Pakistan’s New NSA: Why Moeed Yusuf is the ‘Man in the Middle’

Moeed’s appointment comes amid push for Pakistan, from various quarters, to resolve the Kashmir issue with India.

6 min read

A noticeably empty chair has been filled up with the appointment of Moeed Yusuf as Pakistan’s National Security Advisor (NSA). It’s rather unprecedented, since he’s neither a bureaucrat nor a fauji, but an academic, that too educated in the United States.

The post itself was abolished in 2019, after influential people in the government, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi manoeuvred to ensure that it remained vacant.

Everyone believed, not without foundation, that a powerful NSA would undermine their own positions, especially since, in all likelihood, the post would be filled by an ex-army man, as was the case in five out of eight cases. That’s why this is interesting. All appear to have agreed to the post being filled, and all agreed upon an academic.

Since the prevailing assumption is that the post is being filled to deal with talks with India, those in power probably feel, better his head than theirs. The new NSA’s job is to find a solution where Pakistan can swallow Gilgit-Baltistan, even while retaining its objections to the removal of Article 370. It’s the worst job in the world.


The Rise & Rise of Moeed Yusuf

In an age when everyone wants to put out their achievements on the web, there is intriguingly little on Moeed Yusuf’s available, except that he comes from a family of physicians and that he has three children, and once played golf. That’s it.

His meteoric rise is however apparent, from the time he joined Boston University, under the wing of a fellow Pakistani transplant, of which there are very many in the US system. Washington has always been trying to educate its way into Pakistan, and also for creating useful sources into what is one of the most unstable countries in the world, and that too with nuclear weapons.

Moeed was encouraged to work in Pakistan rather than be an ‘out-of-country’ analyst, which was what he did, working at the well known Sustainable Policy Institute, and writing regularly for the Pakistani media.

He came of age in 2009 when he joined the United States Institute of Peace ( USIP), a think tank funded by the US Congress, with close ties to the State Department, the National Security Council, and intelligence agencies. This is, to be fair, the US system, which very sensibly uses its think tanks for its insights and objectives where necessary. Many a USIP alumni has made it to top spots in various countries, including Afghanistan, which means that the US has a ‘friendly face’ in the country. Moeed, as NSA, is one of its top successes.

How Moeed Yusuf ‘Made’ Criticism of Pakistan ‘Disappear’

Once installed at the USIP, where he rose to be Vice President of the South Asia Division, articles critical of Pakistan disappeared. Instead, a flood of negative publicity on Kashmir and India began to appear. In this, he seems to have been ably assisted by some of his colleagues. That included a joint article with Stephen J Hadley in the New York Times, arguing that the US should take Pakistan’s ‘strategic anxieties’ (read: India) into account when deciding policy on Afghanistan. In 2011, Moeed even organised a closed meeting for Pakistanis and US officials, which included the ISI Station Chief at the time. All of this got far worse after Article 370 was set aside.

Since this was during my tenure at USIP, I had enough opportunity to see it first hand, with a stream of Pakistani visitors to the Institute, culminating in the visit of Imran Khan himself. That visit made Moeed’s career.

In 2019, there were few think tanks interested in the Pakistani PM, and the carefully-orchestrated public interaction, as well as the absolute absence of any anti-Pakistan attendees made the whole affair a huge success. Army Chief General Bajwa, doing his own rounds across the road at the State Department and elsewhere, was clearly pleased. So was Minister Ali Amin Gandapur, Federal Minister for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the PM’s entourage. Shortly thereafter, Moeed was appointed first as Chairperson of the Strategic Policy Planning Cell in the National Security Department, a seemingly un-elevated position since the Department had little clout at the time.


Within two months, he was again elevated to a Minister of State rank, as SAPM (Special Advisor to the Prime Minister).

He proved himself capable, announcing a ‘dossier’ of wild allegations on India’s terrorist activities against Pakistan, and producing a map claiming not only Kashmir, but also parts of Junagadh and Sir Creek.

More interestingly still, it left the Ladakh China border interestingly vague. As this was during the conflict with China, the implications were clear. Then came his interview with Karan Thapar which made the interesting point that India had reached out to Pakistan through unidentified channels. That was subsequently denied by Delhi, but now it seems that Moeed was speaking the truth.


Push for Pakistan to Resolve Kashmir Issue With India

The appointment of Moeed as NSA with the status of a Federal Minister comes in the middle of a specific push on Pakistan, from various quarters, to talk to India and finish the Kashmir problem once and for all.

The most recent has been during the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia, where the Joint Statement called for a dialogue to resolve outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, ‘especially’ the Kashmir dispute.

Nothing much in hope for money was specifically promised. Notably, Foreign Minister Qureshi was not part of the delegation; after all it was he who caused the serious rift between the two countries in August 2020 when he demanded that the Saudi-led OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) respond to India’s action in Kashmir, ‘or else’.

The threat of creating a separate bloc came to nothing, and it was left to General Bajwa to hurry to Riyadh to mend relations.

The present visit is the result of some serious healing, including by his predecessor former Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, now heading the Saudi coalition force, and the Ambassador, General (retd) Bilal Akbar. Remember also that it was General Bajwa who, in March, called for a reset to “change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration,” just a month after both sides agreed on a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC). There was talk of burying the past, all of which marked a paradigm shift. Notably, the idea was already being mooted by Moeed Yusuf more than a month earlier. No problem with integration of ideas there.


Why Moeed Yusuf’s Position is Unenviable

Just weeks later, the Commerce Ministry appeared to clear the imports of sugar and cotton from India, an eminently sensible move at a time of severe economic decay . That decision was reversed almost immediately, with the prime minister then declaring that he would not hold any talks with India until it reversed its decision on Article 370. Qureshi, who has been stating anywhere and everywhere that foreign policy was his domain alone, echoed this statement, saying there were no talks with India. Then came a perplexing statement In an interview, the Foreign Minister said Kashmir was the ‘internal matter’ of India, which he quickly had to retract by going back to ground zero of negotiations in ‘UN resolutions’ and plebiscite.

All this makes one thing clear — Moeed is the man in the middle, a most unenviable position. He seems to be backing the army position to the hilt, even while he has to keep his prime minister happy.

Given that Imran Khan has the title of ‘U-Turn Man’, this can’t be easy. And he has to ensure that an egocentric foreign minister doesn’t trip over his own turf. Then there is the fact that Pakistan’s NSAs haven’t been given much rein in the past. Even retired army big wigs Lt Gen Janjua or Lt Gen Mohammad Ali Durrani haven’t been able to get much clout on their own, with one resigning and the other sacked. Both were pointsmen for talks with India.


What Moeed’s Friends Are Likely to Advise Him

But as Durrani himself admitted, the Army as a whole had also to be kept happy. And so it will remain with the new incumbent, now pushed by one and now spurned by the other. Not to mention a ‘friendly’ eye from the US via the Saudis. And the most ticklish of all.

An Indo-Pakistan dialogue will have to be held in a situation where Pakistan can ‘integrate’ Gilgit-Baltistan as a full-fledged province, the very move that it condemns in the removal of Article 370.

The UN Resolutions have to be thrown out of the window, all the while maintaining the façade that Pakistan retains its ‘principled’ stand. Moeed’s friends would advise him to run for the hills, or back to Washington.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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