Pakistan Army and the Milbus in Defining Foreign and Defence Policy
Pakistan’s military has expanded its tentacles across so many businesses, it has become a parallel economy in itself. Ayesha Siddiqa has termed it “milbus” which refers to “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget”.
Pakistan’s military remains the most modern and powerful military power in the Muslim world. Islamabad remains the sole Islamic nuclear power and the world’s sixth-largest military in terms of active troops. The three military services are dominated by the Pakistan Army who’re known as the “Fauj” in general parlance. The Pakistan army, just like its eastern counterpart, i.e. the Indian Army was part of the erstwhile British Indian Army; and came into existence after the end of the British Raj and the subsequent independence of the two states.
Pakistan’s polity has been dominated by the military since its inception, as it has remained under the military rule for most of the time since Independence. One of the chief reasons for military’s dominance in the polity and control over civilian institutions can be traced back to the partition when the Pakistani state comprised of about 21 percent of British India’s population but owing to the British ‘Martial Race’ policy it provided about one-third of the armed personnel in the British Indian armed forces. Post partition, the Pakistani state received 30 percent of the British Indian army and thus the seeds of military domination in the future over civilian affairs and polity were sown. The fact that 75 percent of Pakistan’s first budget in 1948 was spent upon the salaries and upkeep of the newly formed armed forces is a testament to the same. Pakistan Army’s interference and control over the civilian sphere can also be attributed to its failed state-building process. Weak civilian leadership during its nascent years, coupled with the perceived threat from a behemoth next-door – India, further strengthened the role of the military in Pakistan’s polity.
The Fauj, foreign policy and the defence policy
The Fauj exercises its control over Islamabad’s foreign policy towards its neighbours in all directions, specifically India, Iran, and Afghanistan. Other than these, relations with the United States and China are also influenced by the military. Since the formation of Pakistan, Afghanistan has remained a thorn in its side as it did not recognise the Durand Line which remains as the frontier between the two nations and divides the Pashtuns who live on both sides of the same. The soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the war on terror helped Pakistan gain ground in Afghanistan, as its co-ordination and aid to the Taliban helped it gain the much-needed strategic depth it always desired. Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan thus reflects the interests of the military as the Pakistani state strives to ensure a favourable government in power in Kabul and ward off any Indian influence. To achieve this greater strategic depth and influence, Pakistan has backed ex CEO Abdullah Abdullah who heads the HCNR and indirectly ensures Pakistan’s interests in the intra-Afghan talks.
Pakistan’s bilateral relations with India are heavily influenced by the Fauj, as it ensures there is no “strategic shift” or reset in cross border relations. Multiple attempts to achieve peace by civilian governments in Pakistan have been sabotaged by the military, as incidents like Kargil, Parliament attacks, 26/11 and the attack on Pathankot airbase have all taken place when there was a thaw in the relations between India and Pakistan. These attacks send bilateral relations into a downward spiral and nullify any progress made by civilian governments to achieve peace. And though on the face of it, it may look like the foreign office forms the foreign policy towards India, it is the military that forms the same. One important anecdote can be found in Sartaz Aziz’s 2009 book “Between Dreams and Realities: some Milestones in Pakistan’s History” where he accepts that General Musharraf met with him before and after his visit to India as the foreign minister to ensure that he does not concedes Pakistani captured forward positions. Hence, the civilian foreign minister went to India to defuse tensions, but with his hands tied. The Fauj thrives on antagonism and nuclear brinksmanship with India, as perceiving India as a threat helps it fill its coffers by increasing the military budgets and gaining even more influence in the civilian sphere. This threat perception and propaganda over the years has been counterproductive to the Pakistani state-building and Institution-building process as it has helped foster a belief in the masses that the army is much more efficient and professional than the corrupt civilian politicians in the nation. A weak and corrupt civilian leadership over the years has actually resulted in solidifying their belief in military leadership and thus helped in co-opting them into military rule.
Pakistan walks a tightrope between its relations with the US and China. While the nation remains one of the largest receivers of coalition support fund (CSF), it has been facing sanctions since 2018 regarding its failure to control the Taliban. The recent progress in the Afghan peace process can be attributed to the Trump administration’s pressure to bring Taliban to the negotiating table. The Fauj has been heavily involved in ensuring Pakistan’s strategic depth remains to post the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan and the ailing Pakistani economy gets a breather and has thus ensured the Taliban comes to the negotiating table with the US. Relations with the Chinese help the military gain access to the Chinese weaponry and technology which they cannot get from the US due to the sanctions, and also works as a counterweight to India. Chinese projects like the CPEC and Gwadar port development under the BRI have a strategic dimension too, even when the Chinese continue to deny it. The Fauj has made every effort to secure the same and is in the process of raising a divisional Headquarter of its 44 light infantry in Gwadar to provide security to the port as well as other projects under the CPEC. Chinese plausible deniability regarding the military usage of the port actually helps the Fauj to balance the perceived threat from India, while gaining economically from the projects as it involves many companies controlled by the Fauj or retired military personnel.
Military and the economy
The Fauj, unlike militaries globally, has not constrained itself to the security realm and has expanded into a full-fledged corporate as it controls a number of large conglomerates which employ serving as well as retired military personnel. These were initially meant to provide welfare facilities to the retired military personnel, but have lately become equivalents of the Bonyads in Iran, and serve the economic interests of the Fauj and its serving and retired elite. Officers retiring from the Fauj can expect huge swaths of fertile land or appointment into the management of a military-controlled firm or into the civilian government. The military has expanded its tentacles across so many businesses, it has become a parallel economy in itself. Ayesha Siddiqa has termed it “milbus” which refers to “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget”. The Fauji Foundation is one such conglomerate. Headquartered in Rawalpindi, it employs thousands of military personnel and controls various sugar mills, natural gas companies, fertilizer and cement, plastics, corn and cereal, and provides healthcare facilities too. It is valued at billions of dollars, but its revenues are not part of the defence budget.
Similarly, the Bahria Foundation, controlled by the navy is involved in various commercial real estate and housing ventures. Coupled with several schools and colleges under its banner. Bahria towns located all across Pakistan is one such example of the milbus Ayesha Siddiqa talks about in her book “Military Inc.” Askari group of companies is another such conglomerate which is controlled by the Pakistan Army and the Fauji Foundation and is involved in more than 15 businesses which include banking, insurance services, real estate and aviation.
Failed land reform in the Islamic republic has also resulted in the Fauj embracing feudal tendencies, as thousands of farmers had to cede their land rights to the army which controls these farms and employs the farmers as contract labour. The 2004 unrest in Okara, Punjab is a testament to the Fauj’s feudal tendencies as it brutally tortured the farmers, suppressed the uprising and forced them to sign unfavourable tenancy contracts.
The days of martial law and official military rule in Pakistan are gone, and it is highly unlikely that a military coup will happen in the near future in the Islamic Republic, as in the words of Hussain Haqqani- “The Pak Army has perfected the art of non-coup coup.” Retired and serving military personnel are now being given more and more civilian posts. Air Marshall Arshad Malik was selected to head the nation’s flag carrier- Pakistan International Airlines in 2018 and faced protests and criticism after the May 22 crash of flight PK803. Various federal ministers with links to the military service in the civilian cabinet too. General Asim Saleem Bajwa who headed ISPR in the past was recently appointed as the special assistant to the PM on Information. Further, Lt. General Hamood-uz-Zamaan Khan heads and oversees the implementation of Imran Khan’s COVID-19 policy. Thus, Pakistani military’s control over the state institutions has actually solidified even more under this hybrid martial rule, as it is now able to safeguard all its strategic and economic interests under the garb of the civilian leadership. The role of the Fauj in electoral politics is already well known and its backing to the current government is evident from the disarray in the opposition, as most of their leaders are jailed or facing trials, coupled with the retired generals which are airdropped in Imran Khan’s cabinet and continue to exercise control over Islamabad’s foreign and defence policy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team