Milbus and millionaires

Published June 23, 2007

WHEN institutions are moribund, and the political landscape is dominated by individuals, there is a tendency for paranoia to run wild. This is especially true when the ruling mafia is under threat. Then, every voice that questions the status quo is the voice of the enemy.

Currently, as the judicial crisis rumbles on like a smouldering volcano, a number of political players have jumped on the bandwagon. This was entirely predictable, as the opposition all over the world takes advantage of the government’s problems. But in this fevered environment, even well-meaning critics with no political axe to grind are branded as enemies.

This has been Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s fate. The author of a serious, well-researched analysis about the military’s role in the political economy of Pakistan, she finds herself being pilloried by government spokesmen. Currently in England, she has been giving talks about her book that has been published here by Pluto Press under the title ‘Military Inc’.

In Pakistan, the government tried to disrupt the book’s launch by refusing to allow Oxford University Press to hold the function there at the last minute. This ham-handed reaction gave the book a cachet and an appeal it might not otherwise have gained. Dr Siddiqa informed me that copies are not available over the counter in Karachi and Lahore. The assumption is that ‘agencies’ have bought up most of the first print run.I am willing to bet that few of the book’s detractors have actually read it. Indeed, I must confess that having just bought a copy, I am still going through it. Thus, this is in no sense a book review. But the introduction makes the book’s seriousness of purpose abundantly clear. Dr Siddiqa has coined the term ‘Milbus’ (pronounced ‘milbiz’) as a shorthand term to refer to the military’s business interests. She defines it thus:

“Milbus 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. In this respect, it is a completely independent genre of capital. Its most significant component is entrepreneurial activities that do not fall under the scope of the normal accountability procedures of the state, and are mainly for the gratification of military personnel and their cronies… in most cases the rewards are limited to the officer cadre… The top echelon of the armed forces who are the main beneficiaries of Milbus justify the economic dividends as welfare provided to the military for their services rendered to the state.”

Another justification for Milbus advanced by the military is that their efficiency and discipline make their business ventures more successful than those of their civilian competitors. But in reality, the playing field is far from level. Milbus enterprises get many invisible benefits that allow them to function at lower costs. In effect, there are state subsidies worth billions every year, and Dr Siddiqa has quantified some of them.

But Pakistan is not unique in the success of Milbus: other countries with interventionist military leadership include Turkey and Indonesia. Until recently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army dabbled in a host of enterprises to part-finance its activities. But of late, it has been restricted in its Milbus activities.

‘Military Inc’ should thus be seen as a case study of Pakistan, set against the backdrop of other countries with Bonapartist tendencies. Anybody who has spent much time in Pakistan has a collection of anecdotes relating to Milbus, but thus far, these remained unquantified and unresearched. Dr Siddiqa’s work has thus filled a gap in the literature on Pakistan’s military and our economy.However, it is the political implication of Milbus that is of most concern to ordinary Pakistanis. In the concluding chapter of ‘Military Inc’, Dr Siddiqa states:

“The most serious consequence of the military’s involvement in economic ventures relates to their sense of judgment regarding the political control of the state. The financial autonomy of the armed forces … establishes the officer cadre’s interest in retaining political control of the state. Since political power nurtures greater financial benefits, the military fraternity see it as beneficial to perpetuate it. In this respect, economic and political interests are linked in a cyclic process: political power guarantees economic benefits which, in turn, motivate the officer cadre to remain powerful…”

Thus, the officer corps has every reason to grasp, wield and retain political power. It has no incentive to let go. The best we can hope for under this dispensation is for the army to make a cosmetic retreat to the barracks while a civilian government takes the flak without wielding real power. This was pretty much the situation for much of the nineties, after Zia’s death. It was only after Nawaz Sharif was deluded into thinking that his large parliamentary majority gave him real power, and tried to dismiss Musharraf , that GHQ staged its coup of 1999.

Clearly, Dr Siddiqa’s book is a stinging indictment of military rule. But the reason it is so effective is that it is carefully researched, and rigorously argued. To my knowledge, apart from crude attempts to keep it out of circulation, there has been no serious discussion and debate of the many serious issues the author has raised. According to her, she has been accused of using flawed research. But the response surely should be to point out exactly where she is wrong.Meanwhile, she is unsure of her reception when she returns. Apparently, her telephone lines in Islamabad had been disconnected, and she was being constantly harried. According to the Commonwealth Club management, there was an attempt by the Pakistan High Commission to dissuade them from permitting Dr Siddiqa’s talk. While this has been denied, I am sure the goons back home would have bypassed the high commissioner in their crude attempt to treat the Commonwealth Club the way they bullied Islamabad Club.

And yet it would be a mistake to confuse ‘Military Inc’ with a simple critique of Musharraf and his government. Dr Siddiqa has put the entire institution of the military under a scholarly microscope, not just in Pakistan, but in other countries that have armies that call the shots. She has thus opened a debate that was long overdue. Let us treat her study more seriously than just another opposition sally against the army.

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