Interviews October 2007

After Musharraf

What the future holds for Pakistan—and for America

Midway through my stay in Pakistan, I attended a small dinner party in Islamabad. The guests included a handful of daily-newspaper reporters, a management consultant, and a young female member of parliament from Musharraf’s party. All of them—even the president’s own party loyalist—were openly resentful of the military and its stranglehold on political and economic life. As we sat in a cramped dining room, eating biryanis and drinking tea, the group exchanged stories about military privilege. The consultant had recently returned after five years in the U.S., and he had landed a project at an army-run conglomerate that operates 41 companies and employs 15,000 people. He described his discovery that the corporation’s top jobs, as well as those across many of the 41 companies, all were taken by retired officers with no formal business training and little understanding of basic economics. “Finance was managed by a colonel,” he said. “Administration, risk management, human resources—these were jobs given as perks to retired officers.” After several years of underperformance, the conglomerate had requested a bailout of nearly $100 million from the government. His firm had been hired to turn the business around. Speaking of the armed forces’ role in Pakistan’s economy, he said, “They have the power, and they can do whatever they want.”

The parliamentarian added that the army was steadily helping itself to Islamabad’s best land, often reselling it at a significant profit. The main vehicle for the landgrab, she told me, was the Defense Housing Authority, which purchases properties from private parties, for development and distribution to the officer corps. As a rule, she explained, the market value of the development escalates sharply once the military buys the property, because it is immediately regarded as prestigious and highly secure. “The corps commander gets a kickback from the real-estate developer,” she said, and then “distributes the plots to lower-ranking officers [at government-subsidized prices], and sells what’s left to civilians at a huge profit.”

One afternoon, my driver, a 40-year-old Pashtun who had spent 20 years in the army as a chauffeur for the top brass, took me on a tour of his former employers’ neighborhood. We drove 12 miles from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, an old city of mosques and bazaars that during colonial times was the site of a British cantonment. Today it is the location of Pakistan’s general military headquarters, and large portions of the city have been taken over by housing developments for the retired military elite. Entering the city on the main Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway, we passed a large air-force base; the bridge where al-Qaeda operatives tried to blow up Musharraf’s convoy in 2003; and a new McDonald’s built on the site of the razed prison where former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, was hanged in 1979 on the order of Zia ul-Haq, the general who deposed him.

We turned into a gated community called “Askari 8,” otherwise known as “Military Row.” Our car crept along quiet residential lanes, planted with palm trees and lined with palatial villas of brick and marble. I might have thought we were in an exclusive Southern California suburb, except for the bronze plaques on the front gates identifying the owners: a former corps commander of Rawalpindi, a former vice chief of staff, a retired head of the ISI. Around the corner lay rows of smaller mansions. These belonged to brigadiers, my driver told me, officers one rank down from general.

The army’s encroachment on civilian affairs has not inspired any kinship between the military and civilians, whom many officers view as inferior. A sense of entitlement is inculcated in the officer corps at the Pakistan Military Academy, in Kakul, a former base of the Indian army set among the pine-forested Himalayan foothills of the North-West Frontier Province. It was established shortly after partition in 1947, as a sort of home-grown version of Sandhurst, the British school where many Indian officers received their military education. In a tranquil setting dominated by snowy peaks, cadets culled from a huge pool of applicants spend two and a half years studying governance and political theory; the syllabus spans the canon of Western and Islamic literature and includes ancient Greek philosophers, Middle Eastern poets and historians, even the Indian military strategist Chanakya. Musharraf graduated from the academy in 1964; it is perhaps telling that since he came to power, the academy has begun offering courses in economics and business management.

The cadets spend as much time training their bodies as their minds. The climax of their athletic training is the “Acid Test,” a multi-hour ordeal of running, climbing, and trudging over difficult terrain, while laden with heavy gear. At the finish, those who complete the test fire celebratory rounds at a target, and look up at an inscription that reads “VERILY THE POWER LIES IN FIREPOWER.”

“Once you are through Kakul, you are the elect—you are a breed apart,” says Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary. The military academy, he says, instills in cadets “a sense of pride and a genuine, deep-seated contempt for everyone outside the military.” That contempt, says Khan, is rooted in a belief that civilian governments have proved uniformly inept and corrupt, repeatedly forcing the military to “rescue” the country from the clutches of incompetent civil servants and thieving politicians—a position that is increasingly ironic as the military dips ever deeper into the public trough.

The Pakistani military’s relationship with the United States has been tempestuous. American and Pakistani soldiers began working together in the field in the 1950s, bound by mutual concerns about Soviet expansionism in the region. The relationship cooled after the United States imposed sanctions following Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, but it warmed up again under the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq: The U.S. Department of Defense moved more than a thousand Pakistani officers through its International Military Education and Training program, or IMET, giving them months of training alongside American officers at elite American military institutions.

Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan, Musharraf’s press secretary until March 2007, spent six months in infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1983. He explained to me how the American training shaped the mentality of thousands of young officers of his generation. “It helps you to establish a better relationship and more understanding [of the U.S. perspective],” he said. “It broadens your outlook.” At a recent gathering of regional commanders in Kabul, Shaukat Sultan formed an immediate bond with an American brigadier he had last seen during his Fort Benning days. “It gave us a connection,” said Shaukat Sultan. “[Now] I can pick up the phone and call him directly.”

Shaukat Sultan was among the last of a breed, however. In 1987, toward the end of the mujahideen campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Congress threatened to impose sanctions if Pakistan continued to develop nuclear weapons. Three years later, the sanctions went into effect, and the United States suspended the IMET program. For the next 11 years, until 9/11, Pakistani officers had little or no contact with the U.S. military (IMET resumed in late 2001). “We lost a generation,” the Western military liaison officer told me. That generation now overwhelmingly makes up the ranks of brigadier, colonel, and major—and includes some generals—in Pakistan’s military.

By the early 1990s, as the Cold War was ending and the United States was disengaging from Central and South Asia, Pakistan’s army had taken on a more Islamist character. Back in 1979, Zia ul-Haq—in an attempt to stir up zeal for the campaign in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen—had enacted a raft of Islamist ordinances, or hudood, posting an imam to every unit, encouraging prayer in the barracks, and installing a religious-affairs directorate at general headquarters. Banners outside army recruiting centers reportedly urged Pakistanis to enlist for the sake of Allah and jihad.

During this period the army and the ISI stepped up covert training of Islamist mujahideen to wage a guerrilla war against India in Kashmir, transforming what had been a largely secular struggle into a jihad—a war to liberate Islamic brethren from the yoke of the “Hindu occupiers.” The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1996—also backed by Pakistan—furthered the military’s goal of bleeding the Indian army in Kashmir; the Taliban allowed the Pakistani army to operate dozens of training camps in Afghanistan for the Kashmir struggle. The Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns with direct tribal links to Pakistan’s own Pashtun population in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan, also provided a bulwark against Afghanistan’s Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance and its key ally, India.

The military’s support for Islamist causes was primarily tactical, and its inculcation of Islamist values in its troops appears to have been halfhearted. Shaukat Sultan told me, “There neither used to be orders during the Zia days that everyone come down for prayers, nor are there orders now. It all depends on the individual commanding officers.” Nonetheless, in February 2000, Lieutenant General Mahmoud Ahmad, then the head of the ISI, claimed to an analyst at the Rand Corporation that “between 15 and 16 percent” of the Pakistani officer corps were Islamic extremists.

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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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