The military myth
EARLIER this week during a routine visit to Jacobabad airbase, the chief of army staff (COAS) is reported to have said that the armed forces are allocated only 18 per cent of total government outlays, and that of this 'paltry' amount only half actually ends up at the disposal of our hallowed guardians.

Perhaps unsurprisingly there was no rebuttal issued either by the government or any of our mainstream parties. Just as predictable has been the complete silence on the army chief's claim within media circles.

Contrast this to the obsessive reporting on the excesses of politicians (with the exception of Imran Khan
... aka Taliban Khan, who is the lightweight's lightweight...
, of course). Pakistain's politics-hating, army-loving urban middle classes stand vindicated.

If one spends enough time in the living rooms of educated middle-class folk in this country it is easy to be convinced that 'feudalism' and 'rural backwardness' are the root causes of all of Pakistain's problems.

'Corruption' and 'bad governance' are necessary corollaries, given that most of our politicians hail from the 'feudal' class. Or so our armchair middle-class analysts would have us believe.

There is some truth to the caricature of course, but a caricature it nonetheless remains. Much has changed in Pakistain over the decades; as scholars such as Akbar Zaidi and Arif Hasan have gone through great pains to illustrate, to call Pak society feudal is to gloss over the extent to which urbanisation and the deepening of capitalist social relations have transformed the social and political landscape, notwithstanding the fact that a small number of individuals/families still own a large percentage of rural farmland in the agricultural heartlands.

Take, for example, one of the urban middle classes' most-detested political figures, Jamshed Dasti. This MNA from Muzzaffargarh was the poster-child of the fake degree-ers disqualified from elected office.

Dasti is not a feudal; in fact he is anything but. Hailing from a relatively humble urban background, Dasti has been a bane in the existence of feudal incumbents. Dasti's most high-profile competitor in the 2008 general election? Mustafa Khar, the quintessential 'feudal lord'.

Lest one forget, many politicians who graduated into the echelons of the elite in the 1980s hail from distinctly non-feudal backgrounds, including favourites of the establishment such as Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad.

Urban commercial classes have become increasingly important political players in Pakistain, starting with the Zia regime's very conscious efforts to co-opt them into the military-dominated patronage-based order that was painstakingly constructed through those 11 dark years.

Indeed, this military-dominant patronage order has more or less remained intact in two and a half decades since Zia's demise.

The military's primacy is very apparent when it takes over the reins of government, but strategic retreats such as those undertaken under Gen Kayani
... four star general, current Chief of Army Staff of the Mighty Pak Army. Kayani is the former Director General of ISI...
's watch do not necessarily signify a dramatic weakening of the institution's economic, political or ideological power.

Recently published work on what was not long ago a taboo topic has clarified beyond a shadow of a doubt -- even accounting for the crass attempts to undermine the credibility of this scholarship -- that the men in khaki preside over a vast corporate empire, and the burden that innumerable military-run enterprises exert on public resources is, at best, greatly understated.

Relatedly, and just as important is the role that the military continues to exercise in the political sphere. The military's being, as the popular phrase goes, 'the only institution that works in Pakistain' , has directly contributed to the fragmentation of other state institutions and the deepening of patronage-based political practices that are all too simplistically deemed 'corruption' and 'bad governance'.

The fact that so many politicians play musical chairs when it comes to party memberships and the intolerance for dissenting views are also at least partially explained by the unending political machinations of our hallowed guardians (or more specifically their various intelligence apparatuses).

Bashing 'feudals' and politicians more generally has been a tried and tested strategy for those who seek to maintain the mythic conception of the men in khaki. For the best part of four years a concerted campaign has been under way to rehabilitate the military's image after the dire last days of Musharraf.

It has been only partially successful, in large part because of the patchy relationship between the men in khaki and their imperial patron. Yet the campaign continues, and can be expected to continue until such a time as the civil-military imbalance is definitively altered. The contempt that so many of our urbanites harbour towards politics and politicians -- and it is important to bear in mind that the urban middle classes are extremely varied in terms of values, status and power -- actually has a much longer history than one might think.

The British and their hangers-on remained convinced until the dying breath of the Raj that politics was anathema to 'clean' and 'efficient' administration. Back then too the contradictions between what the proponents of such a model of government claimed and what they actually practised were no less evident.

There is, and has been, thankfully, a critical mass from within the ranks of the middle classes that does espouse a principled anti-establishment politics, sometimes in spite of the complicity of segments of the political class itself.

The costs are typically high; the gruesome fate of wave after wave of political dissidents in Balochistan
...the Pak province bordering Kandahar and Uruzgun provinces in Afghanistan and Sistan Baluchistan in Iran. Its native Baloch propulation is being displaced by Pashtuns and Punjabis and they aren't happy about it...
is testament to this fact.
It is, thus, hardly a surprise that our mainstream politicians -- with notable exceptions at notable times -- tend to exercise caution when it comes to confronting the military. One can only hope that, sooner or later, exposés of power in the media and by the activist judiciary will extend to the men in khaki.

Even though it has become fashionable these days for army chiefs and chief justices alike to proclaim the sanctity of the political process and the pre-eminence of parliament, the fact remains that generals and bureaucrats (and increasingly judges) exercise much more power in Pakistain over a great deal of the mundane than the popular media would have us believe.

Yes politicians must be held to account. But surely the same principle should apply to the men in khaki?

The writer teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.
Posted by: trailing wife 2012-02-17