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If other sectors of national life are stagnating, one by the grace of Allah is flourishing: the assembly line which produces the military's higher officers. This year, to no one's surprise, 27 brigadiers - including three from the Army Medical Corps - have been approved for promotion to the rank of major general. Last year 22 entered this charmed circle. Of glistening hardware we may have a shortage but of potential Napoleons we obviously have none.

Once upon a time (how long ago it seems) generals were a rarity in the Pakistan army, figures of awe and not a little mystique. Nowadays, as the long line of cars streaming out of General Headquarters in Rawalpindi at close of day so eloquently testifies, they are close to becoming a demographic wonder. How many are they in all?

Of four-star generals, the heaviest artillery going, the Pakistan army has three: the Chief himself, Gen Aziz and Gen Yousaf. Lieutenant generals, over 25 (at last count 29, including several doctors). Major generals, over a hundred. No doubt some retire but like the national birthrate is more than the economic growth rate, promotions outstrip retirements.

Moreover, since soldiers never die, and in Pakistan they do not even fade away, a general's retirement does not mean his being put out to grass. A hundred sinecures ensure his profitable re-employment. A look into the masonic underworld of retired generals holding grimly on to top positions in government and semi-government organizations would make a fascinating subject for a doctoral thesis.

Of course a large body of troops requires an adequate number of commanders. If my counting is correct we have 14 armoured brigades and 19 infantry divisions. Which makes for a large army. Even so, a hundred and twenty generals of all stripes would beggar any military force, no matter how large. How many generals did Hitler have? How many the Red Army? Proportion-wise I am sure we beat both these examples hollow.

The air force and navy do not lag behind in this respect. At one time the air force was happy with one air marshal (Asghar Khan) and Pakistan Airlines with another (Nur Khan). In Ayub Khan's time the navy got by with a rear admiral (A. R. Khan). Nowadays getting an accurate count of all the air marshals, air vice marshals, admirals and rear admirals strutting about in uniform would qualify as a major undertaking.

Real command positions being few, it is no wonder if more and more senior officers on the active list are looking for lucrative jobs in other government organizations. For the past three years Wapda is being run by what is virtually a corps formation. The boss is a lieut gen (a genial and helpful man but that is beside the point). The various sectors are under the command of brigadiers. Ogdc is the same--serving officers filling the most important jobs. Indeed serving and retired military officers are everywhere including the Federal Public Service Commission and the Punjab Public Service Commission, both headed by retired military officers. The Railways have not been spared. Nor the hapless Post Office, one of the last remaining success stories of Pakistan, which has passed into the care of a retired maj gen.

Even the fresh list of major generals makes for instructive reading. Of the 15 who have so far received posting orders, nearly half have got command appointments in the fighting arms while the rest have been posted in such places as Military Land and Cantonments, the Accountability Bureau, the Research Wing of the National Defence College and, yes, the real centre of power, the Chief Executive's Secretariat. An army of course needs desk jobs but the impression here is of excuses being found to accommodate an ever-increasing mass of brass. Who is serving whom? The military serving the country or the country at the service of the military?

No doubt all bureaucracies are greedy and tenacious, their instinct being to proliferate and suck life out of other organisms. But the bureaucratization of the military leaves even the earlier exploits of the CSP cadre in the shade. No longer is the military relying on the bureaucracy for advice and the implementation of policy. It is doing everything itself, both macro and micro-management (apart from financial matters which it does not understand). As a result, the old mandarin-military coalition which dominated Pakistan's skyline lies broken. With the babus eclipsed (and good riddance to them) the military is sole arbiter of national affairs.

From this hegemony three questions arise. First, what makes the military think it has a monopoly on wisdom and competence? History certainly lends no support to this illusion, major disasters having struck the country during military rule. Nor is this fiction supported by current performance.

Speed and decisiveness are the only things that justify military rule. Steps which slow-moving civilian rulers balk at, a military strongman takes. This is the theory. This the example of Alexander who when told at Delphi that he who 'untied' the Gordian Knot would rule the world, simply 'slashed' it with his sword.

In two-and-a-half years Napoleon had reformed the administration of France and conquered half of Europe. In two and a half years Ataturk had expelled the Greek army from Turkish soil and laid the foundations of modern Turkey. In two and a half years Hitler's armies stood at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. In two and a half years what have Pakistan's lieutenant and major generals - all one hundred and twenty of them--accomplished?

Rhetoric of reform aside, Pakistan is much the same place as General Musharraf discovered when he seized power. Little has changed: not the judicial system, not the legal system, the police system or the education and health systems. To be sure, the foreign policy agenda has shifted, mainly because of external pressure. But the life of the ordinary Pakistani remains much as before, living on hope and feeding on false promises. What does the government then have to show for the time it has been in power?

The second question has to do with the military's effectiveness as a fighting force. Do officers who get a taste of civilian life, with its perks and privileges, remain fit to command troops in the field? Does their fighting spirit remain unimpaired? Soldiering is a hard profession which requires single-minded devotion. Nothing blunts it so much as civilian distractions. Just as a conflict of interest leads to bad ethics, a conflict of purpose leads to bad soldiering.

So many generals on the active list, a battalion of generals on the retired list, serving and retired officers seeking jobs and good housing: this is a vast system of perks and privileges. A poor nation cannot afford this. If it affords this, it must forgo other things, usually education and health for the masses. The necessity of an effective fighting force is not in question. A predatory neighbourhood leaves us with no other choice. The point is altogether different: can we afford a cake whose icing is heavier than the rest of the cake?

Can the frontiers of military privilege be rolled back? Can military expenses come under public scrutiny? It seems unlikely because no class likes losing its privileges, least of all a class holding a monopoly of coercive power. So the third question arises which relates to democracy. Can democracy survive, let alone prosper, in such a climate? A strong and growing military caste jealously guarding its privileges and a vibrant, self-confident democracy are antithetical concepts.

That is why it takes no clairvoyant to see that what we are headed for is an experiment in Indonesian democracy: where the president, anchored firmly in his military constituency, calls the shots while prime minister and parliament walk dutifully in his shadow. We have been here before. Since we are again preparing to revisit familiar haunts, these are not happy tidings for the future.