Monday, June 04, 2007

Grabbing power and pelf

Grabbing power and pelf
Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa: Dawn, June 3, 2007

This is a book on Pakistan’s armed forces. It is, however, different from the books so far written on the army such as those by Stephen Cohen, Hassan Abbas, Hussain Haqqani and the latest entrant to the rank, Zahid Hussain. Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc focuses on the economic empire that has been built up by the armed forces in Pakistan. Milbus or the military economy, as the author terms it, is distinct from the defence budget. It does not fall under the ministry of defence and its profits accrue, without any accountability, to some individuals in the top echelon of the army, navy and air force.

The need to protect this capital serves as a factor in the military’s compulsion to stay in politics. It thus has hold on political power that allows it to make rules to protect the privileges of the officers’ cadre and their cronies. Thus Siddiqa clearly suggests that the chances of the revival of democracy in Pakistan are bleak. For the same reason Milbus also determines the foreign policy of the country.

Tracing the growth of the army’s political role, Siddiqa says that from 1947 till 1977 it consolidated its political clout as the ruler. In 1977-2005 the military institutionalised its political role and emerged as an independent class.

The author gives details of the army’s business capital that has grown at an enormous speed. The army welfare trust established in 1971 with an investment of Rs700,000 had grown to Rs17.45 billion in 2001. The army controls 70,000 acres of agricultural land while its subsidiaries have 35,000 acres, with individual holdings amounting to 6.8 billion acres. Of course as can be expected the ISPR has denied many of the details the author has collected from different sources — her contacts being numerous.

All this provides food for thought on the armed forces’ future role in Pakistan’s politics. Who would want to surrender his political power when it enables him to be in such a position of affluence? This expansion of the economic wealth of a number of individuals was inevitable once the armed forces stepped out of their barracks and were integrated into the economic mainstream. Given the rapid spread of corruption in Pakistan in every sector of economic and social life, the armed forces could not escape it. Since their power was absolute, the corruption was also absolute.

More research is needed to investigate the effect of Milbus on the professionalism of the forces and its impact on the restructuring of social classes in Pakistan. Ayesha Siddiqa has left this for future researchers. Perhaps she should attempt it herself. With her expertise in strategic studies and her knowledge of the armed forces, she is best qualified to do this job. As for the book Military Inc, her second one, it is not just rich in information, it also shows the author’s insight into military matters. It is a book that everyone trying to fathom the events in Pakistan should read.

EXTRACT: Milbus and military professionalism

The military’s financial autonomy is rooted in its core function of providing security against external threats. The military’s primary task, as defined by the constitution, relates to external security and assistance to civilian authorities at their request. However, using the strategic-national security prism, the military expanded its interests to all facets of the state and society, and established a certain ethos that helped the armed forces protect their own interests. This was obvious from a statement the air chief, Air Marshal Tanveer Mehmood Ahmed, made in August 2006, in which he emphasised the significance of the armed forces and strong national security. Speaking in the aftermath of Israel’s attack on Lebanon, he said:

The Lebanese prime minister was forced to cry before media because of the weak defence capability of his country and no such thing would be allowed to happen to Pakistan ... living nations used to sacrifice their resources for keeping their armed forces combat ready in peace time. Thus sacrifice was necessary and was aimed at ensuring capability to meet any external threat in the future.

Should this statement be interpreted as an indication of the air marshal’s inept diplomatic skills, or a warning to those who challenge the military’s monopolisation of the state’s resources? The military justifies Milbus as part of the indirect or larger cost borne by the society for buying national security. The various commercial ventures … and the massive urban and rural land acquisitions are presented as a cost for keeping well-trained and capable armed forces. However, there is more that can be read into the air chief’s public statement. According to Lt.-General (rtd) Talat Masood, ‘the statement should be interpreted as a message that since the country cannot survive without its armed forces or cannot stand up to the Indian threat, it must bear all costs for keeping a strong military defence’. A natural corollary of this interpretation is that the military, or those that benefit from the India-centred national security agenda, will not allow national security to be defined in any other way than as an external threat. This possibility means that the state’s imagination of itself and the region around it remains captured by a sense of insecurity from India, which in turn signifies the dominance of defence over development. The prominent Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal terms this the ‘state of martial rule’, in which the military plays a major role in ensuring the dominance of defence over development.

From a strategic standpoint, this imbalance has an impact on the professionalism of the officer cadre, which does not let itself explore the issue of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), a concept that would force them to restructure the armed forces, carry out downsizing or rightsizing, and review the military doctrine to produce a more efficient but effective military force. There are far too many interests involved for the military to be allowed to divest itself of its institutional and non-institutional economic stakes.

The impact of Milbus on the character of the military institution cannot be denied. In fact, the years of involvement of senior generals in profit-making activities had two consequences. First, the military’s echelons turned into a powerful group of capitalists who had the financial prowess to exploit the financial and other resources of the state. The senior generals … used the organisation’s influence to obtain opportunities to further their financial and political power. Second, given these economic interests backed with political power, the military institution along with its serving and retired members transformed itself into a fraternity which was gradually consolidated into an independent class. There are well-defined rules and control over entry into the class, and developed institutional mechanisms to protect its political and economic interests.

The legal and constitutional changes that were introduced by the Zia regime after the second military takeover in July 1977 were meant to strengthen the military’s political power and give it maximum autonomy, which would empower the military over all political stakeholders. The incorporation of Article 58(2)(b) in the 1973 Constitution served as a ‘fire break’ to discipline errant regimes and to protect the military core interests. The establishment of the NSC in April 2004, which is the core decision-making body, was the culmination of the drive to establish the military as an independent class that could protect its interests and negotiate political terms and conditions with other political players. The four top generals of the armed forces are members of the NSC along with nine civilians. The NSC has the power to decide on all strategic matters including the distribution of national resources.

The gradual enhancement of the military’s power has had an impact on the character of military personnel. Although senior generals like to claim that the military is not involved in politics or the economy, the fact is that the organisation’s political intervention has given the officer cadre the sense of being beyond questioning, a perception which over the years has permeated to the lower rungs of the officer cadre as well. This has resulted in a situation where the acquisition of perks and privileges is taken for granted. The housing schemes and the agricultural land, and other facilities such as subsidised electricity, water and natural gas supply to armed forces personnel, are not taken for granted. These perks are justified as part of the necessary benefits which ensure military personnel’s greater commitment to their work. Here, it is essential to narrate the story of one mid-ranking naval officer who thanked his seniors for being provided with a house on his premature retirement. The response of his senior officer was that he shouldn’t feel grateful because it was his right as a naval officer.

As far as professionalism in the armed forces is concerned, Milbus serves as a double-edged sword. The financial and other perks have increased competition in the armed forces, especially at the junior and mid-level ranks. These officers understand that the bulk of the rewards await them if they manage to perform well and get promoted to higher ranks. The door to greater opportunities opens once the officer reaches the rank of a brigadier (one-star), and completely opens up with promotion to the rank of a maj-general (two-star). However, the competition does not always follow rules. In the military’s system, which is completely controlled by the upper echelons, the will of the service chiefs and the senior officers is extremely important. In this environment, professionalism does not just depend on the acumen of an individual, but also on his ability to appease his seniors. This increases the risk of questionable decisions and is detrimental to the overall professional ethos. According to the PN’s Captain (rtd) Irfan Shehryar:

Majors and colonels and below are far more into professionalism and training. As long as they are not married, there are lesser pressures. Once they get married reality hits. Also, when they interact with the outside world their eyes open and they begin to notice the rewards. So, brigadiers and above are at risk. They interact with higher ranks and see possible economic gains. Two-star generals and above are the ones tasting power since they are part of an elite group with access to power and greater rewards. (By permission from Oxford University Press, Pakistan)

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