On August 17, 1988 an American built C-130 Hercules transport plane nosedived into the Pakistani desert and exploded into flames. Before it plunged into the ground witnesses on the ground noticed the plane lurching violently in midair. The plane was carrying the Pakistani Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, other senior Pakistani generals, and the American ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel. The group had just taken off from a nearby airport after attending a demonstration of an American Abrams tank. After Zia-ul-Haq blew up under mysterious circumstances, Benazir Bhutto came to power as Pakistan’s first female prime minister after the first open elections in more than a decade.
Nearly a decade earlier, Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged on April 4, 1979 on dubious charges of corruption and for authorizing the murder of a political opponent. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been the prime minister of Pakistan until General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew him in a coup in 1977. Two years earlier Bhutto had fired the army chief General Tikka Khan and replaced him with Zia-ul-Haq, passing over five other generals senior to Zia.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto himself had usurped the leadership of Pakistan, after failing to win a majority in the parliamentary elections, in 1971 by cutting a deal with another military ruler of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan. That agreement with the General ensured that Bhutto would preside over the disintegration of Pakistan that lead to an independent Bangladesh.
Two years after the daughter, Benazir Bhutto, came to power she lost the prime ministership to Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of blown-up military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. In 1998, Nawaz Sharif in his infinite wisdom decided to replace his army chief with General Pervez Musharraf. In 1999 Nawaz Sharif tried to fire Musharraf and refused landing rights in Karachi to the plane carrying Musharraf. This time, however, the General’s plane did not blow up. Instead the Pakistan military overthrew Sharif and installed Musharraf as the latest military dictator to run Pakistan. Sharif was accused and convicted of corruption and dispatched to Saudi Arabia in short order.
Lately the duo of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have been making noises of returning to power in Pakistan as General Musharraf’s grip on power has begun to wane. Last week Nawaz Sharif set the world record for return to exile after he was swiftly dispatched back into exile upon his much anticipated return to Pakistan. Sharif failed to do the necessary groundwork before his return. Bhutto, on the other hand, has learned from her father well. She is busy cutting a deal with General Musharraf that will facilitate her return to power in Pakistan. There is very little doubt that the generals will install her as a civilian prime minister while Musharraf moves into a revamped role as the President.
The United States, and the West, will declare that "democracy" has returned to Pakistan. Meanwhile Pakistan will continue to be ruled by the generals, as it has been, either directly or indirectly, for most of its history. The one constant in Pakistani politics has been the military – they have either installed or deposed corrupt civilian leaders as they saw fit. The goal has always been to further the Milbus.
Last week on NPR former CIA analyst Michael Sheuer referred to the Pakistani military as the "one institution in Pakistan that works". He referred to the civilian leadership in Pakistan as "kleptomaniacal" and accused the Bush administration of undermining "our best ally" in the region. He said that "when civilians are in power in Pakistan what you hear mostly is the flow of funds into their private accounts." Michael Sheuer is half right. He is right that the civilian political leaders in Pakistan are corrupt. What he fails to mention is that the Pakistani military is even more corrupt and has grown into a state within a state that lives to consolidate its business interests as much as it exists to defend Pakistan. Even ignoring the Pakistan military’s misguided notion of "strategic depth" that leads it to nurture the Taliban in the west and Islamist militants in the east, the Pakistan military’s lust for business is what makes it a rogue state.
The Pakistan military is more than an armed force – it is a business conglomerate. In the groundbreaking book, Military Inc., Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa takes a closer look at what it is the United States government has been funding for more than 50 years. The military businesses, known as Milbus, goes well beyond any notion of national security:
CORNFLAKES, cinemas, bakeries, petrol stations, insurance companies and an airline—these are but a few of the business interests that Pakistan’s generals, who have ruled the country for most of its history, have accrued. In a pioneering investigation, Ayesha Siddiqa, a tenacious Pakistani, estimates that the armed forces have gathered private assets worth $10 billion.
Ms Siddiqa defines military business as any capital appropriated by soldiers outside the defence budget. It includes five welfare foundations, two of them, the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, being Pakistan’s biggest conglomerates. These control thousands of companies, ostensibly to finance education and health care for military families. The foundations have a virtual monopoly on sectors including road-building and cement production; Ms Siddiqa estimates that they control one third of Pakistan’s heavy manufacturing.
Senior officers cite army welfare as justification for this empire with the same monotony as they cite national security to justify their coups. Ms Siddiqa suggests that the economic interests of a greedy military elite, mostly recruited from just three districts of Punjab, in fact goes a long way to explaining both.
Another of their justifications is that soldiers make more efficient managers than civilians. To this effect, President Pervez Musharraf, the current ruling general, recently praised the army’s contribution to Pakistan’s economy. But this seems to be as wrong as the notion that soldiers make better rulers than civilians. According to Ms Siddiqa, many, if not most, military businesses operate at a loss. To keep them afloat, the government has had to make bail-outs amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
It is a business empire that leads to millionaire generals and a poor population. The military controls or influences every sphere of civil administration and business in Pakistan. The Milbus has accelarated under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf:
That man, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president, has been Pakistan’s leader for almost eight years. In that time, the nuclear-armed military has quietly exerted its influence over nearly every segment of Pakistani society.
Active-duty or retired officers now occupy most key government jobs, including posts in education, agriculture and medicine that have little to do with defense. The military also dominates the corporate world; it reportedly runs a $20 billion portfolio of businesses from banks to real estate developers to bakeries. And everywhere lurks the hand of the feared military-led intelligence services.
It’s by the side of the road, where men in orange jumpsuits labor for a military-run foundation that controls a huge share of the nation’s construction industry. It’s also present up and down the ranks of the civilian bureaucracy, where government workers answer to retired military men and complain that loyalty is consistently rewarded over hard work or competence.
It is this Milbus that the Bush Administration funds to the tune of $2 billion a year.
Yet, the Bush Administration pays lip service to "free and fair" elections in Pakistan. Last month at a hearing in front of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs Depute Assistant Secretary for South Asia John Gastright delivered cringe-worthy testimony outlining the Bush administration’s support for Musharraf and his march toward "democracy":
The remainder of 2007 presents challenges and opportunities to accomplish fundamental tasks essential to achieving our long-term goals in Pakistan. This year will help determine whether Pakistan makes a successful transition to a democratically elected, civilian government, and we intend to assist President Musharraf to fulfill his commitment to this goal. We believe that Pakistan must transition to civilian democracy and we are backing the Pakistani government’s efforts to make that transition. Civilian democratic rule will allow the Pakistani military to focus on its primary job of providing security for the people of Pakistan and ensuring that Pakistan fulfills its international obligations to combat terrorism and violent extremism. I believe we have a good plan in place to work with Pakistan on all of these fronts. The challenge is to maintain the right balance and implement the plan quickly and effectively.
Nowhere in the testimony was there discussion of rolling back the Pakistan military’s hold on all business in Pakistan. Talking about "democracy" while ignoring the Milbus is naive. Until the Milbus in Pakistan is directly addressed, the United States will continue to fund this state within a state, at the expense of true democracy. In doing so, it will achieve neither democracy nor stability. The farce of "democracy" will continue in Pakistan and the next generation of civilian frontmen will do the bidding of the Pakistan military. More generals will get blown up and more civilian front men will be hanged or exiled while the military gets richer and more corrupt.