Sunday, June 17, 2007

Book Review: Ayesha Siddiqa's great book on Pakistan's military economy

It is not every day that an author is forced to flee her country because of a scholarly book. But then neither is Pakistan is your usual country, nor is Ayesha Siddiqa's book dealing with a common subject. The political and administrative role of the Pakistani Army and its influence on Pakistan is no secret. Except, arguably, for the first decade of independence, the army has been a major force in Pakistan's polity , with its chiefs directly ruling the country for more than 32 of the last 60 years. What Siddiqa tells us is the Pakistani Army's economic spread. And what a spread it has become.

If a Supreme Court Chief Justice could be peremptorily dismissed because he posed a challenge to Pervez Musharraf 's plan to have himself reelected by defunct assemblies, it is not surprising that an independent scholar's book has been construed as a red rag in front of a bull.

Military Inc. is not a journalistic book. Siddiqa, a former Director of Naval Research in the Pakistani Navy, is a serious scholar, perhaps one of the best on South Asian militaries. Her first book, Pakistan's Arms Procurement and Military Build-up, 1979-99, published in 2001 has looked at the issue through the prism of Pakistan's polity dominated as , it is by a praetorian elite, and is an absolute must for any analyst of South Asian security issues.

She has led off her latest work with an extensive explication of the concept of ‘Milbus' - a neologism from combining military and business - or the "tribute drawn primarily by the officer cadre... from public and private sectors to individuals, primarily through the use of the military's influence". By definition, says Siddiqa, this is the armed forces' internal economy, which is hidden from public view. Milbus is also prevalent in countries other than Pakistan, like Indonesia and Turkey Even . China's People's Liberation Army had an extensive Milbus prior to the decision to modernise it in the mid-1990s.

Siddiqa's description of the growth of the Pakistan's Milbus is in a sense also a history of contemporary Pakistan. She has outlined the legal and extra-legal methods adopted by the Pakistani Army to develop its corporate profile and protect it against any civilian encroachment. The military is now into everything from fertiliser and sugar factories to the agro-industry banks, , insurance, transportation and cargo handling. The Milbus expanded in the Zia years (1979-1988) by providing rural and urban land to service personnel, setting up cooperatives for their benefit and allowing their subsidiaries to expand into any and every civilian sector.

Take urban land. As a point of reference Siddiqa reveals that Musharraf owns eight properties, including a 2,000 sq yard plot in Karachi, a 1,200 sq yard plot in Rawalpindi, a 900 sq yard plot in Peshawar, 50 acres of land in Bhawalpur, a 600 sq yard plot in another part of Rawalpindi, a 1,200 sq yard plot in Gwadar and a farm house in Islamabad. Not bad for the son of a refugee from Delhi. The more important point being that these have been acquired legally through processes open to any Pakistani military officer.

While such salacious details are interesting, the more important issues relating to Milbus is the cost Pakistan pays for it, and the more baleful consequences of keeping it up and running. Siddiqa has shown that by using financial data from audit reports, the military's commercial ventures such as the Army Welfare Trust, the Fauji Foundation and the Frontier Works Organisation are indeed inefficient and have needed many a government bail-out, whether the government of the day was civilian or military.

The enormous power and perks enjoyed by the armed forces make them an attractive career move - in contrast to the situation, say, in India. In that sense Milbus does benefit Pakistan by attracting high-quality officers recruits for its officer cadre. But the country's polity pays the more serious price.

Siddiqa has shown that Milbus consolidated itself during the regime of Zia ul Haq when the army made common cause with religious fundamentalists to consolidate its hold over the State and society. But she leaves open the question as to whether the rise of religious extremism and xenophobia in Pakistan in the past decade should be seen as part of the cost to be paid for Milbus, or whether there is a more direct link between the consolidation of the military corporate elite and the rise of religious extremism.

Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy Pluto Press £ 19.99, pp 292

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