Land of the generals

The military is all-powerful, rich beyond belief—and under pressure as never before
Adnan R. Khan

The feeling that something is not quite right is strongest on the east side of the Grand Trunk Road, the frenetic trans-Pakistani highway. On the east side, the wrong side, sweating shopkeepers languish in the heat of early summer, waiting for the electricity to come back on—a routine they’ve become accustomed to. Pakistan is suffering from its worst energy crisis in recent memory.

Most Pakistanis, meaning the poor, must make do with as little as four hours of precious power a day.

Across the GT Road, as it’s commonly called here, there’s the dull hum of generators. On the west side, the right side, is where the generals reside. Their power is absolute, irrevocable, and, unlike what the rest of Pakistani society experiences, uninterrupted. As here in Gujranwala, 70 km north of Lahore, the situation repeats itself all over Pakistan, wherever there is a military cantonment or a Defence Housing Authority—wherever, in short, the army has set itself up in its plush, gated communities. The contrast is remarkable: on one side of the sweeping gateways, palatial homes set amid neatly trimmed gardens along smooth streets; on the other, potholes and poverty.

This is one of Pakistan’s realities: since the founding of the country in 1947, its military brass has become synonymous with not only living well, but exerting its influence in every aspect of Pakistani society. And yet this most powerful of institutions is, today, under pressure as never before.

Criticism from the West over what is seen as a lacklustre response to Islamic extremism continues to mount, especially from the U.S., which since the attacks of 9/11 has given Pakistan US$18 billion in civilian and military aid. Claims that the military’s all-powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), is continuing to help the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan are further fuelling anger. Domestically, while the majority of Pakistanis struggle to survive, the military’s ostentation is fuelling discontent. As is its approach to Islamic extremists: why support some, and target others—ultimately with support from the hated U.S.—as the army did in the Swat Valley campaign in 2009? “There is a fundamental disconnect here,” says Aasim Sajjad, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies in Islamabad. “The army claims to be the protectors of Islam in Pakistan but then they receive money from the U.S. to fight fellow Muslims.”

That it is providing aid to some Islamic extremists seems clear: in a damning report released by the London School of Economics (LSE) on June 13, the ISI is again accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban, something it has for years denied doing. Unlike past allegations, though, the LSE discussion paper, authored by Matt Waldman, an Afghanistan expert at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, specifically accuses the ISI of not only tacitly supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, but of being a major player in its execution, including helping Taliban commanders with planning and logistics as well as funnelling them arms and ammunition. “The ISI orchestrates, sustains and strongly influences the [Afghan Taliban] movement,” the paper bluntly states.

That support is, in part, intended to counter the increasing influence of Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, on the government in Kabul. But at home, the Pakistani military continues to target some Islamic groups, including Pakistan’s homegrown version of the Taliban in the country’s Tribal Areas. “They’ve used the religious card when it’s been convenient for them,” Sajjad says. “Now, they’re trying to create the illusion that there are good jihadis and bad jihadis. But the basic problem is the generals’ dependence on jihad ideology as a tool of foreign policy. That hasn’t changed.”

That none of this does anything to alleviate Pakistan’s deep-rooted social problems is something the militants have learned to capitalize on, and indeed use as a powerful recruiting tool. In a recent video message released by the Pakistani Taliban, its spokesman, Tariq Azim, referred to the “unholy army” and its wilful betrayal of Pakistan’s poor. Militants regularly point to government and military corruption as a basic reason for their insurgency. “The militants have caught on,” says one foreign aid worker, requesting anonymity for fear of an army backlash. “Their arguments strike a chord with the poor and disenfranchised. To be honest, they sound like Che Guevara railing against the American-backed elites in Cuba. They’re revolutionary and it’s just too bad that they are the only ones speaking out against the injustices entrenched in the Pakistani system.”

And yet, Pakistan’s military remains largely unchecked, in a country where democracy remains weak, and where a dominant ethos persists that places the defence establishment, which has ruled the country for half of its 63-year-existence, above all other political and judicial institutions. According to Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the controversial book Military Inc., which digs into the Pakistan army’s burgeoning economic interests—a consequence of the years they have spent in power—Pakistan’s military leaders and others have internalized the perception that democracy can’t work in Pakistan, and the army is the only institution truly committed to ensuring the Pakistani interest.

“The generals genuinely believe they know better than anyone else what’s best for Pakistan,” Sajjad says. “They have become a social class unto themselves, the dominant social class in Pakistan, who possess an inordinate amount of power and money.” In Gujranwala, locals refer to the top generals, the corps commanders, as “crore” commanders—a reference to their accumulated wealth (one crore in the subcontinent is the equivalent of 10 million rupees, or $120,000). According to Siddiqa, a senior general’s net worth averages around $1.7 million.
Where is all the money coming from?

For years, Pakistan’s generals have been steadily infiltrating Pakistan’s economy. Much of their activities remain secretive, as their businesses are not subject to the same oversight as public- and private-sector enterprises. The few companies run by the military that are listed on the Karachi stock exchange—Pakistan International Airlines, for example—have performed dismally. According to Siddiqa’s research, other ventures in the steel and cement industries, sugar mills and fertilizer, to name only a few—have done equally poorly.

Still, the army has grown exceptionally fat, partly because of massive bailouts provided by the Pakistani government, at the cost of taxpayers. Siddiqa blames a lack of political will, a by-product of successive military coups, for the prevailing atmosphere of army rule in virtually every aspect of Pakistani life. Successive governments have pandered to the army’s financial appetite as a way of legitimizing their own rule. Without the army’s support, no political party can survive in Pakistan for long. “Politically, no one is willing to take on the army,” says Sajjad. “No one has the courage to confront them. But to fundamentally restructure the system, you have to confront the army.”

Ironically, it’s the war against extremism that has provided the chink in what had previously been the army’s seemingly impenetrable armour. Most Pakistanis understand the role the generals have played in stoking the fires of militancy in Pakistan, whether by creating resentment with their increasing ostentation or because of their support, past and present, for some extremist groups. Now, the increasing instability in the country and the army’s apparent difficulty in containing it is disrupting the “parent-guardian” image the military nurtured over the past few decades. To regain the people’s trust, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, admitted in a rare public apology on April 17 that an army operation in the country’s restive northwest had gone horribly wrong, resulting in “the loss of precious and innocent civilian lives.” He promised that measures would be taken to prevent any recurrence.

The thrust of the message emanating from Rawalpindi, the army’s home base near the capital Islamabad, is for people to have faith in the army. “Our troops are capable of defending every inch of the country,” Kayani was quoted as saying in April, during major military exercises—the largest in two decades—showing off the latest high-tech weaponry acquired from the U.S. as part of its reward for fighting the “war on terror.”

“I strongly believe the army is trying to regain its lost pride,” says Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, the secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, one of the country’s leading political parties. “There was a time when the people would salute the army.” That time appears to have passed, although it seems the generals themselves are having a hard time accepting it. In places like Gujranwala and elsewhere, they continue to dominate—and fuel even more resentment. Among other things, Siddiqa points out that while Pakistan “suffers from a deficit of 6.3 million houses,” forcing upwards of 20 per cent of the population to live in slums, the army continues to follow a colonial-era policy of land acquisition, doling out prime real estate to its senior officers at massively discounted rates.

Former president Pervez Musharraf, a career soldier now living in self-imposed exile in London, England, “converted US$690,000 of army-granted farmland in Islamabad into US$10.34 million of movable assets,” according to the 2008 Transparency International report on global corruption, before fleeing the country. Prime public land is often appropriated by the army for the construction of housing schemes and farming collectives that have elevated Pakistan’s officers to what can best be described as land barons.

For years, analysts have blamed the growing divide between the rich and the poor as one of the driving forces behind radicalization in Pakistan. Now, it seems, the rich are the men in khaki.