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An army with a country: trading honour for money

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The launch of Ayesha Siddiqa's book symbolised perfectly the effect the book is destined to have. On the morning of May 31, the exclusive Islamabad Club, where the book launch was scheduled, cancelled the function on the instructions of "unspecified authorities". No hotel in Islamabad was willing to host the function, either. Eventually, the book was released from the third-floor room of an Islamabad NGO.
As Musharraf's power wanes across Pakistan, and even former accomplices publicly denounce military rule, nothing is going to hurt Pakistan's armed forces as much as this remarkable expose of the military's venality. Siddiqa attacks the military right where it hurts "" the officers' and generals' economic interests "" and she demolishes its reputation as an honest, clean and above-board organisation. In a country like Pakistan, this book is a work of personal courage.
Military Inc is a well-timed book, and is also a diligently researched academic piece that will be on the reading list for any degree on civil-military relations. The first two chapters, a turgid 83 pages, are written for the academics, theoretically underpinning Siddiqa's fundamental thesis, which is: Pakistan's military, which has institutionally developed an economic empire across the country, will never transfer real power to the political class, because that could endanger its economic empire.
If this otherwise riveting book has a weakness, it is these initial chapters on state-society relations and the military-political interface. There is too much reliance on a quartet of well-worn thinkers "" Charles Tilly, Amos Perlmutter, Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz "" who are mandatory reading for political theory undergraduates. The failure of Siddiqa's editors to curb repetition makes this part of the book a slow-moving merry-go-round on a handful of tired horses.
The book crackles into life in Chapter 3, with a political account of how Pakistan's politicians and bureaucrats, the dominant classes at Pakistan's independence, viewed the military as a tool for furthering their own objectives, handing over to it the role of political arbiter. In this symbiotically intertwined menage à trois, the military has comprehensively infiltrated political and bureaucratic structures, while preventing those organisations from infiltrating the military.
Only after familiarising the reader comprehensively with the political context in which she writes does Siddiqa come to the meat of the book: The Pakistan military's economic empire (she dubs it Milbus, shortened from Military Business), its institutionalised status within that country, and its ongoing loot of Pakistan, which is both systematic and silent. Starting from 1954, Milbus has grown into the country's biggest conglomeration. The tri-service Fauji Foundation, the army's Army Welfare Trust (AWT), the air force's Shaheen Foundation, and the Navy's Bahria Foundation now control over 100 companies that make cement, fertilisers, cereal, and operate in the fields of IT, insurance, banking and education.
These are manned by serving and retired military officers and draw resources from the military. Siddiqa recounts how an officer, running one of the AWT's tourism companies, uses army resources to transport tourists. Army pilots, using army fuel, fly the army helicopters; the profits made by the company go into the pockets of military officers. Between military resources and officers' pocketbooks, the lines have been blurred entirely. Similarly, the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a Milbus entity set up to profit from the business of building the Karakoram Highway between Pakistan and China, uses military equipment, resources and personnel without paying a penny. The profits go into khaki pockets.
Many Milbus companies are in deep financial trouble, run by officers who know nothing about business,. What the officers do know is that the government will give bailout packages without a murmur; outstanding loans to Milbus total billions of dollars.
Already Pakistan's biggest landholder, the military, has institutionalised the colonial system of granting land, at ridiculously low prices, as favours for military service. Officers get urban plots and farmland at regular intervals up the service ladder. En route to becoming army chief, General Musharraf got eight plots, worth over $10 million (Rs 40 crore in Indian money). With new officers commissioned each year, there's an ever-increasing need for land. Vast government handouts meet that requirement, along with friendly Generals like Tauqeer Zia, who, as chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, gifted away a part of Karachi stadium, which was then plotted and sold to officers at throwaway prices.
On August 20, 2007, 240 Pakistani soldiers, including nine officers, were "kidnapped" by militants in the North West Frontier Province. In most countries, such a large armed body, surrendering without fighting, would have invited a court martial for cowardice. One needs to read Ayesha Siddiqa's book to understand why that doesn't happen in Pakistan.
Military Inc
Inside Pakistan's Military Economy
Ayesha Siddiqa
Pluto Press
Rs 1,768; 292 pages

First Published: Fri, September 07 2007. 00:00 IST