Swiss Leaks Saga: Civil-Military Elite Takes Centre Stage

Swiss Leaks Saga: Civil-Military Elite Takes Centre Stage
In a bombshell exposé dubbed the ‘Suisse Secrets’, it came to light that Pakistan’s former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief, General (R) Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan had stashed millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts during his service. The New York Times report stated that Akhtar was ‘adept at getting CIA cash into the hands of Afghan jihadists in the 1980’s and it was around this time that Swiss bank accounts were opened in the names of his three sons. The accounts had millions of dollars in deposits by 2010. 

Then there’s Gen (R.) Zahid Ali Akbar Khan, reported to have retained an account with the Swiss bank, with a balance north of 15 million Swiss francs. The general was once in-charge of overseeing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. 

While the leak provides insight into shady dealings facilitated by a lack of due diligence at the highest levels, it also unmasks the alleged corruption of some military elites. It is open secret that high ranking officers are able to amass vast amounts of wealth and speculations have been rife about the ill gotten nature of that wealth.

We have been here before with Ex DG ISPR General (R) Asim Bajwa, whose family’s empire expansion coincided with his rise.

More often than not, the military has championed itself as runners of a tight ship adhering to the highest standards of internal accountability. Take the 2019 statement by then Director General  Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) stating that high ranking officers involved in espionage were facing court martial proceedings, or the 2021 conviction of retired officers over espionage.

However, it is crystal clear the institution’s internal accountability mechanism is more apt at sanctioning anti state activities than shady financial dealings. This raises concerns about the effectiveness of that mechanism itself. As an institution that prizes itself on stringent checks, the army must institute wide ranging measures to deal with financial corruption and indications of it. 

Make no mistake that the military remains Pakistan’s most popular institution. It still commands undiluted affection despite criticism and persistent dissonance vis a vis its sanctified role. Unfortunately, reports of financial corruption inside the army diminish public trust and confidence. The institution, which relies on a coalition of popularity and trust, suffers adversely because of these revelations. The advantage of robust action on financial duplicity will yield significantly better optics, at the least.

It is either by design or coincidence that the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) grants immunity to military officers. While Pakistan Penal Code includes military officers in the definition of public servants, NAB ordinance excludes them to avoid jurisdiction. Military laws include punishments and offences which fall under the Pakistan Penal Code, but grant the option to court martial the officer. The NAB however fails to recognise them as public office holders altogether hence cannot investigate military officials in a typical ‘asset beyond means’ case. The onus on the institution’s internal accountability mechanism increases as a result.

The leaks’ saga revealed  the usual suspects became suspects again. From deceased Senators Gulzar and Haji Saifullah to Punjab’s finance minister, the political elites were a regular feature. Add to that the Lakhanis, who reportedly had around 60 million dollars parked in swiss accounts and you have a very grim picture. The political and business elite have regularly featured in Pandora and Panama leaks. 

This raises questions around Imran Khan’s fight to bring back offshore money. Far from claims of bringing back billions of dollars, the PM’s accountability drive has only managed modest recoveries locally. There has been no systemic change at PM’s asset recovery unit either to adopt measures that ‘bring back’ large amounts of money located abroad. The recovery unit has also failed to establish conclusively whether this money was laundered to evade taxes. While the ARU and NAB guns remain pointed at opposition politicians, it appears that vast majority of wealth situated abroad will remain there, come what may. It is perplexing, that a government which brands itself as anti corruption, has failed to initiate proceedings or investigations into usual suspects like the Lakson group and others who have been the subject of NAB investigations in the past. 

In light of corruption allegations at the highest echelons, there is one ugly word that comes to mind for those who sit atop our country: unaccountable. Their story is very different to those who embrace martyrdom,  fight on the frontlines and strive to live on average household income. 

The writer is the co-founder of the Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.