Saturday, March 29, 2008

What makes army such an important political factor in Pakistan?

Columnist Posts: U Mahesh Prabhu

What makes army such an important political factor in Pakistan?
- U Mahesh Prabhu

With the elections over and Nawaz-Zardari joining hands together to form the government, people in Pakistan and around the world might be of the impression that Pakistan's military is out of the scene, as if obvious. But, we can only wish.

Looking at the history of the Islamic Republic it is evident that army is the most important political actor in Pakistan, even without being a formal political party it can influence or manipulate most things in the country: from managing its nuclear weapons programme to conducting census.

It might come as a surprise, for many, to know that from the areas as disparate as running businesses to finding ghost schools, the army is the ubiquitous face of Pakistan's government. Besides it also builds roads and fights insurgencies; less important to say that its membership is superior to any exclusive club. From one phase of a military regime to another, the army has ever taken care of itself.

Given the failing of other institutions, even civilian governments have taken recourse to using the military to get their jobs done. In the process, of course, they have succeeded in further undermining Pakistan's already weak civilian institutions.

Since the end of the 1980s, Pakistan has been running a comparatively low-cost war against India by backing militants in Jammu & Kashmir. At the same time, it saw no contradiction in running the massive Fauji Foundation, said to be the 'Largest private sector employer in Pakistan.' In its scheme of things, a Jihad in Kashmir and the Fauji Foundation can, and did, happily co-exist.

Success, be it material or otherwise, was something the military establishment in the nation has aimed for without minding the means to achieve it. The Annual Report of the Foundation would make you to realize how far the Army had gone in controlling the nation and stakes it had in the economic stability of Pakistan.

The Fauji Foundation is at the heart of the military's economic machine. With an annual turnover of more than $500 million and profits of $41 million, Fauji provides womb-to-tomb benefits for more than 8.5 million ex-military men and their dependents. Retired servicemen get preferential hiring for the 10,000 jobs at the foundation's wholly owned companies. Thousands more find work at Fauji subsidiaries, while top management jobs are reserved for retired generals… Just how big a slice of the economic pie the military controls remains a well-guarded secret, but it's safe to say it is by far the single biggest player. Fauji Fertilizer companies in 2000, earning $44 million on sales of $170 million. Outside of the Fauji network, Askari Commercial Bank, controlled by the Army Welfare Trust (AWT), is the country's largest private bank in terms of assets and profits. Military companies enjoy access to prime real estate, easy bank credit, and tax breaks, and routinely beat out civilian companies in bidding for contracts.
Started in 1947 with a $3.6 million endowment from the departing British colonial administration to provide for the needs of World War II widows and their families, the Fauji Foundation remained a modest institution until the late 1970s, when it started expanding aggressively. Using money made by its 20 companies, the foundation spends $18 million a year running some of Pakistan's best hospitals and schools.

Owen Bennet Jones, in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, asserts that the asset of the Pakistan Army is at nearly $2 billion. Former BBC Correspondent, Jones, has argued that the army's economic operation were profitable to such an extent because they could obtain both tax breaks and subsidies.

The army, thus well networked and, over the years, has perfected the job of protecting its institutional interests. Even as it allowed a civilian fa├žade of government since 1988, it retained the clout to influence decision making on key domestic issues or when it came to overseeing Islamabad's India policy.

The aforesaid are an iota of information about the strengths of the Pakistan Army, in economic areas, that which makes it the most power establishment by itself, and also strengthens it to rise against the civilian government, as and when needed.

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