Pakistan - The cost of 3 decades of imperialist policies

Sept/Oct 2007

As this issue of our journal was going to press, a top-level meeting was about to start in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. On one side was a US delegation, led by Bush's deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, and his assistant for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher. On the other side was a delegation of the Pakistani government, led by a group of army dignitaries with the country's erstwhile dictator cum president, general Musharraf, firmly in command - for the time being, at least.

For the benefit of the media, presumably, Richard Boucher described this meeting as a "dialogue (..) about how we can work together to advance our common interests in security, education, science and technology, energy, economic growth and development, as well as regional and global issues. These are all areas where Pakistan can excel." But the fact that this "dialogue" was scheduled to begin on the 6th anniversary of 9/11 left very little possible doubt about its objective.

Indeed, what this "dialogue" is really about is the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. Six years on and despite Bush's hopes to be able to produce at least one "success" in front of his US electorate - to contrast with his bloody disaster in Iraq - not only is there no sign of a way out emerging for the western invaders in Afghanistan, but whatever has been done under the US-led coalition has turned into dismal failute. The regime put in place by the US in Kabul never had much authority beyond the capital area and has proved to be a bunch of self-serving parasites cum warlords. Meanwhile, anti-western forces - whether they are described as "Taleban", "al-Qaeda" or "tribal warlords" does not make much difference - have been gathering both political support and military strength in large parts of the country.

Worst of all, the Pakistani regime, Washington's closest regional ally since the Cold War and the recipient of scores of billions of dollars worth of US military aid over the past decades, has played a significant role - albeit, largely unwittingly - in the reinforcement of the anti-western camp in Afghanistan. This is what Negroponte and Boucher would like to sort out once and for all with the Pakistani generals.

However the issue is less simple than it may seem when looking at it from Washington as Bush and his advisors do. After nearly 3 decades of feeding Islamic fundamentalism with both dollars and guns in the region, western imperialism has managed to spread its influence much further afield than Afghanistan itself. And this comes at a cost for the Pakistani population, of course, but for the regime as well.

Despite its repressive methods, the political balance of the Pakistani dictatorship has been seriously weakened since Musharraf staged his 1999 coup. There are now armed Pakistani groups operating in various parts of the country, including in the capital itself. Large sections of the population have become disaffected by the impotence of the army against the rising number of terror attacks as well as against its cooperation with the US - which is considered as the main cause of Pakistan's problems. And they are all the more disaffected as this simmering civil war is crippling the country's economy and the living conditions of the majority of its population.

So the question raised by this summit is rather whether Musharraf's dictatorship is still in a position to deliver what the US expect from him, or whether his regime is already on the way out.

A rear-base for the Afghan wars

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in order to prevent its political stooges from losing power while the country was falling into chaos, Pakistan, imperialism's favourite regional ally since the mid 1950s, was the obvious choice for the US leaders to use for waging a proxy war against Moscow.

Indeed, Pakistan had a 1600-mile border with Afghanistan. This border - the so-called Durand line, named after the British official who drew it in 1893 - was ill-defined, having never been recognised by any government since WWII. Most of this border was in very inaccessible areas, some of it in high mountains, separated by easily-defensible passes and deep valleys. The local population on both sides was sparse and recognised no central authority. In fact, it paid little attention to the border, all the more so because most of it belonged to the same ethnic group - the Pashtuns - and often the same tribes.

In the 40% or so northern part of the border area on the Pakistani side, this lawlessness towards central government was even written into law. In these areas, tribal customs and structures had more or less equal status with Islamabad's federal administration.

What happened in these regions was, therefore, almost invisible for the majority of the Pakistani population - which lived in the Punjab and Sind provinces, in the East and South of the country. From these border areas, it was easy for the Pakistani regime and its imperialist allies to organise any operation into Afghanistan, without taking too much political risk. This was what the then Pakistani dictator, general Zia, proceeded to do on the US' request.

So, in the 1980s, this border region became the rear-base where the Afghan anti-Soviet armed resistance was organised, equipped and trained. Its members were recruited in the refugee camps which were set up for Afghan families seeking a shelter from the war. The funds came from the Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, above all, from the US. And the channel through which these funds were shared out between the various factions and tribal groups was the ill-famed ISI - or Inter-Service Intelligence - Pakistan's secret services.

At the time the ISI was dominated by men who wanted to develop the form of militant Islamic Fundamentalism which had already emerged from the most reactionary factions of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East - at the time these currents had no significant presence in Pakistan and were only emerging in some parts of south Asia. These generals were either sympathetic to the Fundamentalists' ideology or they believed that Islamic Fundamentalist groups were good instruments to discipline the impoverished masses. In any case they made sure that the anti-Soviet armed resistance overwhelmingly dominated by Islamic forces, but they represented in fact the most reactionary brands of Islamism.

From the beginning of the 1980s, Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and the city closest to the Afghan border, became a thriving hub for secret service agencies, arms and drug dealers (both were inseparable since many resistance groups bought their weapons with heroine paste manufactured on the other side of the border) and all kinds of fundamentalist preachers in search of an audience. And this border region, saw the development of a huge, although extremely primitive and totally inadequate, infrastructure set up to meet the inflow of over one million Afghan refugees - in other words, for a population which was much larger than that of the Pakistani border area itself.

When the Soviet troops retreated from Afghanistan, in 1989, most of the Afghan refugees went home. But the war did not stop. The Afghan Islamic factions went on fighting for power, using the huge stocks of heavy and light weapons left by the Russian army in its rout, but also a significant amount of equipment which went on being smuggled into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Soon a new generation of refugees came back to the same areas.

Among the factions which went on receiving weapons from Pakistan was one of the 3 main protagonists in this war, Gulbudin Hekmatiar's Hezb-e Islami, which had been ISI's favourite during the 1980s and retained this position in the early 1990s.

It seems that, for a while, the ISI saw an opportunity to bring the Durand Line to an end by playing the Pashtun ethnic card: a Pashtun-based faction like Hekmatiar's could have triggered the breakup of Afghanistan and the emergence of a "Greater Pashtunistan", bringing together the Afghani and Pakistani Pashtuns within a province of the Pakistani federation.

However, Hekmatiar turned out to be more interested in fighting it out with the other Afghan faction for political power in Kabul, without being very successful. This on-going war threatened to destabilise a region which ranged from the oil-rich ex-Soviet Republics of the Caucasus to the Chinese border. As a result, the US leaders started to put pressure on the Pakistani regime - by then a "democratic government" closely watched by the military - to look for some sort of political settlement in Kabul, which would not only resolve this on-going war but, above all, allow business to resume in this part of the world.

In the meantime, a new, mostly Pashtun faction had emerged, based on activists recruited in schools set up by Islamic groups for the refugees along the border. What made the ISI decide to switch its backing to this new faction, which came to be known as the Taleban, remains an open question. But the fact is that from 1992 onwards, Pakistani support went solely to the Taleban and the border area became a logistical hub and rear-base for the Taleban rise in Afghanistan. Four years later, the Taleban were in power in Kabul.

Faced with the western invasion

When the US decided to launch their invasion of Afghanistan, in October 2001, the Pakistani regime was caught on the wrong foot.

Predictably given the Taleban's past history, a significant number of Pakistani army dignitaries were known for being sympathetic to Kabul's regime. Such was the case, for instance, of the generals holding the main two key positions in Musharraf's government. Such was also the case of at least one of the religious parties lending their support to Musharraf's regime.

Moreover, as soon as the first western missiles began to fall over Afghanistan, Pakistani public opinion was united in its opposition to the bombing and then invasion of Afghanistan, including among those sections which had been hostile to the Taleban's regime.

Yet, Musharraf could hardly afford to really oppose the western invasion or even adopt a neutral position. Following Pakistan's first nuclear tests, in 1998, followed by the Kargil incidents, in Kashmir, in which the Indian and Pakistani armies had lost 1,000 soldiers each, Paskistan was the target of sanctions, particularly in terms of military aid. The US were quite openly putting pressure on the Pakistani military by playing India against Pakistan. But Musharraf could hardly afford a sustained suspension of US military aid.

This situation led to a lot of bargaining between Washington and Islamabad in which Musharraf first agreed to allow western warplanes and missiles to use Pakistan's air space, then he backpedalled under pressure from street protests and then finally agreed again, this time sending the riot police against the protesters. It must be said that this issue soon lost any relevance once the Taleban regime had collapsed. Then came a long series of other issues to which Musharraf managed to find some sort of face-saving response, without succeeding in convincing anyone that he was putting up any opposition against Washington's demands. For instance, when the US requested to be allowed to set up a US prison in Pakistan, it was agreed that the prison would be officially built as a Pakistani-run detention centre specially devoted to the "war on terror". Maybe the explanation worked with the most gullible, but it certainly did not after some US official was quoted saying in the Pakistani press that this camp was no more than a "transit camp" to Guantanamo Bay!

Meanwhile, Afghan armed factions reappeared in the Pakistani border region, using the same facilities as the previous two generations and, in particular, the same weapons dealers. The main difference was that, this time round, outside support in cash and equipment was in shorter supply and there was a lot more drugs involved to pay for the weapons needed for the war. The number of rival factions had increased as well, since, following the repression of the Taleban period, the organisations of the past only remained in the form of a handful of individuals at best. Instead, there was a mushrooming of apprentice warlords, bidding to be the "bin Laden" or the "mullah Omar" of the new "jihad".

Right from the beginning of the invasion the US put a lot of pressure on Musharraf's regime to close off its borders with Afghanistan. Except that this was virtually impossible to achieve on such a long, inaccessible border. Besides the military - officers as well as soldiers - were less than willing to risk their lives to do the US' dirty work, against the same people who had been celebrated as heroes less than 2 decades before. Nevertheless, after putting up a lot of resistance for the record, Musharraf finally agreed to send 70,000 troops from 2003, with virtually no result, except for 700 Pakistani casualties.

A tradition of religious demagogy

The really new development of the last period, since the invasion of Afghanistan, however, was the emergence of a growing number of armed Islamic factions among the Pakistani population itself.

Not that such armed groups were entirely new in Pakistan. But so far, they had remained primarily a convenient instrument created and used by the army to wage an undercover war against Kashmiri nationalists and the Indian army (Kashmir, in the north-east of Pakistan, is split between Pakistan and India along a border which is disputed by the two countries, not to mention the nationalist groups fighting for independence). The Pakistani Fundamentalist groups were under close control and their terrorist attacks were confined to the Indian-occupied part of Kashmir and probably in a few cases, to India itself.

There were also a number of legal religious parties, some more traditional, and others which were more or less openly linked to one of the Kashmiri-based armed factions. To a large extent these parties could be described as artificial constructions, encouraged over the years by the various regimes. Indeed, since general Zia's period, in the 1980s, while these religious parties had a very small electoral weight, every single regime had seen to it that they were represented in the elected assemblies, when they existed, and other institutions of the state. These regimes had insisted on indulging in an extensive religious demagogy - to the point of enshrining temporarily in law a version of the shariah, in 1991 - as a means of seeking the support of the most reactionary and backward layers of the population, as well as its religious authorities. It seemed as though these regimes (meaning mostly the army, which was always their real backbone) were trying to pre-empt a kind of Sunni version of Iran's religious turmoil in Pakistan.

However, the political activity of the religious parties remained largely token until the invasion of Afghanistan. And it was at that point that the JUI, the least insignificant among these parties and the most closely associated to the Taleban in the name of solidarity, started gathering support in the streets by appearing as the most genuine opponents to the imperialist attack. Needless to say, JUI was not the only group to grab such an opportunity. Others did as well and, apparently, with some success.

And this success can only develop even further with the growing number of "incidents" reported by the media, showing that by now US drones no longer stop at launching missiles on targets, whether armed men or civilians, located in Pakistan.

A new breed of "jihadists"

From there, two connected phenomenons have developed. On the one hand the emergence of Islamic armed groups formed of Pakistani fighters. These groups claim to be fighting the Pakistani regime to establish a "kalifat" in Pakistan, of not further afield. Most operate in the so-called FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are located in the border area, but in a part which is not normally used by armed factions operating in Afghanistan.

A large part of their activity seems to be training at the Pakistani army's expense, by arming themselves from the stocks of weapons stolen from isolated Frontier Guards posts, or making groups of Guards prisoners, as happened in the first week of September, in the district of South-Waziristan, where 250 Guards were taken hostage according to the Pakistani daily, Dawn. Remarkably, according to this paper, these armed groups seem to have managed to win the support of the local tribal institutions, simply because of their opposition to Islamabad's regime. In some areas, they have even won these institutions' support for a stricter enforcement of shariah law under their own authority - thereby carrying out a sort of "Talebanisation" of the southern border region on a piecemeal scale.

For the time being, of course, these armed groups are still relatively small in terms of numbers and they only have a limited number of light weapons. But what force they will represent tomorrow is another question.

The other phenomenon is the development of armed and terrorist activities by these groups in the main cities, including in the capital. And obviously the link between the armed activity in the border areas and in the towns is that the former provide a military training to carry out the latter.

A striking illustration of the extent reached by this urban terrorist activity was provided by the events at Islamabad's so-called Lal Masjid (or Red Mosque) which took place at the beginning of July.

Lal Masjid was a complex located in the centre of the capital, comprising a mosque, two schools and various buildings. Since January, members of three fundamentalist factions were squatting this complex and used it as its headquarters, private mosque and political school, with the permanent presence of hundreds of supporters. They had began to organise small detachments whose brief was to enforce "Islamic law" in the neighbourhood, attacking women who did not wear the full burqa, confiscating TV sets and CD players, etc.. Whether they boasted about it or not, the police accused the factions to have stocked their stronghold with weapons (which was proved true later).

Finally, on 3 July, the police surrounded the complex and ordered its occupants to leave it. Most did but a few hundred seem to have remained. Those who remained revealed that they had been waiting for this, judging from the automatic guns, rocket launchers, grenades and all kinds of home-made weapons they had to sustain a siege. On 9 July, Musharraf ordered the police and the army to re-occupy the complex. Officially the fighting, which lasted a whole day, left 75 dead. But estimates coming from various medical and human rights sources claim that the real death toll could be as high as 400.

No less striking was the fact that within a week, in retaliation for the Red Mosque's events, two suicide attacks were organised against army convoys by one of the factions involved in these events. And that 12 days after the event, over 200 protestors were fighting the police in an attempt to re-occupy the complex.

While the Red Mosque's confrontation was probably the most spectacular of its kind, there have already be numerous terrorist attacks, including suicide attacks, in cities, involving up to a few dozen victims, usually belonging to the security forces. In other words these armed factions already seem to have a certain level of logistic capabilities, possibly accomplices within the army or even the backing of sections of the military, as was the case for the factions operating in Kashmir, which would ensure that they have easy access to weapons. It is even possible that the existence of some of these factions only reflects rivalries within the army at a time when the position of its leader for nearly a decade, seems seriously eroded.

Musharraf's discredit

Indeed, although Musharraf came to power in a coup, he resorted to a conjurer's trick in order to turn his rule into a "democracy" so as to satisfy his US mentors - although this certainly fooled no-ne in Pakistan. So, in April 2002, Musharraf organised a referendum giving him the title of president and endorsing various constitutional changes which gave him and the army a right of veto over any decision made by the assemblies. Needless to say, he won this referendum thanks to many irregularities. Then, in October, he declared an end to his 3 years of military rule.

Musharraf presidential mandate lasting 5 years, he should be organising presidential elections before 15 October this year. The trouble is that he no longer has much support in the electorate and many people are likely to see this vote as an opportunity to express their anger not only against his allegiance to imperialism and his role in the development of Islamic terrorism, but also against the catastrophic economic situation faced by a large part of the population.

From the outside, it may be easy to be fooled by the explosion of mobile telephones and other high-tech gadgets, or by the flashing banners of what appears to be local supermarket and fast food chains (but are really subsidiaries of western giants in most cases) - at least in the big cities. But the raw figures, including those provided officially by the government, speak for themselves.

Pakistan is the country in the world which spends the biggest proportion of its GDP per head on military expenditure. These military expenditure represent twice what the state spends in total on health and education combined. In early August, the Education minister acknowledged that as many as 70,000 schools in Pakistan had neither water nor electricity, sometimes not even walls to buildings. According to press reports, there are also often no teachers in the schools, even when they exist on paper. No wonder why the literacy rate in Pakistan has gone down over the past two decades! No wonder either why, according to the religious affairs ministers, 1.5m children are enrolled in religious schools: because these schools are properly funded by Islamic charities, they are free and they have teachers (what they do not have of course, is a proper curriculum, but for many parents all they want their children to learn is the 3 Rs, anyway).

In search of a new lease of life

The bargaining for Musharraf's attempt at succeeding himself has only started, at least publicly. It seems that he wants to try to retain his position as head of the army and as president as well as the current arrangement whereby a committee of 4 generals is responsible jointly with the president for vetting every government decision.

Whether because he knows that regardless of the tricks he uses to get re-elected as president he does not stand a chance, or whether it is because he is under pressure from the US to restore a more respectable appearance to the Pakistani regime, Musharraf's envoys have been in talks with the only two previous prime ministers in civilian regimes of the past 3 decades - Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif, leader of a splinter of the Pakistani Muslim League known as the PML(N).

As far as one can gauge at this point, while the PPP seems to have the support of the US leaders, talks with Nawaz Sharif have already collapsed and his attempt to return to Pakistan after 5 years in exile has only resulted in the arrest of hundreds of his supporters and his own deportation back to Saudi Arabia. But only the future will tell whether this means that some sort of deal has already been reached between Musharraf (or the army) and the PPP.

No-one can tell the future, but the past says a lot about the illusions that can and should be avoided at all cost. Between 1988 and 1999, the PPP and the PML(N) alternated in government. There were differences between them, although they often swapped their policies as soon as they came to power, but they had a number of important features in common.

First neither of them ever did anything to upset the landed and industrial capitalists which dominate the wealthy in Pakistan. Neither did anything to undermine the stanglehold of the army on the institutions of the state. Both invited in government various small communalist and fundamentalist parties, while indulging in a revolting religious demagogy to make these alliance more palatable. Both were accused of systematic corruption and embezzlement, for the benefit of themselves and their cliques.

Whatever comes out of the deal which is being negotiated, it will certainly not be "democracy", whether Musharraf survives in this deal or not. No political "solution" involving the PPP, PML(N) or any of the parties which cooperated at any point with the army can offer the Pakistani masses any sort of protection against the generals, the exploiters, nor against the bloody madness of the imperialist powers or of the reactionary fanatics to whom they have given birth in the country.

Three decades of imperialist great power policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have only managed to bring more poverty, shed more blood, cause more suffering and populate the region with a new kind of mortal political enemy for the masses.