The Pakistani armed forces (army for short)—is a truly multi-functional organisation, not just the country’s war machine and the defender of its borders.
What are the ‘many things’ that I have referred to? Let me tell you.
The Pakistan army has many ‘activities’ which are way beyond the scope of the armies in most other countries.
(A cliché keeps coming to mind, demanding a slot in this narrative—“Countries have armies, but in Pakistan, the army has a country”.)
In Pakistan, the army decides foreign policy, selects the ruling party and the prime minister (PM), decides how to rule the country—directly or indirectly, determines the budgets, tells the media what to say (or not say), spies on people in the country, picks up anyone it wishes (for detention or even disappearance), and directs the judgements of courts.
All this you already know about, I presume.
But, did you know that the army is Pakistan’s biggest business conglomerate?
The army owns a number of entities that can be best described as ‘holding companies’ or ‘groups’, as we know them in India, the major ones being the Army Welfare Trust (AWT), Fauji Foundation (FF), Shaheen Foundation (SF) and Defence Housing Authorities (DHAs).
Between them, these entities run more than 50 separate companies covering very diverse fields such as cement, sugar, property development, insurance, natural gas, fertiliser, oil refining, banking, wind energy, power generation, cereals, clothing, advertising, aviation, restaurants... (a very long list), and the clincher—a stud farm!
To the DHAs goes the honour of being the 'jewel in the crown'. They have developed housing colonies in every major city in Pakistan, where prime plots of land, in well-manicured cantonments and plush civil localities, are allotted to army officers almost free of cost.
All these companies do very well, thank you, and why wouldn’t they? Being owned by the army, they operate, shall we say, ‘in a favourable business environment’.
The army’s influence smoothens out any bumps, irritants, or hindrances that may confront these businesses, such as changes in government policies, market aberrations or excessive competition.
Put together, all these companies constitute, by far, the dominant business group in the country, with the largest market-cap in the stock exchange, estimated to be worth over US$40bn (billion) (only an estimate—not a hard number).
In a nutshell, there is not a single lucrative business pie in which the Pakistan army doesn’t have a finger.
And there are also the ‘side businesses’ of the Pakistan army:
- Terrorism. This is a one-window, turnkey service—candidate search, selection, indoctrination, training, deployment under supervision, and subsequent cover-up.
- Arms supply, either from its own arsenal (as in Kashmir) or as a conduit for routing material from other sources (as in Ukraine)—for a commission, of course.
- Protection services—soldiers for hire as security providers (as in Saudi and lately in Qatar).
These side businesses generate cash, as well as carry out the implementation of the country’s foreign policy which is entirely under the purview of the army.
Why does the army own this business empire?
From the very names of the organisations—‘foundation’, ‘trust’—you can make out that the aim is to provide welfare, and charity.
For whose benefit?
To quote the official version—“widows and families of martyrs” and also “to provide employment opportunities to Pakistani ex-military personnel.”
I don’t know about the ‘widows and families’ bit, but ex-army personnel are certainly given employment. The group companies are headed by retired army officers, who get status, salary, benefits, and a chance to make money, while exercising management control on the army’s behalf.
For obvious reasons, nobody has ever bothered to ask how the profits of the businesses are distributed. One can only presume that there is a formal pattern or formula for wealth-sharing, based on rank, years of service, etc.
Mind you, it is not a free-for-all. Army officers have been punished for corruption—basically, for taking more than their entitlement under the ‘system’. Even generals have been punished for not obeying the rules.
Yes, the army does look after its own.
From the time of Ayub Khan in the 1950s, Pakistan army officers have been given huge land grants. According to a (credible) estimate, 12% of the land in Pakistan is owned by the army, of which two-thirds belongs to senior army officers. A major general gets 240 acres of irrigated land, and is given more water for irrigation than the normal quota.
What happens when the army runs out of land to gift?
Silly question—the army will never run out of land. There is always more land to grab. I quote a former chief justice of Pakistan—“The army seems to have become the biggest land grabber in the country.”
I hope I have adequately justified the words ‘many things’.
Now let me move on to the “except...” part.
You guessed it—win wars!
Unfortunately, the Pakistan army doesn’t win wars.
Of course, it is not alone in this respect. The US did lose two wars, big time—Vietnam and Afghanistan. Russia is no better—Afghanistan, and now Ukraine.
But Pakistan is unique in two ways:
- It has always fought against the same ‘enemy’—India.
- It has lost not once, not twice, but all four times.
Laudable persistence, one must say. Remember the story of Robert Bruce and the spider?
However, it must be said that the army has shown better performance in internal wars—in Balochistan and the North-west, for example. Beating up civilian crowds is its forte. It has had ample practice, you know, starting with East Pakistan—now Bangladesh.
Whether it has won these wars or not, I can’t say. But, at least, 93,000 Pakistani soldiers have not had to surrender in any internal war, as yet.
But who knows?
The Pakistani Taliban is inside the country already.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)