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Pakistan: Armed With Power, Perks, And Privileges

The Pakistani military is a pervasive presence in the country, wielding huge political influence and economic clout.
The Pakistani military is a pervasive presence in the country, wielding huge political influence and economic clout.
It has been a turbulent month for the Pakistani military.

First came the May 2 killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, on Pakistani soil, by American commandos. The raid led to questions of how the Al-Qaeda leader could find a safe haven alongside Pakistan's elite military training academy, and how such a raid could be successfully carried out unbeknownst to the armed forces.

Then came the deadly insurgent attack on a naval base in Karachi on May 22-23, which took 16 hours to contain and which resulted in the death of at least 10 military personnel and four militants. Eyebrows were raised over how the armed services could fail to protect a key military installation.

Capping off the month was the kidnapping on May 29 of journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. His abduction in the capital came shortly after he had written an investigative piece alleging that the Karachi attack stemmed from a breakdown in secret negotiations between the navy and Al-Qaeda.

There have been allegations that journalist Syed Salim Shahzad was tortured and killed by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency.
Days after Shahzad warned that he had received threats because of his report, his tortured body was discovered far from the capital. Suspicions turned toward the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, considered an integral part of what Pakistanis refer to as the "military establishment."

Human rights campaigners and journalists are clamoring for investigations into Shahzad's death as well as reports he had been threatened by the ISI, which the intelligence agency denies.

An Old Debate Rekindled

It is far from open season on the military, which takes the lion's share of foreign aid, possesses enormous wealth, and has dominated political and economic life in Pakistan for decades.

But lawmakers, the media, and the public have now become emboldened enough to rekindle an old debate about the considerable perks and privileges enjoyed by the country's powerful military.

Why, they ask, are immense resources being used to prop up bloated security institutions while a growing and impoverished population is left wanting?

The grumbling can be expected to get louder in the coming days.

"There are a lot of questions about where the resources are going," says Islamabad-based author and journalist Zahid Hussain, who asks "whether the huge military budgets are properly utilized?

"There are also questions about the…military's own professionalism," he says. "Professionalism in dealing with this kind of situation. Particularly, there are questions about the army running other businesses and not concentrating on their professional duties."

These are the type of questions that Hussain has suffered personally for asking in the past.

In a 2002 article for "Newsweek" magazine, he documented how the Pakistani military had carved out a corporate and real-estate empire that gave the then-ruling generals enormous wealth, power, and advantages.

'Military Generals Play Golf All The Time'

In response, Hussain was banned for years from covering the press conferences of President General Pervez Musharraf, who held office from 1999-2008.

Others have suffered more for going against the grain in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation, which has been ruled by military dictators -- Musharraf being the last -- for more than 30 of the years since its founding in 1947.

Sixty-year-old Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir has spent most of her life campaigning for the rights of religious minorities and landless farm workers effectively bound to a life of modern-day slavery.

Her work has placed her in direct opposition to the military's dominance of the Pakistan's decision-making process. For this she has been imprisoned and placed under house arrest.

Peaceful demonstrations she has orchestrated have been met with harsh police violence, and her family's businesses have suffered as her patriotism has been questioned.

Pakistani lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir, has been one of the military's fiercest critics.
Nevertheless, Jahangir continues to be one of the most vocal public voices questioning the perks enjoyed by the military.

"These military generals play golf all the time," she said on a popular night-time talk show on May 26. "And then they talk about where they will get plots [of land]. Please tell me how a marriage hall can operate in a sensitive [military] installation such as the [naval base] that was attacked in Karachi recently. Have you heard this happening anywhere else?"

An Immense Economic Machine

Jahangir's comments have attracted angry press statements and letters to the editor from former senior military officers, as have more subdued criticisms lodged on other TV talk shows and newspaper columns.

It will take a lot more than public questioning to put a dent in the military's immense economic machine, however.

Under the country's annual budget released on June 3, the military gets a major slice of the pie -- about 25 percent. Healthcare and education, by contrast, receive only a sliver -- less than 5 percent combined.

Of the $20 billion Pakistan has received from Washington since 2001, most has ended up in military coffers.

According to Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the military's economic empire holds more than $10 billion in assets, including nearly 5 million hectares of land.

Armed soldiers patrol past a bombed-out police station in Peshawar. Despite spending massively on military security, one analyst says Pakistan "has never been as insecure as it is today."

His 2007 book, "Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy" is considered an expose of the military's rising economic clout which, the book argues, is built on the back of political dominance.

Siddiqa, who once served as the director of research for the Pakistan Navy, says that the military's economic tentacles "have a huge hold" and extend to all the major sectors of the economy -- agriculture, manufacturing, and services.

"They are one of the major stakeholders in the country's economy," she says "And from an institutional perspective, I think, they would be the largest."

Time For The Military To Change Focus?

Former military General Talat Masood, now an influential Pakistani defense analyst, says that despite committing massive resources to security, Pakistan "has never been as insecure as it is today."

He says that people are asking fundamental questions about how the civilian government can be held accountable when the military controls foreign and defense policies.

The octogenarian Masood, who retired from the military two decades ago, says the latest security failures have negated the military's recent success in transforming its image, when it had built on successful operations against extremists in recent years, and had been praised for rescuing survivors and providing aid after historic floods in the summer of 2010.

The real question now is whether the recent scrutiny can help bring about a shift in public opinion that can force the current military leadership to adjust its focus.

For decades, Islamabad amassed nuclear and conventional arms to confront its arch enemy India, while turning a blind eye to domestic extremists.

Masood hopes that is about to change.

"These recent events have put a floodlight on the contradictions," he says. "Perhaps people are thinking that there is too much of a focus on the eastern front [with India], not realizing that today the real threat is internal."

Ayesha Siddiqa, however, remains skeptical about any change occurring in the military's mindset and she doubts whether it can change course or relinquish its grip on power and influence.

"They got into economic interest because of political power," she says. "Now because of these economic interests, they don't want to get out of political power. So there is no soul searching -- there is no space for soul searching."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He also writes the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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