Raymond Whitaker reviews the latest edition of the book that exposed the economic empire of Pakistan’s generals
Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, Second Edition, by Ayesha Siddiqa. Published by Pluto Press, 2017, £17.99.
Ten years ago, when Ayesha Siddiqa first delved into the hidden economy of Pakistan’s military caste, she imagined, somewhat naively, that her work would attract little attention outside academic circles.
Instead, as the author says in her preface to this second edition, it ‘turned out to be like stepping on a minefield’. Despite her impeccable academic credentials, which include a PhD in War Studies from King’s College, London and a stint at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars in Washington DC, she was ‘labelled as a traitor, threatened with being tried for treason and practically hounded out of the country into temporary self-exile’.
Perhaps she should not have been surprised: her devastating analysis exposed for the first time the extent to which Pakistan’s military absorbs the country’s resources, embeds itself in business and civilian politics, and uses its control of previously-unexamined swathes of the economy to enrich the officer class, both serving and retired, as well as relatives, friends, and useful non-military allies. Since her bold airing of this once-taboo topic, no study of the role of the military in Pakistan can fail to refer to her work. It was probably prudent of Siddiqa to be abroad when her second edition came out.
‘Milbus’ is the term the author has coined for ‘military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget’. This predatory behaviour is justified by portraying the military as more efficient than civilians, more protective of the national interest than squabbling, self-serving politicians, and – because of the duty to sacrifice life in defence of the country’s territory, always claimed to be under threat from external enemies – more deserving.
Siddiqa tracks the growth of military influence in Pakistan, beginning almost as soon as the country came into existence, to the point where it is now the most powerful institution in the nation by far. The only period during which it failed to expand its activity, she believes, was during the era of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, when populist politics kept the military in check. But Bhutto failed to get the soldiers back into their barracks, at the cost of his life, and the military role in politics grew dramatically under his executioner, General Zia ul-Haq. It has never stopped growing since: from attaining equality with civilian politicians, the generals have come to dominate them. The last military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, achieved what Zia could not, the creation of a National Security Council, which has entrenched that dominance.
And in parallel with this political takeover, the author makes clear, has come the growth of Milbus. Even when military rule gave way to civilian government between 1988 and 1999, the military’s role in the economy continued to expand, venturing for the first time into banking and finance, thanks to concessions by politicians seeking to remain in favour with the generals. Companies and welfare organisations owned and run by the military caste have also become among the biggest landowners in Pakistan, perpetuating the feudalism that condemns the country to some of the worst social indicators – illiteracy, infant mortality and the like – in the world.
Along the way, Siddiqa explodes the myths deployed to justify this greed. She points out that the welfare foundations that control much of the wealth benefit the senior ranks far more than ordinary soldiers, both serving and retired, while the concentration of recruitment on certain areas of the country, and the unequal distribution of benefits that results, contribute to ethnic tensions. As for the claim that military enterprises are run more efficiently, she points to a number of businesses that have required expensive bailouts. In many cases, the creation of military monopolies has caused the collapse of profitable civilian companies.
Milbus all but eliminates the possibility that its beneficiaries would ever give up their power. As Siddiqa says, ‘Why would Pakistan’s armed forces, or for that matter any military that has developed deep economic stakes, transfer real power to the political class?’ In her second edition, she brings up to date the manner in which that power is being exercised, with a new chapter on military manipulation of the media.
The author says that the military establishment has learned how to manage its image through bribery and intimidation of journalists, and exploitation of the free-for-all among private TV channels, most of which prioritise sensationalism over journalistic standards. The military has its own radio network, has backed the production of ‘patriotic’ films and plays, and has even sought to dictate which guests should be invited on to TV discussion programmes. Meanwhile, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence’s media arm ensures that other topics, such as Milbus or the conflict in Baluchistan, are not discussed.
This is an adjunct to Siddiqa’s central point: that Pakistan’s military no longer needs to stage coups. In what she calls the shift from ‘military government’ to ‘military governance’, the generals have learned to control affairs from behind the scenes. Much was made of the fact that in 2013, for the first time since the country came into existence nearly 70 years ago, one elected civilian government succeeded another. But, says the author, ‘none of this brought about a fundamental shift in civil-military balance, or challenged Milbus in any serious way’.
Under the system that evolved over the past decade, she writes, ‘the Army GHQ controlled strategic affairs from the back seat, but allowed the civilian government to control day-to-day affairs, take responsibility for policies made by the generals and face the international community’. In tandem with a media policy that depicts the military as the embodiment and defender of the national identity, Siddiqa concludes that in the medium to long term, this means the persistence of an authoritarian political structure dominated by the armed forces. What she terms ‘soft martial law’ is here to stay.