By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
DAULAT NAGAR, Pakistan -- Nusrat Riaz, a doctor for 17 years, has spent the past three directing a clinic that provides care to thousands of poor patients in this remote, wheat-farming village on the plains of Punjab.
So Riaz was surprised this spring when he learned the government had appointed a monitor to look over his shoulder as he worked. He was even more surprised when he learned the man had no medical background, had no experience supervising doctors and was functionally illiterate.
But when Riaz learned the monitor was a retired Pakistani army officer, it all made sense. "This is part of the militarization of the entire country," said Riaz, 46. "It is very insulting, and it is happening because of the man sitting at the top."
That man, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president, has been Pakistan's leader for almost eight years. In that time, the nuclear-armed military has quietly exerted its influence over nearly every segment of Pakistani society.
Active-duty or retired officers now occupy most key government jobs, including posts in education, agriculture and medicine that have little to do with defense. The military also dominates the corporate world; it reportedly runs a $20 billion portfolio of businesses from banks to real estate developers to bakeries. And everywhere lurks the hand of the feared military-led intelligence services.
Yet in a country where the military has long been immune from criticism, its extraordinary power is now drawing open contempt from civilians. A campaign against Musharraf that began three months ago, following his suspension of the chief justice, has exploded into a full-fledged movement to oust the armed services from civilian life and send the generals back to their barracks.
They are not expected to go easily, and the wealth and influence they have attained during the Musharraf era helps explain why.
"If the generals don't recede, I fear a civil-military conflict," said Zafarullah Khan, a leading Pakistani lawyer and opposition figure. "Ultimately the question is: Who gets to rule? Sixteen generals or 160 million people? Sooner or later we have to decide that once and for all."
History in Pakistan is on the generals' side. They have ruled the country for more than half of the 60 years since independence. Even when civilians have ostensibly been in charge, they have had to bow to the military just to keep their jobs. Of the nation's past three civilian leaders, two are in exile and one was hanged.
Musharraf's brand of military rule has been different from most. Since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, he has not declared martial law. As army chief, he still wears his uniform, but just as often opts for a business suit or traditional shalwar kameez. For the most part, he eschews grand, strutting military parades. Soldiers are a rare sight on the nation's streets.
Yet the military's imprint is everywhere.
It's by the side of the road, where men in orange jumpsuits labor for a military-run foundation that controls a huge share of the nation's construction industry. It's also present up and down the ranks of the civilian bureaucracy, where government workers answer to retired military men and complain that loyalty is consistently rewarded over hard work or competence. And it's in Riaz's health clinic, where his doctors say they take heat from army inspectors if they spend more than 10 minutes with a patient.
The military's might, Pakistanis say, also comes in much more insidious forms. The calls that wake Khan, the lawyer, in the middle of the night, for instance.
"We've purchased your coffin," a caller once told him at 2:15 a.m. "Get ready for Pakistan's Tiananmen Square," said another.
Khan, a vigorous man whose office in Islamabad is crammed with classic works of history and philosophy, said he is certain that Pakistan's elite, military-run intelligence agencies are behind the calls. And he knows the threats are not idle.
Human rights groups have estimated that hundreds of Pakistanis have disappeared at the hands of the intelligence agencies in recent years. Political opponents, journalists and lawyers now fear they will meet the same fate.
With Musharraf fighting for his political survival, the military has begun pushing back against what top officers call a "malicious campaign" against the state. This month, the government rounded up more than 1,000 opposition party activists and shipped them to detention facilities hundreds of miles from home to serve prison terms of undetermined lengths. Police officials said they were ordered to make the arrests by military intelligence officers. The government has since said all the activists were released, a contention disputed by party officials.
"Everyone is concerned about safety," Khan said. "But what can we do? It is our country. We have to change it."
Just over three months ago, there was little public enthusiasm for change. Musharraf enjoyed widespread popularity, owing in part to his decision to replace civilian leaders who were seen as corrupt and inefficient with military leaders who presented themselves as disciplined and moral. Musharraf boasted that the new leaders had brought prosperity to Pakistan, citing strong economic growth and reductions in poverty. He seemed a lock for another term in office.
But the mood in Pakistan shifted dramatically on March 9, when the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, refused a demand by Musharraf -- dressed at the time in his pressed khaki uniform -- to resign. That act of defiance struck a powerful nerve, and the backlash began.
The protests against Chaudhry's suspension started as anti-Musharraf, but lately the target has expanded. At rallies across the country, thousands of angry protesters now chant "The generals are traitors!" and "The soldiers are traitors!"
Chaudhry's attorney, Aitzaz Ahsan, told a recent gathering that Pakistan's problem is that it has gone from a "social welfare state," in which the government's primary purpose is to care for its citizens, to "a national security state," in which an all-powerful military craves instability at home and enemies abroad to justify its role. "The issue is not just Pervez Musharraf," he said. "The issue is the military."
That message has filtered down to the streets of Pakistan, and it seems to resonate with a diverse group of Pakistanis.
One reason for the changed attitude is geopolitical. Pakistan's military has traditionally acted as a bulwark against a hostile neighbor to the east, India. But relations between the two nuclear powers have been warming, and the threat has become less imminent. Meanwhile, the army's close ties with the United States at a time of growing anti-Americanism here have not helped its image.
But the main reasons are domestic. For Pakistani professionals -- particularly highly trained lawyers, doctors and professors -- the movement has become a chance to decry intrusions in their fields by less educated military men. Civil society, they say, has badly atrophied during Musharraf's tenure.
For the poor, meanwhile, the military has become an obvious outlet for anxiety over growing income disparities and fast-rising prices.
In Rawalpindi, the teeming garrison town just down the road from Islamabad, retired and active-duty officers live in sparkling new gated communities that feature luxury homes, tree-lined streets and grassy parks. Mohammed Shafiq, a 36-year-old clerk, can see one such development from the weedy field in front of his old, squat brick home.
"Before, people had good opinions of the army," he said. "Now they are afraid. If soldiers come, we think they are coming to take our land."
Land is one of the military's most prized assets, distributed as a perk to top officers, with major generals getting at least 50 acres apiece. The military's total land holdings are worth upward of $12 billion, according to Ayesha Siddiqa, a British-trained scholar who last month published an academic study that chronicles the military's extensive business network.
Through affiliated foundations and subsidiaries, Siddiqa wrote, the military has captured a dominant position in the economy, making many of its top officers rich in the process. The effect, she argued, has been to stunt the growth of every other facet of Pakistani society while tightening the military's grip on power.
"This is what we call legal corruption," she told an audience that had crammed into a small, airless office for her book launch last month.
The venue for the launch had been switched at the last minute because the swanky, government-run Islamabad Club canceled her reservation. No hotels would host the function, either. Later, Siddiqa's calls were mysteriously dropped, and plainclothes agents visited her home town to question her employees. Feeling threatened, she recently left for London.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the military's best efforts, the book has become a bestseller.