Four books about Pakistan

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Nitin Pai

In case you thought that the presidency is the only government job General Musharraf holds, you are wrong. Because, in addition to being president of Pakistan, it turns out that he is also numberdar of the village of Chak 13 BC near Bahawalpur in Punjab province. He owns real estate out there in rural Punjab, allocated to him in the proper tradition of the Pakistan army.

Numberdars are rural bigwigs appointed by the state to collect water taxes and land revenue. The numberdar is not paid by the government, but the office wields tremendous political clout in the village. In any case, he’s in good company—General Mohammed Aziz Khan, Brigadier Ejaz Shah, Lieutenant-General Moinuddeen Haider and Lieutenant-General Shahid Pervez, all farmers since retiring from the army—are numberdars in nearby villages.

This nugget comes from Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, a diligent study of the political-economic edifice that is the Pakistani military establishment. From cornflakes to trucking, from farms (complete with serfs) to real-estate development, the Pakistani military establishment is a dominant feature of the Pakistani economy. But it is hard to understand why the Musharraf regime banned the book, and forced its author to flee the country: there is nothing in the book that is unknown to most observers of Pakistan (and certainly not Pakistanis themselves). Moreover, it is written in English, in academic style, which would hardly make it a popular bestseller in Pakistan.

As a documentation of the Pakistani armed forces’ business activities, Dr Siddiqa’s book is unrivalled, and has become indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the Pakistani establishment. But Dr Siddiqa need not have set it in an academic framework of a comparative study of military establishments and their commercial activities. The framework is useful, but distracts attention from what really is a book about the Pakistani military establishment. However, you can skip these bits and jump right into the main course. What is missing from the book—and something that one hopes the author will include in the next edition of this excellent book—is a prescription of how Pakistan might attempt to dismantle the “MilBus”. Now that Pakistan has a semblance of a democratic government, the issue of how to re-balance the civil-military relationship, in economic aspects as much as in politics, is of great importance. There are a number of critical questions in this regard. For instance, can the military establishment be allowed to retain its corporate interests as the price for vacating the corridors of power? Or, is it necessary to dilute its hold over economic power before its political power can be weakened? How should Pakistan’s donors adapt their aid policies?