Imran Khan’s prosecution won’t do much. The military is at the heart of Pakistan’s corruption

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Lacking even the meagre comfort of an after-dinner cognac to calm their nerves, the assembled billionaires listened silently as their guest’s rage washed over the gathering. The Islamic punishment for a mere thief, the Karachi Chamber of Commerce was told in 1986, was the amputation of his hands. The tax-evader, though, was committing a crime against the State, and his “arm must be cut off.” The menace was real: The Groucho-moustached General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had, after all, hanged a prime minister.

There was one thing the military ruler neglected to share with his audience: Like the vast majority of lawmakers and elites in Pakistan, General Zia had never troubled himself filing a tax return.

Earlier this week, a court suspended former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s conviction for misappropriating expensive State gifts while in office. Long legal struggles remain in multiple corruption cases, but Imran is just one of a long, disquieting list: Benazir Bhutto, her husband Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Yusuf Raza Gilani all faced prosecution for embezzling millions.

The sociologist Charles Tilly famously observed many decades ago that the nation-state itself was “our largest example of organised crime”: The establishment of cooperative ties among political and business elites, he noted, often involved corruption and coercion. The success of the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea, Taiwan and China involved outright criminality, historian Renate Bridenthal has shown.

For Pakistan, though, this process of elite consolidation has ended with the fracturing of its polity and the choking of its economy. This did not happen because its politicians were greedier than those elsewhere in the world. The answers lie, instead, in the distorting influence of the military and the impunity the Generals have long enjoyed.

Institutionalising loot

From the outset, pillage was a key tool of nation-building, as Pakistan’s elites sought to mobilise the resources they needed to establish power in a new, fragmented country. Local notables in Punjab scrambled to seize lands left behind by Hindus and Sikhs by forging paperwork and claiming to be Partition refugees. Karachi’s Special Police Establishment, a federal anti-corruption force set up in 1948, discovered civil servants had misappropriated some 50 significant properties left behind by refugees. 

The historians William Gould, Taylor Sherman and Sarah Ansari have argued that the crisis had, in fact, begun on the cusp of Independence, when wartime food shortages created a black market. The Imperial government responded with mandatory food procurement, which engendered powerful black markets.

Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan’s military regime, which seized power in 1958, succeeded in ironing out the more egregious cases of Partition-related fraud and cracked down on corruption in the bureaucracy. The larger problems of enhancing tax revenues, and widening the social base of economic activity, however, eluded him.

Little institutional capacity existed, for one, to address white-collar crime, historian Ilhan Niaz has recorded. From 1948 to 1966, just 102 officers of Pakistan’s federal government were convicted for corruption-related offences—numbers too small to act as a deterrent.

The military, moreover, soon found itself confronting an even more difficult kind of institutional corruption. According to historian Ayesha Jalal, estimates suggested that agricultural land in Punjab and Sindh was concentrated in the hands of just a few large landlords. Eighty feudal families dominated the country’s resources, retarding its transition to a genuinely modern economy.

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