It was in late October 1998 that Qazi Husain Ahmed, the then Emir of the Jamaat Islami (JI) – the mother-ship of political Islam in Pakistan – for the first time dared the Pakistan army and said the generals are not Corps Commanders but ‘Crore Commanders’. The delectable twist given by the JI chief to the positions held by the most powerful officers of the Pakistan Army succinctly summed up the capture of the Pakistani state, society and economy by the military. But while the term ‘Crore Commanders’ gained wide currency in Pakistan, it was normally used only in hushed tones behind closed doors. Only once in a while would someone use this term in the newspapers to refer to the top brass of the Pakistan army. Two decades later, little has changed.
A recent expose of undisclosed and unexplained wealth of close family members – wife and sons – of former Corps Commander Quetta and current Chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa has been completely blanked out from the mainstream media of Pakistan. A scandal that should have been the most covered story in newspapers and TV talk shows is conspicuous by its absence, hushed up almost as if it never happened. If at all it is being discussed, it is only on Social Media and online platforms, and even there the ‘deep state’ is doing everything possible to block the social media handles and websites where it is being discussed. The response from Bajwa and his family, the apologists and advocates of all things military in the government, and the troll corps of the army – Bajwa’s contribution to Pakistan’s deteriorating political discourse when he was the DG of Inter-services Public Relations (ISPR) – is along predictable lines.
Bajwa called it a “malicious propaganda story” and “strongly rebutted” it without actually giving a rebuttal. The foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi who is trying very hard to inveigle himself with the military raised doubts over the authenticity of the story. Quite bizarrely, Qureshi claimed that the story was run without conformation even though the journalists who investigated Bajwa’s business produced documentary evidence to back his story. And then there were the troll corps members who immediately labelled it as a conspiracy against CPEC and a R&AW operation, a theme that was also towed by Bajwa’s son. Nobody however refuted the documentary evidence against Bajwa or the misrepresentation by Bajwa of his and his wife’s assets when he filed a declaration after being appointed as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister. Top politicians, including Presidents, Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, have been disqualified, even jailed, for much less. But not Bajwa.
That this cover-up is happening under a government that has ostensibly been singularly focussed on accountability and corruption in government speaks volumes for Imran Khan’s version of ‘Riyasat-e-Medina’. The hypocrisy of the current dispensation which has gone with a vengeance after alleged acts of omission and commission of opposition politicians but has been extremely protective and selective of dodgy characters in its own ranks is of course an open secret in Pakistan. Clearly, for Imran Khan corruption is merely a tool for persecuting his opponents and clearing the political field so that he alone can rule till eternity.
But the Asim Bajwa scandal is as much about the selective accountability as it is a statement on the rot that is there in the top echelons of the Pakistan Army, which is not just the largest and most powerful political party in Pakistan and the de facto government, but also the biggest and most diverse business conglomerate and land owner in the country. Most of the time, scandals involving the top military officers, both serving and retired, are buried. Everyone knows what has happened and who is involved, but no one says it openly or publicly. Even so, every once in a while some of the scandals tumble out and become public. But even then, there isn’t really any action taken, unless the officers involved have fallen out of favour or the scandal simply cannot be brushed under the carpet.
Over the last two decades there are any number of serious scandals involving people at the very top of the Pakistan Army’s food chain. What these scandals indicate is only that notwithstanding all their pretensions of being the guardians of Pakistan’s ideological and territorial frontiers, the knights in their Teflon coated uniforms unsullied by corruption and scandal, officers of the Pakistan Army are as prone to dipping their hands in the till as their civilian counterparts. The only difference is that while the civilians are dragged through mud for even the slightest infraction, the military officers remain immune from any such action.
Generals, serving and retired, have been involved in taking handouts from foreign potentates, taking up jobs in foreign companies, getting employed by local businessmen to peddle influence, helping their family members to do dodgy deals, using their positions to trade favours especially with businessmen under a cloud, indulging in good old fashioned extortion and protection rackets especially in disturbed areas like Balochistan, taking commissions on defence contracts (even with the Chinese).
The former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf took millions of dollars from the Saudi king to buy apartments in Dubai and London. Another former army chief, Pervez Kiyani, was alleged to have protected shady land deals by his brothers while he was in office. In his book “The Battle for Pakistan” Author Shuja Nawaz mentions rumours about Kayani building up a huge real estate portfolio. Kayani’s successor Raheel Sharif got himself 90 acres of prime agricultural land worth anything between PKR 200 to 400 Crores allotted near the border with India. Although some legislators questioned this land transfer, the military defended it as having been made according to procedure. Raheel also landed himself with a post retirement job as head of a new international force that the Saudis had formed raising eyebrows in Pakistan.
The former ISI chief and ‘super patriot’ Ahmad Shuja Pasha took up a job in Dubai after retirement and got ex-post facto clearance for it after the Supreme Court raised questions over how he and Raheel could take up these jobs without government clearance. Later, Pasha took up another job with a politically active local businessman. Given the preponderant influence of Pakistan Army in virtually every sphere of national life, businesses in the country have figured that employing generals on fat salaries is the surest way to get work done, obtain clearances, browbeat rivals and even clients. The real estate magnate Malik Riaz who boasts that he knows how to ‘put wheels on files’ to make them move through the bureaucratic maze is probably the best example of how services of retired generals are put to use by Pakistani businessmen. He has hired former ISI officers and ISPR heads apart from other high profile retirees to further his business interests.
While post-retirement employment is not illegal, there are serious questions of propriety and conflict of interest that crop up, especially when the generals use their influence to advance commercial interests of their employers. The conflict of interest has also cast a shadow over generals who were responsible for the accountability process, both in the Musharraf regime and after the civilian façade was restored. Two former National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairmen, both retired 3-star generals, benefited from windfall gains that came their way as a result of LPG quotas allotted to them by a businessman who was being investigated by NAB. A former ISI chief along with other 3-star generals were booked for leasing the land of Pakistan Railways on throwaway price for a golf club in Lahore. Despite references being filed in the case there has been no movement for years. There was a huge furore when allegations of “misconduct, misappropriation, misdemeanour and misadventure” were made against three former generals for causing a loss of around Rs 200 Crore by investing funds of the National Logistics Cell (NLC) in the stock market in exchange of commissions and kickbacks. While the two 3-star generals were let off by a military court, the 2-star general was punished by being ‘dismissed from service’. Incidentally, all three has retired long back and to prevent them from being tried by a civilian court, they were taken back in the army so that they could be tried by a military court.
For the generals, a posting in the troubled Balochistan province or in the commercial capital Karachi is an opportunity to make a killing – literally and financially. In 2016 when nearly a dozen other officers including a 3-star and a 2-star general were sacked on charges of corruption, it exposed the underbelly of the military officers activities in Balochistan. Both the 3-star and the 2-star generals had served as Inspector General of the Frontier Corps which has been virtually calling the shots in the province. The 3-star general, Obaidullah Khattak, was alleged to have made Rs 1500 Crores in his three years as IGFC. His successor, Maj. Gen. Ejaz Shahid was made to deposit Rs 5 Crores with the GHQ as punishment. Obviously this amount was a fraction of the money the general made as IGFC. The generals in Balochistan are alleged to be involved in drug smuggling, general smuggling – Ejaz Shahid had procured a non-custom duty paid fancy sports car for his son and it was an accident of this car that blew the whole scam in public – protection rackets, extortion, and every other illegal activity possible. Incidentally, the news of the action taken against the officers was released to the public by none other than the man who is today being accused of having amassed an unexplained fortune not commensurate with his known sources of income – Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa.
The involvement of Pakistani generals in drug trafficking goes back to the 1980s. During the Afghan jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union, heroin smuggling and gun-running were the biggest businesses in the tribal belt along the Afghan border. A former Corps Commander and later governor of NWFP, Fazle Haq, was one of the lynch-pins of the drug trade. In the 1990s the then army and ISI chiefs made a proposal to the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to use the proceeds of narcotics trade to fund the covert military operations of the Pakistan army. In Karachi, the modus operandi is different. Ever Corps Commander is believed to turn into an overnight stock market genius. The way this happens is that one or more of the top stock market players (all politically well connected) offer to invest a modest amount of money for a new Corps Commander. Within months the money starts to grow exponentially and by the time the tenure ends, the general is a billionaire.
The greed of the generals and other officers is despite the fact that they receive fabulous benefits throughout their careers and at retirement. In her book ‘Military Inc.’, Pakistani author Ayesha Siddiqa has estimated that the market value of properties belonging to senior generals is anywhere between Rs 15-40 Crores. This, if they don’t do any corruption at all. But greed being limitless, the Pakistan Army wants to have a finger in every pie, the latest being the CPEC project which the military and its generals see as a cash cow to further institutional and individual interests. But even otherwise, the business arms of the military – banks, logistics firms, real estate development, construction companies, bakeries, marriage halls, industrial concerns – have a virtual run of the country, landing lucrative government contracts and having the ability to edge out competition.
It is therefore not without reason that the term ‘Crore Commanders’ has stuck to the generals of the Pakistan Army. As the wags in Pakistan often say, if it were left to the generals – whom they refer to as real estate agents – they would even extend their lucrative Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Schemes beyond the border with India. And they add for good measure that with DHA schemes coming up close to the border, no Pakistan Army general can afford a war with India. After all, they can’t risk their properties, can they?
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.