An interesting new legislation has recently been passed in the Pakistan National Assembly. This law proposes to create a China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority that would essentially take control of the billion dollar CPEC away from the civilian bureaucracy to the Pakistan Army. Most democracies would have a virtual army of bureaucrats and auditors to handle such a project. But not in Pakistan, where the creation of an army-run supranational authority is in line with other actions, which have put the country so close to army rule that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference.
Policy makers in India and elsewhere, long used to the Pakistani ‘military establishment’, would normally shrug their shoulders and hope for the best. But there’s a difference this time round. All of this is being powered by Chinese money. Which means that Beijing has just bought itself an army, with a State attached.
Governance and bureaucracy
At one level, it is true that near continuous military dominance has led to army men, both serving and retired, being co-opted into comfortable posts in Pakistan’s bureaucracy. However, even democratically elected leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not scruple to use lateral induction to appoint army men to some 83 posts at various levels. Zia-ul-Haq went a step further, creating a Defence Services Selection Board to bring in pliant service officers into his government. Under General Pervez Musharraf, the ‘National Reconstruction Bureau’ route brought in officers at every level, with the general presumption that the average military officer was better than his civilian counterpart.
But the Imran Khan government has outstripped all others in filling civilian posts with military officers. A recent report highlights the control of the military over the civilian government — the Pakistan International Airlines is headed by an Air Marshal, heads of the Naya Pakistan Housing and Development Authority include a Major General and a Brigadier, five federal ministers are closely linked to the military including Interior Minister Brigadier Ejaz Shah, the chairman of Port Qasim Authority is a retired Rear Admiral, and the Water and Power Development Authority is led by a retired Lt Gen, as was the Sui Southern Gas Company until recently. The armed forces are now everywhere, and they have never had it so good. Particularly since nearly all of these departments are also seeing Chinese investment.
Legislation takes this further
Not content with this, legislation has been introduced in Parliament that further erodes political power. This includes the legislation to take the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), which operates directly opposite Indian waters, out of the control of the Prime Minister’s Office, apparently because the government doesn’t want this high office to be involved in ‘trivial’ matters. Then there was the amendment to the Anti-Money Laundering Act, 2010, ostensibly to satisfy the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which provides, among other things, power to arrest without warrant, and vastly increases the powers of the National Accountability Bureau and other investigating agencies. Clearly, the intention was to pressurise opposition leaders into submission.
Then there are new laws to control social media, which gives the State unfettered power to decide what construes ‘extremism’ or what may be considered ‘objectionable’. To add to this are arrests of major media personalities such as Shakil ur Rehman, and intimidation of the Dawn group among others, which has ensured that the media has been silenced. Parliament virtually tamed, the usually courageous media gagged, and social media fettered. There is not a lot left.
National level project management
Then there’s the CPEC itself. In 2015, the Pakistan Army tried to grab the project, but was frustrated by then-Nawaz Sharif government. However, PM Imran Khan gave in completely. The CPEC was brought under the army by a presidential order in 2019. The ‘CPEC Authority’ was headed by Gen. (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa, and was in that capacity, dealing directly with the Chinese government and companies involved.
In August 2020, the scandal broke. Bajwa was found to have assets worth billions in the US and in Pakistan. As a fact finding report noted, his wife Farrukh Zeba “is associated with or is a shareholder in 85 companies including 82 foreign companies (71 in United States, seven in UAE and four in Canada)”, while the whole family has literally risen from rags to riches, all this as her husband rose steadily within the Pakistan Army. Despite the scandal breaking loose, Gen. Bajwa continued to handle all business relating to the CPEC.
With the presidential order lapsing in May, the new legislation will give the proposed Authority even more power than before. It can ask for ‘pertinent information’ and ‘assistance or facilitation’ from any person or office ‘directly or indirectly’ involved with the CPEC, with provinces required to appoint persons for this purpose; and powers to investigate a public office holder who does to cooperate with it. Its officers will also have immunity from the National Accountability Bureau, and other investigating agencies. Clearly, there’s going to be no further probing into the riches accrued by its ‘chairman generals’. The legislation also comes just after Pakistan has approved its most expensive CPEC project, the $6.8 billion railway upgrade largely financed by China, as well as $3.9 billion hydropower projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
National level infrastructure
Pakistan owes almost its entire infrastructure to the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) commanded by a Major General, which is involved in building the western and eastern salient of CPEC highways. Dun & Bradstreet lists it as having an estimated annual income of $3.8 million, and 56 companies attached. FWO outsources to favoured companies, and apparently also to paramilitary arms. Recently, some 40 officers of the Frontier Corps were suspended for large-scale corruption in CPEC projects in Balochistan, where the FWO is on the ground. According to the Pakistan Army website, the FWO is also involved in building thermal and hydel power stations, airfields in Skardu and Wana, and not to mention construction of the main freight line for the Pakistan railways. A separate branch deals with strategic mining including for molybdenum, which is vital for nuclear and missile projects. Gold and copper mining add to this wealthy portfolio, all of which aids and influence operations due to the outsourcing to various corporate houses, which in turn are often run by politicians or their relatives. In fact, two of Imran Khan’s close aides have come under the scanner for a massive scam on a CPEC transmission project.
Allied to this are logistics and communications operations. The Pakistan Army has the National Logistics Cell, managed by serving officers, but employing over 6,500 civilians, mostly retired servicemen, managing more than 2,000 heavy duty vehicles. It was heavily involved in funnelling drugs from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the 1980s in cohorts with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Then there is the Special Communications Organisation (SCO), which completed the Pakistan-China Optical Fibre Cable project in collaboration with Huawei in record time. The SCO, needless to add, is entirely run by the army. Though the line runs through PoK, the people themselves have little access to the internet, with a groundswell of demands from students for better connectivity. Meanwhile, it will eventually service Gwadar, and a range of defence communication and satellite facilities.
There’s more, like the fact that the army also has some 50 large businesses including sugar mills and stud farms. All in all a nice packet of money for the boys in uniform. Pakistan is now under army rule, much to the delight of Beijing and probably even the US. After all, it’s easier to deal with one man in a smart uniform, rather than a squabbling mess of politicians. Washington should reconsider. An army that drives its posh SUVs oiled by Chinese money is bad news, whether in Mandarin, Punjabi or English. For India, the two-front war just got closer to the realm of likelihood.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.