Interviews October 2007

After Musharraf

What the future holds for Pakistan—and for America
Pakistani Ranger Recruits

Whatever happens to Musharraf, the presidency, and the parliament, there is little doubt that the military will remain the dominant player in Pakistan for as long as it chooses. During the 11 years of democracy that followed Zia ul-Haq’s death, the civilian prime ministers, Bhutto and Sharif, had diminishing influence over Pakistan’s foreign policy and its nuclear program; Bhutto famously called the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, a “state within a state” and accused military intelligence of listening in on her phone calls. In 1990, the army, after charging her with corruption, engineered her removal by presidential decree. Sharif was tossed out nine years later, effectively at gunpoint. According to one senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, “If Musharraf should disappear from the scene tomorrow, you would have a meeting of senior military men, and a new chief of army staff, and that would be, either overtly or behind the scenes, your new government.”

Throughout the ongoing crisis, the generals have played their cards close to the vest. Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, witnessed the transition from military to civilian rule after the death of Zia ul-Haq, in 1988, and he believes that after nearly eight years in power, the military is once again ready to recede into the background. “They will go back into the barracks, and they will be happy, because they would still be influencing the government,” he told me. “The military casts a long shadow, and they would be protected.”

Most American Pakistan-watchers, however, believe that many military officers—and certainly the privileged upper echelons—want just the opposite, and are less likely than ever to surrender power: They have grown accustomed to the perks and privileges of political life. “They don’t have a game plan for a withdrawal from politics,” says Stephen Philip Cohen, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has written frequently about the Pakistani military.

In the Western diplomat’s view, the military’s continued dominance would present no immediate danger to the United States or the region, because Musharraf’s inner circle is secular, U.S.-trained, and at least nominally committed to the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” But these men are in their mid- and late 50s and moving toward the mandatory-retirement age of 60. (Musharraf himself turned 64 in August; he has ignored the mandatory- retirement rule.) The next tier of the military command is not nearly as well known. “We hope that this group would be Western-oriented, but there’s no guarantee,” says Derek Chollet, a participant in the Washington think tank exercise on Pakistan in November. “We simply don’t know who they are.”

Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is a clean, even sterile, city of wide boulevards, faux-Moghul architecture, and wooded parks. The army’s presence is hardly overbearing; you rarely see uniformed officers or gun-toting soldiers on the streets. But as you become more attuned to the city’s culture and commerce, you begin to realize that in fact the military is everywhere.

On my first evening in the capital, I got a taste of how the officer corps has insinuated itself into political life: A well-connected colleague brought me to a lavish wedding reception in the Hotel Serena for the daughter of the minister of the interior, Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao.

I expected to see bigwigs at the reception, and I did. The surprise—at a wedding for a civilian government official—was how many had military pedigrees. The reception was chock-full of generals and retired generals, including several corps commanders, the vice chief of army staff, Musharraf’s press secretary, and—briefly—Musharraf himself. Almost all of them were, like Musharraf, wearing suits, not uniforms, but everyone knew who they were. My colleague, a newspaper editor based in Islamabad, pointed them out as they strutted about, nodding like dons to the other guests, the higher-ups accompanied by military secretaries and junior officers, also in civilian clothes. Musharraf himself moved serenely through the crowd, shaking hands and smiling beneficently. As we watched from a corner, my colleague observed wearily, “The line between military men and politicians has totally blurred in this country.”

The army has dramatically increased its role in the public sector since Musharraf took over. “Thousands of officers are now employed in civil jobs; they have the best of everything,” says retired General Aslam Beg, who served as chief of army staff under Benazir Bhutto from 1988 to 1991. One parliamentary opposition leader recently charged that 56,000 civil-service jobs had come into the hands of army personnel (other sources put this figure lower). Retired generals and brigadiers have taken over as chancellors and vice chancellors at Pakistani universities; they also run the post office, the tax authority, the housing authority, and the education department. Retired generals serve as the governors of two of Pakistan’s four provinces.

The armed forces also control more than a hundred private-sector companies and have placed retired officers in the upper reaches of Pakistan’s major businesses and industries. Rao Khalid Mehmood, former defense correspondent for the Nation newspaper in Islamabad and now the Islamabad bureau chief at a startup Pakistani television news channel, told me that at present, the military is the gateway to private-sector employment. Many people believe that “the only way to get a job is to know someone in the army,” he says.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a well-known analyst in Islamabad and the author of Military Inc.: Inside the Pakistani Military Economy, says that the armed forces are major players in real estate, agribusiness, and several other industries. The empire includes banks, cable-TV companies, insurance agencies, sugar refineries, private security firms, schools, airlines, cargo services, and textile factories. The Fauji Foundation, for instance, is a “welfare trust” that is run by the defense ministry and spans 15 business enterprises. It provides cushy jobs for hundreds of retired officers (many retire in their late 40s), pays few taxes, and channels profits into a fund that is intended to benefit retired military personnel. And it is just one of several giant military-run foundations and companies that were set up decades ago and have grown steadily ever since.

The military’s intrusion into commerce is quite visible in Islamabad, if you know what to look for. The logos of the Fauji Foundation and other military-run conglomerates appear on trucks, boxes, and buildings throughout the city. As Hood­bhoy told me, “They own gas companies. They make fertilizer, cement, soap, bottled water. They even make cereals, so when I have breakfast, I can’t get away from them.”

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Joshua Hammer is a writer based in Berlin. He is currently working on a book about Germany’s colonial ambitions in Africa and the 20th century’s first genocide.

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