by: Ch. Muhammad Natiq,
Islamabad: Of late, there has been a good deal of discussion over defence spending in Pakistan. This is something that has become a bit of a recurring feature in the months of June/July; when budget announcements, debating these announcements to death by both the treasury and opposition benches, the painting of various scenarios by analysts, and number-crunching exercises by economists, reaches fever-pitch.
Don’t be misled by the opening paragraph, though. This is a very good thing. The voting public of Pakistan has a basic right to know which direction the expenditures of the state are taking. Political discourse – criticism, even – of how the treasury intends to enrich or impoverish us, is vitally important in a democratic system. Legislation, on the basis of this discourse, must also follow. The media must not only be expected to but should be encouraged to play the role of fiscal watchdog. Only by holding our financial mandarins to strict accountability that is public, transparent, and widely publicised can we hope to ensure that every penny of Pakistan’s hard-earned money is utilised in the most befitting manner.
The Ides of June
Here comes the ‘but’, though. More often than not, such debates are little other than petty internecine struggles played out in public; that is designed to upstage or point-score, more than add to democratic discourse. We often see that there is a lack of objectivity and reality; and at times, outright liberties are taken with the truth. Discussions on matters as serious as the budget have to be based on a certain rationale and logic rather than be a ‘flavour of the season’ when the running financial year comes to an end and the new one starts. In the case of defence spending especially, this rationale has to focus on several key aspects. If the threats we face or the array of measures our potential adversaries – in the region, and within Pakistan – have put in place against us, or the multitude of tasks that our armed forces may be (and often, are) called upon to perform, are disregarded, any meaningful calculus of our defence spending will not only be lopsided, it may be dangerously misleading too. Even more dangerous, is when deliberate attempts are made to somehow link defence expenditure to lack of progress, on the basis of ‘sab kuchh fauj khaa gayee hai’ (the army has gobbled up everything); a much-repeated refrain that is entirely untruthful and misleading.
We hear figures of two-thirds of the budget going to defence. “High forties” percentage points of the entire budget being apportioned to the armed forces, are often quoted, too. Let me just say, at the risk of repetition: that all of that is false. Completely so.
Also, patently false is how the defence budget is (dis)credited as being amongst the highest in the world, in terms of various statistics. We often hear some say that our expenditure ranks amongst the top few countries of the world, in terms of percentage of GDP, or total expenditure, or this-or-the-other aspect. Here, too, a great deal of this is based on at-best spurious facts, if not outright falsehoods.
At the same time, without getting into an exercise in trying to myth-bust or number-fudge, it would suffice to point out that measured up against India – with whom we share a 3,000+ kilometre border that has been called “the most dangerous in the world” by Foreign Policy magazine – we err on the wrong side of proportion. India’s current defence budget stands at approximately $71 billion, around $5 billion more than Pakistan’s total budgetary outlay of $66 billion. In comparison, Pakistan’s defence budget stands at around $4 Billion. The 36 Rafale fighter jets alone that India is purchasing from France – and is probably itching to deploy against Pakistan after last year – account for $9.23 billion. That sum alone is more than twice our entire defence budget. India’s entire defence budget is 18 times ours.
Nitpickers among us would be quick to point out that India is five times more populous than us, too and that its total budgetary outlay is many times higher than ours. That its armed forces – which stand at 1.5 million strong against our 650,000 odds – are much bigger. Yes. Exactly. That rationale itself underscores the need for us to maintain credible power potential – in both conventional as well as non-conventional terms – against a much-larger neighbour with whom we have fought three major wars, undergone numerous border skirmishes, and have engaged in dangerous border stand-offs on a startlingly regular basis. The threat we face from India – which it has repeatedly made abundantly clear to us over the decades and which cannot be foisted off as a mere pipedream of the current Indian regime’s hegemonic designs over the entire region – is clear and present. It is existential. Let us not remain under illusions to the contrary. Especially not, when its knee-jerk response to anything and everything that transpires in India is to immediately lay blame on Pakistan, and then threaten or contemplate or actually carry out punitive military action.
Increasingly, more and more evidence of India’s complicity in attempting to destabilise Pakistan in any way whatsoever is coming to light. That it has had a hand in financing and orchestrating terrorist acts in Pakistan is becoming ever more apparent. That it has engaged in active espionage; whereby its intelligence operatives have been involved in murder and mayhem, through proxy forces within our borders, has also been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If any doubt remains, one need look no further than India’s imaginary ‘surgical strikes’ that it has ‘launched’ over the past several years; that has been so lovingly received by the Indian media and populace. The last such strike – which took place after India’s mendacious sense of outrage over the Pulwama incident, last year and may actually have led to the re-election of India’s current hard-line regime in 2019 – is still fairly fresh in everyone’s mind.
This is the sort of neighbour we have. A neighbour whose government publicly states that isolating Pakistan and absorbing it back into India is part of its strategic vision. Let there be no mistakes about that.
It is for these reasons perhaps, that we have the sixth largest armed forces in the world. But then, we are also the sixth most populous country in the world, too. We are the 33rd largest country in the world in terms of area. Our total borders are 6,975 kilometres; part of which covers that “most dangerous in the world” stretch of 3,126 kilometres, and includes the disputed Line of Control and the perennially ‘hot’ working boundary, with India. Let us also consider that we share a long, terribly-porous border to our northwest with Afghanistan; from where drug trafficking, gun-running, contraband-smuggling, and cross-border terrorism are the norm rather than the exception. To our west we have Iran – the bête noire of the West; who seek to destabilise, regime-change, or impoverish it, come what may – and its unsettled Sistan wa Baluchestan region. These trying borders need guards, unfortunately. There is the need to retain the capacity for some form of response. This is an indisputable truth pertaining to our geography.
Let us then move on to the threat we face from within. For decades, terrorism has bedevilled us. This has taken various shapes and forms; ethnolinguistic conflict, sectarian strife, foreign-sponsored fighters, and a motley crew of ultra-nationalist movements that seek to violently break away from the Republic. Over the years, painstakingly, and bit-by-bit, Pakistan has managed to wrest back a semblance of control from such terror; which the South Asian Portal on Terror has estimated to have gone down by 89% since 2009. Our people in the regions afflicted by such militants have endured all sorts of hardships and casualties. At the forefront of this fight for the very soul of Pakistan, though, have been the armed forces of Pakistan. And to this very day, while we may have overcome the worst, terrorist organisations and outfits do still continue to inflict casualties on innocent Pakistani civilians and armed forces individuals. The threat they pose to us may have been blunted, dispersed and neutered somewhat, but it still exists. These ‘inner borders’ of Pakistan need guards, too. There is the need to retain a capacity for some form of response, nevertheless. This is an indisputable truth pertaining to our demography.
In brief, these internal as well as external threats – and the need for a response – are what truly configure the wherewithal – the manpower and resources and force projections – that will be devoted to solving them. In purely layman’s terms, if an existential threat is perceived to one’s life or property, the height of the boundary wall that might be built for self-protection will be based on how that threat is perceived and best countered, and not on the resources one might or might not have. Much as one might wish to, you cannot get away with erecting a foot-tall wall when the severity of the threat dictates you have a ten-foot-tall one. Conversely, if there is no threat, one might not need to build such a wall at all. There are examples of countries that spend tiny fractions of their GDP on defence; primarily for the reason that they do not face significant threats, from within or without. This threat perception – and the response spectrum to it – is the scarlet thread around which the entire calculus of our defence expenditure is based. Those amongst us who advocate a sweeping-arbitrary spending cut for the sake of it would be well-advised to pause and ponder whether Pakistan does indeed have a need for a ‘wall’ or not. And if it does…how high must it be?
Beyond the call of duty
While it may be all very correct to take into account all possible derivatives from the threat perception and task analysis that Pakistan faces, it is also a stark fact that expectations from them – most notably, from the army – are unlike those in any other part of the world.
Over the years, some of the non-army tasks that the army has performed include flood and earthquake relief, disaster management in case of manmade catastrophes and accidents, building roads and communication networks, setting up schools, colleges and universities, de-silting canal networks, census taking, tracking down ghost schools and ghost employees, rehabilitating WAPDA, anti-terrorist operations, anti-dacoit operations, security and monitoring of elections, anti-smuggling and anti-narcotics operations, peacekeeping and peace-enforcing during religiously-sensitive periods, providing free education and hostel facilities to underprivileged students from the erstwhile tribal areas, guarding of vital installations and providing free medical facilities in far-flung areas. It is pertinent to note that existing organisations for such tasks are already present but for reasons of political expediency, lack of oversight, and deliberate inefficiency, the army has become our go-to remedy for all ills.
Whenever such calamities have befallen us, the army has invariably donated a portion of its pay and allowances towards government funds established to financially tackle such problems. All of these roles and tasks – which are not the primary tasks of the armed forces – are performed by them, when custom-designed and equipped organs like the police, customs, health ministries, educational authorities, disaster management agencies, and infrastructure building organisations, already exist and are being paid for. Even today, the army is playing a dominant role in combating Covid-19 and is spearheading the initiative to curb the current plague of locusts affecting the south of the country. This, while we have a Ministry of Health, and a Ministry of Agriculture. While we already have a National Disaster Management Authority.
One might pause to ask: why is that the case? Indeed, one might also consider the more alarming question: what would Pakistan do without its armed forces willing to take up the (considerable) slack, of poor governance, corruption, inefficiency, and lackadaisical performance?
We all should be – I won’t say we all are, necessarily – proud of several other distinguished aspects of our army and armed forces. These aspects indicate how the armed forces of Pakistan play an all-important cohesive role, too – one of social bonding, ethnolinguistic inclusion and responsibility towards our national commitments. While we are manning – and holding our own at – the highest battlefield in the world (Siachen), and facing a multitude of external as well as internal threats, we are also the most decorated army in the world in the history of UN peacekeeping (in terms of most medals ever awarded to a country). We also happen to be the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. Our army has the largest number of women in the Muslim world, several of whom have been promoted to General officer ranks. One of these illustrious women was recently promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General – a first for us. Our Army has the lowest suicide rate in the world; statistically equal to 0%. Our army chiefs have hailed from the Punjab, K-P, Sindh and Balochistan over the years. Citizens of every district of every province of Pakistan are included in our enrolment figures. Our enrolment includes Sunnis, Shias, Nurbakhshis, Ismailis, Christians, Hindus, Parsis, Ahmadis and we even have a Sikh officer. We do all of this by maintaining one of the lowest teeth-to-tail ratios in terms of expenditure per individual soldier in the world.
It is unfortunate that such aspects – which may not figure out prominently in the cost-to-benefits ratio of defence spending, but are an all-important glue that binds the fabric of our society together, nevertheless – rarely (if ever) come up for consideration during our debates on the budget. Perhaps, after all, it is time for us to start considering these things as well, rather than engage in statistical sleight-of-hand to prove this point or the other. Society, after all, is made up of individuals, values, and linkages, rather than numbers and figures, per se.
The myth of the military’s ‘financial empire’
How the army runs its self-sustaining rehabilitation and welfare programmes should also be a source of considerable pride for us, but all too often, this too is skewed and contorted into how the army is some greedy ‘corporate’ money-making mega-machine. One is reminded of a talk that our budget is ‘forced’ to provide subsidies of Rs92 billion each year to various commercial ventures that fall under the Fauji Foundation. Such talk neglects to mention – and surely, this is unintentional – how the same organisation spends approximately Rs224 billion each year on welfare-related programmes. It runs 130 medical facilities, 104 schools and colleges, 66 vocational training centres and 10 technical training centres.
Each year 2.1 million Pakistanis receive medical care from it. It currently provides education to over 40,000 fresh students enrolled annually and gives away over 70,000 educational scholarships each year. The social protection and rehabilitation programmes it runs, benefit not just ex-servicemen and their wards but are spread out over 5% of Pakistan’s entire population. That’s over nine million beneficiaries, most of whom belong to some of the most impoverished, resource-stressed areas of Pakistan. Out of a total of 26,583 employees, 22,297 (83%) are civilians. 4,286 (17%) are wards of shuhada, war-wounded personnel and ex-servicemen. If there is any comparable, self-sustaining welfare and rehabilitation system run by any other army in the world, it should certainly bear an honourable mention here.
But let’s just pause here for a moment. Critics – and there are many of them – point out that no other army in the world runs such programmes. That no other organisation within Pakistan is ‘minting money whilst ostensibly working under the garb of welfare, right? Wrong.
The US Army has the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC), a multi-billion dollar asset of theirs. Yes, they call it an ‘asset’. As of 30th September 2020, the assets in US Military Retirement Fund stood at $979.4 billion, just shy of a trillion dollars. China has had its People’s Liberation Army Production Corps in place since 1954. Turkey’s military has a Trust and Pension fund called OYAK, which runs hotels, clubs and other miscellaneous facilities. Bangladesh Army runs multiple businesses and owns at least two five-star premises in Dhaka and Chittagong. The Indian Army manages around 100 golf courses and clubs.
Back home, the National Police Foundation operates two housing schemes in Rawalpindi and Islamabad and also owns the Nowshera Sheet Glass Industries. The Gulberg housing society in Islamabad is owned and operated by the Intelligence Bureau. The judiciary operates four housing societies in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Gujranwala. Railways have several such schemes across the country. Defence Housing Authorities (DHAs) – which are self-financing units set up at no cost to public money and do not occupy public land – offer 70% of their plots and properties to Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), war-wounded personnel, wards of shuhada, and civilians paid out of defence estimates. Such properties – including those allotted to serving officers – are paid for by officers over the course of their respective service, by way of a phased instalment-based programme. Over the past five years, DHAs have contributed over Rs20 Billion to the national exchequer by way of taxes paid. It’s funny how we never get to see any of this.
What we do see is a series of diatribes from a variety of sources that bemoan the lack of ‘progress’ Pakistan has made because of what we spend on defence. Usually, this is couched in more number-crunching; that quotes the frugal amounts that are reserved for education, health, development programmes, and other aspects; whose mismanagement and corrupt practices are directly attributable to Pakistan’s low human development index statistics. We rank at an abysmally-low 152nd in the world in this regard; below the global average in virtually every area imaginable. More worryingly, the progress we have made over the past three decades in the factors that make us what we are has been excruciatingly slow. One is forced to wonder in the light of these facts and figures, as to whether defence spending is really the reason behind our lack of progress in other vital areas, or is it something else? If Pakistan’s armed forces can adapt and display exceptional results in a resource-constrained environment, why not other organs of state? If they don’t – and in Pakistan, we’re quite well aware that they usually don’t – how and why can Pakistan’s defence budget be responsible for it?
Regardless of that, there can be no two thoughts on this topic; improving the quality of life of our people is one of Pakistan’s most pressing requirements. This can be best achieved by investing in our human resources. In the field of basic education; to make more aware, knowledgeable, and qualified Pakistanis. Investing in health; guarantees their physical wellness and vitality. We need to invest in science and technology, higher education, and vocational training; and pay a great deal more attention to hygiene and sanitation, the environment, and the provision of basic amenities. But all of this improvement in the quality of life is necessarily linked to ensuring the security of life, too.
One pressing requirement, thus, cannot be at the cost of another; that may be equally – or even more – important. One might wish to have enough money and resources to go around; that would easily meet all of our needs. Unfortunately, though, a country like Pakistan that has finite resources – that has been saddled over the years with a crippling debt which gobbles up over a third of its entire budgetary outlay, has one of the lowest per capita revenue collection and tax returns of the world, where corruption, flight of capital, and the “brain-drain” have depleted it of so many resources, in so many ways and which still faces a variety of security threats to its very existence that must be addressed – will always be forced to adopt a perhaps-unwanted compromise. As a result, every single organ of the state will be forced to adapt to a resource-constricted existence; stretching out meagre funds as far as is possible, has to be the default setting for each.
That stark fact, more than the barrage of recriminations and their replies that we get to see in the summer months every year, is perhaps the underpinning of the calculus of war – and peace – in Pakistan.