July 1, 2009

Book Review: Military Inc.

The following review originally appeared in the July 2009 edition of Seminar.

MILITARY INC by Ayesha Siddiqa. Pluto Press, London, 2007.

STATES are strange beasts, but few specimens are more peculiar – or perplexing – than Pakistan. On the one hand, a pivotal strategic location, an influential middle class, a demographic dividend and a large, professional, nuclear-armed military ought to conjure up an impression of strength or, at the very least, security. Instead, Pakistan has appeared increasingly weighed-down by its deteriorating internal security, uneven civil-military relations and its dependency on foreign aid, thereby epitomising the paradox of state strength and weakness.

The variables being what they are, one institution – the military – is central to any equation pertaining to Pakistan. Without a doubt, the greatest dilemma for the United States government in developing a regional strategy is how exactly to engage the Pakistani military, especially its dominant branch, the army. This directly impacts not just the success of the United States’ efforts in providing security and political stability to Afghanistan, but also its intelligence-gathering, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism goals more broadly. Yet rather shockingly, the institutional objectives of the Pakistani military remain poorly understood in Washington. Specifically, there is little appreciation, and only slightly greater awareness, of the military’s propensity for accentuating the state’s strength-weakness paradox, of its reasons for continued political intervention in traditionally civilian affairs, and of its privileged position within Pakistani society. Yet given the military brass’s predisposition towards ostentatiousness, it is easy – albeit unscholarly – to derive from anecdotes a larger picture of profound and widespread military involvement in aspects of Pakistani politics, society and the economy.

Enter British-trained Pakistani military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, with a comprehensive and controversial assessment of the Pakistan military’s role in the domestic economy provocatively titled Military Inc. Upon its release in 2007, Siddiqa’s book offered a useful and timely exposé of the Pakistani military’s ubiquity in Pakistan’s economy, and pointed to evident motives for its continued position of privilege in Pakistani society. Siddiqa focuses her study on ‘Milbus’, a short-hand term she employs to describe unaccounted capital and resources ‘used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity’ – in other words, economic activity controlled by the military or under its patronage for the personal benefit of its staff and affiliated individuals.

The term ‘Milbus’ sits uneasily on the tongue, but more easily in the mind. For Indians, accustomed as we are to the traditions of the license-quota Raj, the unofficial economy is familiar territory. The justifications for the continuance of ‘Milbus’ in Pakistan echo anti-reform arguments enunciated regularly in India by mandarins and politicos alike. Siddiqa’s data provides ample evidence that such justifications are flawed, meant only to hide narrow self-interests using the fig leaf of public welfare.

Readers should be warned: Military Inc. is a work of polemic, and Siddiqa is content being in equal parts scholar and gadfly. As is often the case with polemicists, she tends to overstate her case, despite frequently backing herself up with meticulous research and a clear analytical framework.

Yet Siddiqa deserves kudos for tackling a subject on which accessible data is scarce, and for which potential individual sources need not always be forthcoming. Her task was no doubt complicated by the fact that ‘Milbus’, as she defines it, straddles the formal, informal and illegal economies, and allows for several layers of plausible deniability between the military proper, its affiliated institutions (such as the Fauji Foundation and Army Welfare Trust), their subsidiaries and loosely-associated individuals. In this regard, there are eerie parallels to the structure of Pakistan’s security apparatus, both formal and informal and, occasionally, illegal.

The predatory military that Siddiqa portrays so vividly is clearly unsuitable for a major state hoping to make a positive impact on the global landscape of the 21st century. But at the same time, many of the military’s sins taint Pakistan’s civilian leadership in equal measure, a fact underscored by the snarky sobriquet regularly thrust upon its current head of state. A predatory state and military cannot be considered as isolated phenomena, but rather as rooted in the preservation of predatory feudal structures. Siddiqa does make note of this in a chapter entitled ‘The New Land Barons’, in which she makes a case for how the military became ‘an instrument of feudalism and part of the feudal class’, but this begs further avenues of inquiry. Sadly, she fails to take a step back and sufficiently contextualise her damning portrait of the military within the broader social canvas that is Pakistan.