Source: USIP


In August 2019, the Prime Minister established the Strategic Policy Planning Cell (SPPC) in the National Security Division housed in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Division acts as the Secretariat of the National Security Committee (NSC) of Pakistan. Dr. Moeed W. Yusuf is the Chairman, Strategic Policy Planning Cell housed in the National Security Division, Prime Minister’s Office.

Prior to joining the government, Dr. Yusuf was the Associate Vice President for Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. He was previously a Fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and concurrently a Research Fellow at the Mossavar Rahmani Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. His latest book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia, was released by Stanford University Press in May, 2018. He holds a Master’s in International Relations and PhD in Political Science from Boston University, U.S.A.

Q: Tell us something about the Strategic Policy Planning Cell (SPPC). What mandate has Prime Minister Imran Khan given you?

The SPPC is mandated to provide evidence-based policy input on various issues that fall under the ambit of the National Security Committee (NSC). It is envisioned as the intellectual hub – a think tank of sorts – for the Prime Minister and the NSC.

Q: What areas are under the Cell’s mandate?

The NSC has a very broad mandate given that it deals with all-things security – human security, financial and economic security, and all facets of traditional security. So technically, all of this is what the Cell can be asked to look at.

Q:Why did we need a structure like this?

Important question. The short answer is that there was no empowered civilian structure directly linked to the country’s leadership or an apex decision-making
body that was specifically tasked to act as a think tank and provide independent research based policy input on key issues.

But I want to highlight another another important distinction here. While the Cell will respond to any tasking by the decision makers, the Prime Minister has stressed the importance of examining beyond-the-horizon issues. This is mandated to us in our formal notification. We will therefore be involved in prospective thinking and this can be unsolicited. We do not need to wait to be tasked on this.

This to me is a crucial value added of this structure. If it is to be successful, it must look beyond day-to-day firefighting and analyze long-term issues in ways that the system can be proactive about mitigation strategies and capturing opportunities.

Q: What would be examples of long-term issues?

Well, virtually all our long-term issues have security implications. For instance, demographics. The youth bulge has serious positive or negative consequences – how do we ensure that it turns out to be a dividend? Climate and security; water and security. Among others. Of course, the Cell’s remit is only in examining the security aspects of these issues, not their technical aspects.

Q:How do you plan on executing this?

The Cell itself will have a skeletal staff of experts. This will provide it the capacity for internal analysis and formulation of policy advice to supplement input reaching the decision makers directly from other government channels.

But this clearly won’t be enough. So our vision is to make SPPC a model for inclusive policy thinking.

In the Terms of the Reference of the SPPC, the Prime Minister has mandated that we operate through a Council of Experts. The idea is simple: to fully empower decision makers with the most rigorous and current analysis, we must benefit from the top minds in Pakistan in each of the thematic areas we are tasked to work on. We are not looking to reinvent the wheel.

Since the entire premise of the SPPC model is built around reaching out and soliciting independent expertise, in my first month on the job, my priority has been to create partnerships with the community of experts, starting with university-based research centers and think tanks. I have engaged nearly 100 experts/think tank leaders – soliciting their ideas and support.

Q: How will the Council of Experts work?

Rather than having formal Task Forces, our nature of work requires more fluid arrangements with experts and think tanks. We will form multiple working groups, one for each theme/issue we are to study. Members of these groups, all prominent Pakistanis recognized for their expertise in their particular area of work, will be requested to provide policy input on issues under deliberation. The Cell will supplement this with its own analysis and, where relevant, input from other government stakeholders.

Q:Do you feel you will get the kind of support you are looking for?

To be honest, I am hoping so. I understand that perhaps we haven’t traditionally had as strong a channel between academia/policy research and policy making as we should. But it is important to recognize that the country’s leadership has realized the gap and made the decision to create such a channel through SPPC. Now, the onus is on the Cell to deliver on this promise.

Let me also say that we undervalue the productivity of our research centers and thinkers. Even in the few weeks I have been on the job, it has become clear to me that there is some excellent work being done. We can benefit a lot from it. The need perhaps is to ensure that those working in a particular area coordinate and collate information to optimize their outputs. Also, the form in which the policy work reaches the government must be easily digestible and actionable.

Q:Do you think the decision makers value independent input?

Look, I have worked in the policy research field all my life. I too used to wonder and often felt frustrated as it wasn’t clear whether our effort was benefiting policy decisions. By the way, the dilemma is the same in countries like the U.S. despite the far more developed think tank world there. I think it is universal.

Now that I am seeing things from the inside, I don’t find any reluctance to get independent policy input. In fact, I sense a hunger as everyone realizes the value of advice from experts who are doing cutting edge work in their fields. The problem may lie in the fact that day-to day matters tend to naturally take precedence so unless input is readily actionable, it becomes difficult to prioritize it. This is again an area where SPPC can make a difference.

Overall though, don’t miss the key point. If there wasn’t interest and if something like SPPC wasn’t valued, why would it be set up and why would an outsider to the system like me be brought in to run it? Why would I be reporting directly to the Prime Minister?

As I said, this is an empowered structure. Yes, it is new and thus there
are bound to be course adjustments. But I have no excuse. I have been given a great platform with ready access to the very top and now I must come good.

Q: Are you confident you can provide valuable input?

The SPPC can’t match the information base and efforts of our established government institutions and structures. Nor should there be any reason to. Our role is simply to supplement, not to replace.

Given the approach the Prime Minister has asked us to take, the basic difference we may make is to bridge knowledge of global best practices and research with the unmatchable experience of our practitioners in government. To be of value, the Cell’s output must be thorough and based on solid policy analysis that goes beyond anecdotes and intuition.

Then there is the collation function. We hope to bring together the bits and pieces of very good analyses that are out there within and outside government and put it together as coherent policy advice and take it forward with an implementation plan.

Q:What is your benchmark for success?

Quality of work the SPPC puts out. The benchmark I will apply is a simple one: do decision makers consuming input from SPPC find a qualitative difference in the analysis based on which they are making decisions.

If we succeed, this structure has the potential of becoming a model to be replicated in governance arrangements across federal and provincial levels. Ideally, every Ministry and Department should have its own SPPC and the Prime Minister’s SPPC should be acting as the ultimate funnel/collating mechanism. Just like we see in many other countries that rely on multiple sources of independent input to determine policy directions.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

Allow me to end by emphasizing the real reason I agreed to speak to you. I want our scholarly community to know that SPPC wants to be the bridge between them and the decision makers. So this is a great opportunity to provide solid input and be counted.

But I’ll also be honest and acknowledge that we do not need to keep following up and chasing people. We will of course reach out to people as best as possible. But please take the initiative. Come forward and help us with structured policy advice that can address our key national security challenges. SPPC is open to partnerships through our Council of Experts mechanism and otherwise.