WASHINGTON, Sept 19: The Pakistan army needs to disentangle itself from the vast business empire it has created if it wants to succeed as a professional fighting force capable of defending the country’s frontiers, says writer Ayesha Siddiqa.

Back in Washington after almost two years to launch her book ‘Military Inc’ at the Woodrow Wilson Centre where she spent a year researching the book, Ms Siddiqa rejected the suggestion that she was on a mission to defame the Pakistani military. She argued that the military’s vast business interests not only introduces a culture of ‘cronyism’ in the country but also hurts its own professional capabilities.

China, she said, already realised how the military’s involvement in business hurts the institution and the country and has begun to disengage the People’s Liberation Army from its commercial ventures.

Ms Siddiqa said that Iran also has a similar problem and the involvement of the Pasdaran, a paramilitary force, in commercial ventures has created a culture of corruption and cronyism.

Her conciliatory tone and friendly reasoning, however, failed to impress some serving and retired officers of the Pakistani military present at the launching ceremony.

One officer reminded Ms Siddiqa how the army served the nation during the earthquake two years ago while another blamed her for signalling out the army as the villain.

Ms Siddiqa, who came to the seminar despite the death of her sister in Pakistan the same day, explained how this ménage à trios, which involves the military, the bureaucrats and certain type of politicians, was hurting Pakistan.

She showed how the military’s economic empire -- which she calls Milbus, shortened from military business -- has expanded rapidly since its modest beginning in the early 1950s.

It is now the country’s biggest conglomeration. The tri-service Fauji Foundation, the army’s Army Welfare Trust, the air force’s Shaheen Foundation, and the Navy’s Bahria Foundation now control over 100 companies that make cement, fertilisers, cereal, and operate in the fields of IT, insurance, banking and education.

These are manned by serving and retired military officers and draw resources from the military. The Frontier Works Organisation, a Milbus entity set up to profit from the business of building the Karakoram Highway, uses military equipment, resources and personnel to promote its business interests.

Many Milbus companies are in deep financial trouble because they are run by officers who know nothing about business. This often forces the government to arrange multi-million dollars bailout packages; outstanding loans to Milbus total billions of dollars.

Already Pakistan’s biggest landholder, the military, has institutionalised the colonial system of granting land. Officers get urban plots and farmland at throwaway prices. General Musharraf got eight plots, worth over $10 million.

The book claims that Gen Tauqeer Zia, while heading the Pakistan Cricket Board, gifted away a part of Karachi stadium, which was then plotted and given to officers.

The Fauji Foundation is involved in banking, pharmaceuticals, cement plants, etc., and the Army Welfare Trust is the largest business organisation of the country.

The NLC is the largest goods transportation company, the FWO is the biggest contractor for building roads and collecting tolls and Fauji Oil Terminal and Distribution Company, the nation’s largest petroleum-handling facility.

The Shaheen and Bahria foundations, cantonments and housing estates have directly built 46 money-making housing schemes.