There are some topics, and then again there are other topics, the ones that can be publicly discussed and debated and the others which cannot. Prominent in the latter bracket is military spending as it relates to national defence strategy.
Having only recently touched on this subject, I had assumed that there would be no need to touch on it again for some time. But my interest, which had then been prompted by the comments of the Director of Intelligence and Security (DIS) regarding national defence, was once again brought into play by those made last week by the Botswana Defense Force (BDF) Commander when being interviewed by the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.You know how it is. Something gets into our heads, an idea, or a thought which keeps nagging away despite all attempts to set it aside.
And so it has been. National defence and national security, however, are two intertwined elements of government which should not, it is maintained, be of concern to the general public. Both are the sole responsibility of specialists who should be left alone to do their jobs. Criticism or mere comment, could, it is believed, impact on those efforts. That, at least seems to be the nub of this strongly entrenched idea. With due apology, I find this very odd. If there is one topic which could sensibly be discussed by almost all levels of society it is national defence, not least because there are a great many people here who have had direct experience of major military and/or civil conflict which will have hurt them.
There can be no one, I suggest, who would not have some idea as to how they felt the government/BDF should best protect them, against whom they felt protection is necessary, now and in the immediate future, and what proportion of national expenditure, even in simple terms, should be committed to that need. But it doesn’t work like that. The BDF Commander was unhappy with those who claim that the BDF is over-spending in a time of peace in a troubled world, that we (presumably the BDF) need to educate people and that ‘in the army you never know where your next attacker will come from’. Those comments were publicly made and can justifiably, I believe, be publicly discussed. Thus, again with due apology, realising all the sensitivities involved, I suggest that the three points made are inter-related. Educate people and the supposedly misplaced criticisms will fall away. But educate people about what? Presumably about the need to understand that there can be no knowing from where the next attack may come. This notion of not knowing does strike me as being extraordinary. In what other area of life are plans made, strategies devised and expenditure approved on the basis of what is not known?
The very idea turns everything on its head. It does not normally work in government or in any home. Go around the Malls in Gaborone to do your household shopping without knowing what you want is likely to prove a frustrating and probably expensive exercise. No business could hope to survive with an approach of this kind. There has to be some basis for taking almost any sort of action. Defence strategists and leaders seem not, however, to agree. For them, plans have to be made in terms of what is not known. But how can any elected national authority be expected to agree as to the kinds of expenditure that is justified when the need for that expenditure is not carefully defined? Surely, both history and geography must provide useful clues as to future threats.
The Commander referred to the ‘next attack’ as though one occurred fairly recently. Yet in the period since 1885, there have been only, I believe, the 1980s incursions by the apartheid South African government, and Lesoma. With a de-colonialised Southern Africa and a dramatically changed South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, the military threat to this country would seem to be at its lowest levels since Mzilikazi. Yet there can be no point having a defence capability if perspective of this kind is allowed to enter the equation.
Without any perceived military threat, even in times of uncertainty, there is obviously no need for an army – unless that threat might one day emerge internally. It seems to come down to a need to have the military capability to fight off a troubled and uncertain world with attack coming from South Africa maybe, the USA, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, ISIS, or even Chile. But for possible purpose? Yes, this is ridiculous, I agree. But of what use are fighter bombers and tanks in dealing with the mass movement of millions of people in so many parts of the world? If, however, this country really feels a need to square off against an unidentified ‘next attacker’, it will certainly require the entire military panoply of a really major power. Personally and doubtless naively, I still have hope that the problems of the very troubled world can be solved by peaceful effort rather than by military preparedness.