New Delhi, Oct 12 (IANS) The US may be talking of the gradual democratisation of Pakistan, but the country's army may be in no mood to relinquish power given its proliferating commercial interests. Other than ruling Pakistan directly and indirectly since independence and controlling its nuclear, defence and foreign policies, the military remains the country's largest and most profitable business conglomerate.
'We now have a corporate military more into things commercial, especially real estate, than anything as dull and prosaic as mere soldiering and fighting,' Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir caustically declared in the newspaper Dawn recently.
It is often said of Pakistan that whilst all countries have armies, Pakistan's military has a country.
Nearly 1,200 serving and retired military officers - mostly from the army - run a web of banks, transport, road building, communication and construction businesses worth billions of dollars.
The 'Fauji' or solider foundations also operate a private airline, hundreds of educational institutions, power plants, steel and cement factories, and even produce consumer goods like sugar, electronic items and breakfast cereals.
Security sources said personnel drawn from these foundations worked with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate and the extremist Islamist organizations to train, arm and motivate mujahideen cadres to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan through the 1980s.
A few years later, they raised and installed the Taliban in Kabul, providing the Islamic militia financial and logistic support till it was removed by the US in 2001.
According to analyst Satish Kumar, who edits India's National Security Annual Review, the Pakistan Army is not only the largest real estate owner but also the country's 'biggest' commercial player.
'It is not just a defence force but a ruling class oligarchy with substantial economic interests to safeguard,' Kumar told IANS. It is unlikely that the military will relinquish this role in the foreseeable future, he added.
Military juntas have appropriated large tracts of hugely expensive urban land at throwaway prices to establish grandiose housing colonies.
During Pakistan's erratic experiments with democracy, the army headquartered at Rawalpindi, the garrison town adjoining the capital Islamabad, has exercised thinly veiled control over the civilian administrations, significantly strengthening its financial empire.
Pakistanis joke that if every serving and retired military officer protects his own property, then their country would be one of the best defended in the region.
The business interests broadly fall into three categories - the ones controlled directly by the chief of the army staff, the formalized military ordnance factories, and the state-owned armament factories managed by the defence ministry.
In addition, there are four charitable trusts that operate autonomously like private corporations in which serving and former servicemen run factories and manufacturing units producing a range of goods and services.
The first group includes the National Highway Authority (NHA) and the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), each headed by a two-star officer, the Special Communications Organisation amply supported by the Signal Corps and the National Logis