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EFSAS Commentary

The Military's overbearing shadow over Pakistan


The perception that the era of Military interventions in Pakistan has ended, particularly after the first-ever transfer of power to another civilian set-up in the wake of the 2013 general elections, has proved to be an illusion. It is not just that Military interference in matters of governance continues to be a reality, rather the Military has gone far beyond the traditional realms of national security and foreign policy and strengthened its hold over other aspects of State rule, including finance, commerce, interior, railways, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and even media management. In the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government this is a glaring fact; The composition of the Federal Cabinet bears witness to this, as most of the key portfolios of Finance, Interior, Commerce, Defense Production, Railways and Institutional Reforms are held by individuals with established links to the Military.

Amidst increasing strains in relationship between the Government and mainstream media, particularly following the incarceration of media baron Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman of GEO/Jung Group and the government’s inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Information & Broadcasting Firdaus Ashiq Awan, a civilian nominee of the Military, was replaced with Lt. Gen. (Rtd.) Asim Saleem Bajwa. A former Director General (DG) Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), the Military’s media wing, Bajwa’s induction into the federal ministry signifies the thirst of the Military to control the Government’s public narrative and information management in the prevailing uncertain times. The Military is already controlling the strategic projects under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the stewardship of Lt. Gen. Bajwa as Chairman of the CPEC Authority. Federal Ministers linked to the Military are Finance Advisor Abdul Hafeez Sheikh; Interior Minister Brig. Ijaz Shah; Advisor on Commerce Abdul Razak Dawood; Minister Defence Production Minister Zubaida Jalal; Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid; and Advisor on Institutional Reforms Ishrat Hussain.

The Military’s spreading tentacles in governance are evident in normal administrative decisions as well on whether to impose selective restrictions to maintain social distancing or to go for a complete lockdown to check the spread of the Coronavirus. After Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s dithering on a lockdown on grounds of economic fallout, the Military went ahead and announced a lockdown as well as the creation of the National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), under Lt. Gen. Hamood-uz-Zaman Khan, to oversee the implementation of COVID-19 policy, turning Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar into just a figurehead in the NCOC.

Of the four provinces in Pakistan, Punjab and Balochistan, with largest population and rich mineral resources, respectively, had ex-military personnel as their Chief Secretaries. In fact the Chief Secretary of Balochistan, Fazeel Asghar is a retired Captain and the Chief Secretary of Punjab till last month, Maj. (Rtd.) Azam Suleman Khan was the aides-de-camp (ADC) to former DG Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. General Hameed Gul. Azam Khan was removed from the post of Chief Secretary after the investigation report into the sugar scam became public. The incumbent Chief Secretary of the territory of Gilgit Baltistan, part of the erstwhile Princely State of J&K, Mohammad Khurram Agha is also a retired Captain of the Pakistan Army.

Continuing this policy, the Federal Government recently appointed two military officers, Major Gen. (Rtd.) Amer Aslam Khan and Brig. Nasir Manzoor Malik, as Deputy Chairman and Executive Director (Administration), respectively, in the “Naya Pakistan Housing and Development Authority” (NAPHDA), the much vaunted project of PM Imran Khan to provide 5 million low-cost housing units for poor Pakistanis, as part of his social welfare agenda. Retired military officers head important agencies and Stated-owned Enterprises like Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA); National Highways Authority (NHA); Sui Southern Gas Company Ltd. (SSGCL); Frontier Works Organisation (FWO); Karachi Port Trust (KPT); and the Port Qasim Authority (PQA). This underlines the inroads the Military has made into the functioning of the Government.

Apart from that, Pakistan is arguably the only country in the world, in which the jurisdiction of its armed forces is not restricted to guard its people and borders but includes involvement in business ventures. The Army ferociously safeguards its businesses, benefits and non-military interests, while not all of them are necessarily profitable. The army business enterprises in Pakistan were initially started for the welfare of retired army staff, which operated the business enterprises leaving a small quota for the Navy and Air Force. Later these two branches started off their own businesses, and these vast enterprises have grown to huge proportions ever since. Some of these businesses are, The Fauji Foundation, which runs projects which include sugar mills, cereal and corn, natural gas, plastics, fertilizers, cement, power, education and healthcare. The Fauji Foundation employs six to seven thousand military personnel, mostly in middle and upper management positions and as per verified foreign sources, it is worth a little more than $20 billion; The Army Welfare Trust (AWT) which includes projects like farms, stud farms, fish farms, rice and sugar mills, cement factories, pharmaceuticals, shoes, wool, hosiery, travel agencies, aviation, commercial complexes, banking, insurance and security, with many bearing the name ‘Askari’ (meaning ‘Soldier’); Askari Aviation, which was merely set up to accommodate retired army helicopter pilots who could not get a job in the private sector; The Shaheen Foundation, works in different sectors ranging from education to aviation. The business units like Shaheen Airport Service (SAPS), knitwear, aero-traders and SAPS Aviation College run under this foundation in cities like Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar; Bahria Foundation, owned by the Navy and deals in commercial complexes, trading, construction, travel agencies, paints, deep sea fishing, dredging, ship breaking, salvage and also operates a university; Defence Housing Authorities (DHAs), of which there are in total eight established in the major cities of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi-Islamabad, Multan, Gujranwala, Bahawalpur, Peshawar and Quetta.

These business units survive on government subsidies and grants; competition is scared off by military threats, and the senior employees benefit from high salary packages, with no room for accountability or scrutiny. The economic interests of the Pakistani Army in the country as well as its huge clout over the civil administration are the reasons why it is euphemistically referred to a "parallel State".

Recent media reports have indicated that former DG ISI, Lt. General Pasha will replace Imran Ismail, an Imran Khan acolyte, as Governor of Sindh. These reports assumed importance in view of reported efforts by the PTI government to undo the 18th Constitutional Amendment passed in 2010 that grants greater autonomy and more financial resources to provinces. The Military is vying for more budgetary resources and is therefore against the 18th Amendment. Support of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will be crucial in any future move to tinker with the 18th Amendment and the reports about a former DG ISI being appointed as Governor of the PPP-ruled province must be viewed in this context.      

Playing with politics in last seven decades of Pakistan’s existence, the Military has perfected itself in political wheeling and dealing which was amply exhibited in the Military’s role in political engineering in Balochistan that prevented Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) from becoming the majority party in the upper house of the Parliament after the March 2018 Senate elections, the election in which Sadiq Sanjarani, became the Senate Chairman from nowhere. The emergence of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), a creation of Lt. General Asim Bajwa while he was GOC Sothern Command in Quetta, as a new political force in Quetta, again, to undermine the PML(N) and help the PTI emerge victorious in the 2018 parliamentary elections following the mysterious malfunctioning of the Result Transmission System (RTS), catapulted Imran Khan into Office. Interestingly, Army personnel had been deployed inside polling booths to provide security during the voting. The swiftness with which the Military has got the bill, legitimizing the extension in tenure of the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS), passed in both the houses of the Parliament in January this year, and that too with the support of opposition parties like the PPP and the PML-N, speaks volumes of its influence and ability at political manipulations.

These developments also suggest that the Military is aware that Imran Khan has no political vision and is a compulsive and indecisive leader. The Military and Imran Khan are on the same page so far because neither has the option of either going alone or opting for another collaborator to continue in governance.

In such circumstances, the Military would wait for a popular reaction on a critical issue such as security, shortages, price hike, medical crisis, etc. that would require change, and as always, it will justify it under the pretext of “national interest”.