Looking to expand its multi-billion dollar business empire, the Pakistan army now wants to join the hunt for gold, copper and oil that will allow it to tighten its grip over the country and the government of Imran Khan, who is believed to be backed by powerful military generals.
A recent international investigation found that the military-controlled engineering firm Frontiers Works Organization (FWO) plans to go into the lucrative mining sector and wants a key role in Balochistan’s Reko Diq mine, which has one of the world’s largest untapped copper and gold deposits.
And, it appears that the government may favour it over other investors.
Another sector where the military seems to be getting preferential treatment is oil and gas exploration. The Frontier Oil Company, a subsidiary of FWO, has been granted a contract for a 470km-long oil pipeline that is estimated to cost $370 million. Reports suggest that due process has not been followed in awarding this contract.
The Pakistan military has a $100-billion business empire, which includes stakes in banking, real estate, agriculture, security and telecommunication sectors. It is eyeing new sectors to further strengthen its hold over the economy, which is in a crisis, with a debt of around $100 billion. Inflation is at a four-year-high of almost nine per cent and is expected to rise further. The trade deficit stands at $21 billion.
Despite these troubling figures, the military is not only expanding its businesses but also its budgetary allocations. After debt servicing, the military takes away the second-largest chunk of the yearly government spending and the sum has been rising rapidly, with a 20 per cent increase in the last year’s budget alone. The money flows unchecked — there is no scrutiny of the budget nor is it audited by any independent body.
The military has shielded itself from any debate over its lavish budget by perpetuating external threats, which many believe are self-created. Take for instance, India. Pakistan-based groups strike across the border but are protected within their country and when India retaliates, as we saw in February, Pakistan plays the victim of Indian aggression and the military uses such pretexts to justify its oversized budget and presence in the country.
But even these large disbursements are not enough and the military constantly wants more, as was recently revealed by former finance minister Ishaq Dar in an interview to a Pakistani news channel. Dar, who was the finance minister in the former Nawaz Sharif government and now lives in exile, faces court cases in Pakistan, which he believes were motivated by his refusal to give military more money. Sharif, who was on March 26 granted six-week bail to seek treatment, has been jailed for corruption but even he says he is being punished for standing up to the military.
With Khan as the prime minister, it seems the military is having it easy. Other than new businesses and larger budgetary allocations, the military is eyeing another avenue to get more money.
In 2010, the Pakistani parliament amended the constitution to allow the provinces more autonomy and a bigger share of government spending, leaving little for the central government in Islamabad. This put a squeeze on the military budgets too, but after Imran Khan came to power, his ministers have hinted at revisiting the changes brought by the 18th amendment. The push to review the changes, however, came from the highest office of the military — army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told a gathering of select journalists last year that the constitutional amendment needed to be revisited. The ruling party members are echoing his demand.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly for nearly half of its existence but after the last dictatorship, of Gen Pervez Musharraf, ended in 2008, it has changed tactics and remains in the shadows from where it uses a civilian front to get its way.
The civilian government must realise that at the end of the day, it is in charge of the country. The more the military expands, the harder it will be for the government to curb its influence which benefits the multi-billion dollar empire lead by a handful of generals, and not the people of Pakistan. Pakistan spends less than five per cent of its budget on social sectors such as education and health, the least in Asia.
Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the country was desperate for foreign aid to shore up the economy. If he truly wants Pakistan to progress and break the habit of going around the world with a begging bowl, then his government must prioritise and allocate more funds for human development and rein in the military.