplomacy has contributed to the emergence of local jihadi groups, besides some international factors. So, if the security establishment has admitted that such elements need to be obliterated, it is only partial learning as it still does not understand the links between our India-fixated policy and growth of militancy in Pakistan. Of late, we have seen a meaningful silence over regularly occurring drone attacks inside the tribal areas from the security establishment or vocal voices in the popular media. However, we have been getting mixed signals in terms of regional initiatives. On the Afghanistan side, there had been some warming of relations in the recent past but in September skirmishes between the Taliban and Afghan forces, and the alleged attacks of the Taliban on Pakistani forces using Afghanistan-based hideouts have again given rise to tensions in the border areas. No one is suggesting that Pakistan should not watch its own interests. However, the widely held perception that the interests of Pakistan are not defined by the politically elected government but rather a few generals who dictate to them does not help the cause of Pakistani diplomacy.

Institutions, like individuals, also think in a certain way that is conditioned by the institutional norms imprinted from the past. An organisation cannot become a learning organisation if it shuts its doors to the outside world and prefers to examine the surroundings through its own organisational beliefs. Without some de-learning of old stuff, new realities cannot dawn upon the strategic decision makers. I feel concerned because I often come across army officers and feel that what they say is out of a strong belief that whatever they think is the only truth. There are prestigious military training academies in Pakistan where highly educated professionals and academics impart education in different disciplines. They will do a big service to their trainees if they are taught systems theory as the focal principle of a learning organisation that, in turn, would help military leaders appreciate the importance of connections between components and the whole, economic prosperity and the role of regional trade, foreign policy, security policy and much more.

The levers of control are mostly in the hands of military leaders. The political government can hardly steer the ship out of troubled waters if the military leaders are out of sync. The military leadership will establish its credentials firmly if it engages in a good perception management exercise by dispelling the myth that our military establishment sabotages all peace building moves made by our political governments. It should instead take a lead role in helping the present government repair Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours and the international community.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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