Pakistan - The May 11th general election - "democracy" in a war zone

Jul/Sep 2013

The May 11th general election in Pakistan was a cause for celebration in Britain, at least for the media and for politicians. In the run-up to the election, the BBC marvelled: "Pakistan turned a new page in history... when an official decree ended the life of its parliament and cabinet. It was a natural demise, not a violent death. There was no political upheaval, and no military intervention. Never before has a civilian government packed up so peacefully". Two months later, after the election had taken place, foreign secretary William Hague hailed Pakistan's "return to democracy", while every single British paper carried comments such as the one, published by The Economist: "For the first time in Pakistan's history, one fairly elected civilian government has served a full term and, in the course of a fair election been replaced by another. Pakistani democracy has never looked stronger".

Of course, this time, the outgoing administration led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was neither overthrown by a military coup, nor forced to call early elections as a result of criminal charges being brought against its ministers. But does this mean, as the British media infer, that the army - which ruled directly over the country for nearly half of its 66 years of existence - has returned to its barracks for good? Or that Pakistani politicians have finally mended their ways, to the extent that their past corrupt practices are now anecdotal? In fact, neither, nor.

Corruption, for instance, is so deeply entrenched in the top spheres of Pakistani society that every leading political figure has been caught with his hands in the till at one point or another.

So, the out-going PPP prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf is under investigation for having received bribes for electricity projects when he was minister of water and power. His predecessor in the post, another PPP dignitary, by the name of Yusuf Raza Gilani, was kicked out by the Supreme Court last year for perverting the course of justice. Gilani was accused of blocking the on-going investigation over a series of corruption cases involving the country's current president and PPP joint leader, Asif Ali Zardari. Long before being elected to this post, when he was only a minister in the governments led by his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Zardari had earned the nickname of "Mr 10 percent" - which probably says it all.

And the PPP leaders are not alone in being on the take, by very far. The PPP's former two junior partners in government, the Awami National Party (ANP or People's National Party, which is mainly Pashtun-based) and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM or United National Movement, a Karachi-based organisation claiming to represent Urdu-speaking refugees who came from Northern India at the time of Partition) are both notorious for their corruption and both have had members jailed for racketeering.

The same applies to the victors of the May 11th election. The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Nawaz Sharif, who has now begun his third term as prime minister, is also under investigation for corruption. And the PML administration of Punjab - the PML's traditional stronghold, which is run by Nawaz Sharif's own brother, Shahbaz - is well-known for its corruption.

The truth is that if most of the heavyweights of Pakistani politics manage to hang on to their public positions, it is not, as the British media imply, because corruption has been reduced to a side issue in Pakistani politics. Rather it is because these corrupt politicians have managed to avoid being sentenced or even convicted for their crimes, thanks to the delicate horse-trading taking place behind the scenes, between the three institutions which manage the interests of the Pakistani capitalist class - the politicians, the judiciary and the military.

Likewise, seen from Britain, the military may well appear to have played no role in this election. But, with the exception of General Musharraf's coup, in October 1999 - to foil Sharif's attempt to sack him from his position as Joint Chief of Staff - and the 3-year state of emergency that followed, the army has refrained from intervening openly on the political scene since the downfall of the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, back in 1988, after his mysterious death in a plane crash.

Does it follow from this that the army has lost the enormous social and political weight it had acquired in the period up to Zia's death, in 1988? Certainly not. This would ignore the fact that its presence in every aspect of Pakistani life all year round, has never been more overbearing - whether it be in the economic sphere, in the choice of appointees for key positions in the state machinery, in its opaque manipulation of terrorist groups or, of course, in the large-scale repressive operations which are on-going in several parts of the country. What the army's relatively low-key profile in this election means, on the contrary, is that it has now other, more effective, means of controlling and influencing political developments in the country, without having to expose its role.

"Democracy" and terrorism

Given all of this, to talk about May 11th as a "fair election" and to hail "Pakistani democracy" is a cynical deception. But there's far worse than that, even. There are all the very nasty features of this election that most of the British media have been careful to keep out of their reports.

Put in raw figures, the balance sheet of this election campaign speaks for itself. According to the police's own official figures, which are bound to understate the reality by a large margin, 150 people lost their lives as a result of their involvement in the election campaign, and many more were injured, tortured, beaten up or abducted. Dozens of party campaign offices were targeted by bomb and arson attacks. Most of the contending parties had to confine their campaigns to small private gatherings, rather than public rallies, for fear of terrorist attacks.

On election day, 29 people were killed by gunmen and bomb attacks. The huge deployment of army, police and paramilitary personnel proved totally inadequate at preventing these attacks. In fact, in some reported cases at least, they seemed to be there more to deter "undesirable" voters than to protect polling stations against the terrorists.

Besides, the claim of a "fair election" is all the more grotesque given the countless videos - showing ballot boxes being stuffed and voters being prevented from entering their polling stations - which went viral over the internet. And this may well put into perspective this other claim made both by Pakistani politicians and by the British media of an "unprecedented turnout".

If the 55% turnout recorded by the Pakistani electoral commission is higher than in any other poll since 1988, it is hard to know what this figure would really be, without counting these stuffed ballot boxes. And even disregarding this, it still means that almost 38m potential voters abstained (45% of the registered electorate), which is a huge number for a "democratic" vote.

Moreover, even according to official figures, the turnout was very unequal across the country. In the south-western province of Baluchistan, in particular, only one voter in ten went to the polling stations. Baluchistan may well be Pakistan's smallest province in terms of population - with just 8 million people - but such a low turnout certainly shows that its population couldn't have felt there was anything "fair" about this election.

Above all, the main irony of this "fair" election is that while the many far-right Islamic parties polled a combined total of just 5% of the popular vote, their armed wings were able to arbitrate the ballot and significantly influence its outcome.

Even before the election campaign had begun, different Islamic terrorist groups had announced that they would do everything they could to prevent "un-Islamic" or "secular" candidates from campaigning. Leaving aside the groups - a minority - which opposed any form of campaigning because they opposed parliamentarism as such, what the others meant by "un-Islamic" or "secular" had, in fact nothing to do with religion as such. What these groups demanded from the contenders was that they should make a stand against the western war in Afghanistan and the use of Pakistan as a logistical base in this war, and that they should pledge to end the Pakistani army's military interventions in various parts of the country and to launch top-level negotiations with the country's Islamic warlords - which also implied that the contenders should pledge to make concessions to the reactionary agenda of these warlords. Those candidates and parties which did not comply, they said, would have only themselves to blame if they came under attack.

Of the main parties, only two - Nawaz Sharif's PML and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or Pakistan Movement for Justice, led by the country's former cricket team captain Imran Khan) complied with the demands of the Islamic far-right. Neither the PPP, nor its former coalition partners, the ANP and MQM did. Nor did, of course, the many smaller secular, mostly nationalist parties, which stood in this election. And effectively, only the PML and PTI were able to campaign publicly across the country.

The other parties were only able to hold public meetings in their own regional strongholds - and even then, only in so far as the Islamic far-right was weak in these strongholds. The ANP, for instance, whose main traditional stronghold is the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, on Pakistan's northern border with Afghanistan) lost several candidates and many activists there, in the early part of the campaign, and had eventually to give up campaigning, due to the Islamic armed groups which control parts of the nearby FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

Behind the election results

Is it any wonder, therefore - and is it just the result of a "fair" election - if the PML and PTI "happened" to come first and second, respectively, in terms of votes for the federal parliament (in terms of seats, the PTI came third after the PPP, but this was only due to the first-past-the post system)? Or if the PTI managed to rise from having no seat at all in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province assembly, to replacing the ANP as its largest party, while reducing the ANP to just a rump?

Of course, there were many reasons for voters to cast their ballots against the out-going administration, both on a federal and provincial level. Its corruption and general mismanagement had generated large-scale discontent. But, ironically, the main cause of complaint against the PPP was not so much over the measures it had taken, than over what it had not done.

In particular, the PPP failed to do anything about the catastrophic power cuts - sometimes lasting as long as 18 hours across a whole city - which have plagued the country over the past two years. Their cause is an open secret - the 1994 privatisation plan which handed over power generation to energy cow-boys, with the state guaranteeing them a high level of profitability which has now become unaffordable due to high level of fuel prices on the world market. Worse, even, for the poorest, the on-going rise of electricity rates has been feeding a 2-digit annual inflation in the prices of basic commodities.

Nor has the PPP done anything about the drastic damage caused by privatisation to education and healthcare. Today only 0.7% of the country's GDP is devoted to healthcare - less than in any comparable economy in the world. While there is a mushrooming of expensive, modern medical facilities for the small minority of well-offs, the public facilities available to the majority are closing down, deprived of qualified staff or crumbling for lack of funding. As for education, it has certainly become a very profitable business for a handful of private companies. But the results speak for themselves: 53% of the population is totally illiterate, 25m children between 5 and 16-year old have no schooling of any sort, including 16m girls, and 65% of children never go beyond primary school level.

Ironically, while the PPP still pays lip service to its past populist themes, dating back to the days of the 1960s, when Ali Bhutto founded this party, and proclaims its determination to protect the poor against private profiteers, Sharif's PML is a proud champion of business and profiteering, advocating even more privatisation in every sphere of the economy. It is, for instance, in its stronghold of Punjab that the privatisation of education has taken the most systematic form, with the help of none other than the US business consultancy, McKinsey - an organisation which is certainly an expert in profit-making, but not in making education available to the masses!

Of course, after 25 years in which the two parties have been alternating in office - except during the short 3-year interlude of Musharraf's state of emergency - voters have had plenty of time to gauge how little difference there was between them when it came to actual policies. And this was probably one of the main reasons why, in previous elections, the shift from one party to the other was never massive in terms of seats - the other reason being the electoral system which favours parties with a strong provincial basis, like the PPP and the PML.

This time, however, things have been different. And this was not just due to the rise of a "third force" in the form of the PTI, since despite winning a larger share of the votes than the PPP (17% against 15%), it won most of its seats from the ANP. Overall, the PPP lost 60% of its seats in the federal parliament - while the PML nearly doubled its share. The PPP's collapse was even more dramatic in provincial assemblies, where it lost 70% of its seats overall. Punjab, the country's most populated province, gave the PPP its worst result: while the PML increased its number of seats from 171 to 214, the PPP's share fell from 107 seats to just 6. Only in its traditional heartland, the Sindh province, did the PPP manage (but only just) to remain in the driving seat.

There is certainly no coincidence in the outcome of the ballot in Sindh and Punjab, in that they illustrate, once again, the impact of the Islamic far-right in this election. In Sindh, where the Islamic far-right was weaker and was paralysed by the PPP's alliance with the main provincial militia - the armed wing of the MQM - the PPP was able to campaign publicly. In Punjab, however, where the Islamic far-right had a far stronger presence - and where it is known to have close links with the PML's party machinery, as well as with the provincial police and paramilitaries - it had the resources to virtually ban the PPP from campaigning, including in the poor urban areas where the PPP had deputies before.

The making of a national powderkeg

These facts do not fit well with William Hague's fairy tale about a "return of democracy" in Pakistan. But then, the imperialist leaders have a vested interest in covering up the reality of the country's situation, which, by and large, is a by-product of the West's very own criminal policies. The unsavoury truth is that Pakistan has been a war zone from its very inception and that this situation has been further aggravated ever since, by the imperialist powers' use and abuse of the country as a pawn in their regional power games - of which the 12-year old war in neighbouring Afghanistan is only the most recent example.

In the first instance, of course, the roots of today's situation in Pakistan are to be found in the last 50 years of Britain's colonial rule over the Indian sub-continent.

The artificial western borders which were drawn by the British Colonial Office in the 19th century, in order to protect British India from any possible incursion by the Russian czarist empire, left a number of national time-bombs, by splitting large ethnic groups between two, and sometimes three, countries. Among these groups, the main ones are the Balochs who form the majority of the population in the south-western province of Baluchistan, the Pashtuns who are predominant along most of the Afghan but also form a significant part of the working class in the country's main industrial centres, and the Hazaras, who can be found everywhere in the country, but especially in Baluchistan.

Subsequently, the 1947 Partition of India, in addition to causing a horrific bloodshed and the largest forced movement of population in human history, created more national time-bombs - in eastern Bengal (which seceded just 14 years later from Pakistan, at the cost of another bloody war, to form Bangladesh), in Kashmir (which was at the centre of two wars and countless border clashes between India and Pakistan), in Punjab (which was split right down the middle) and in Karachi (where millions of "mohajirs", or Urdu-speaking refugees from northern India, found themselves isolated in a province whose language and tradition they knew nothing about).

Contrary to the claims made at the time by Attlee's Labour government, Partition had nothing to do with the population's religious aspirations. Attlee certainly wanted to reward Jinnah's Muslim League for backing Britain's war effort during WWII - unlike the Indian National Congress. But, above all, he was determined to preserve the looting of the sub-continent by British capital. By paving the way for an orgy of pogroms, the British government pre-empted the threat of independence from causing a wave of radicalisation among the Indian masses. And by splitting India into two countries and setting one against the other, right from the outset, it avoided what would have been otherwise a rather tricky situation - having to deal with a regime enjoying mass popular support among the world's second largest population.

Long after Partition, the population of the sub-continent is still paying a terrible price for these cynical calculations. And this is particularly true in Pakistan. Indeed, while the ethnic minorities included in this new, artificial Pakistan might have been integrated into the vast economic and social entity of a united India, they were instead trapped in a far poorer and smaller Pakistani entity which had little to offer them. Bringing disparate populations together to form an artificial country on the assumption that their Muslim faith would be enough to unify them, proved to be a fantasy. It was then only a question of time before centrifugal forces emerged among these minorities, with demands for more autonomy, or even full independence - demands which were further inflamed by every attempt made by the new regime to reinforce its authority across the entire country.

The regime responded to these demands by resorting to the methods normally used by all bourgeois states - brutal repression. This led to a spiral of radicalisation and repression, which saw the emergence of armed nationalist groups. The Kashmiri nationalist guerillas were first on the scene, followed in the 1970s, by armed Baloch nationalist groups. Then, in the 1990s, the MQM's armed militias imposed their law over large parts of Karachi in the name of the "mohajirs" minority. Meanwhile, armed spin-offs of Islamic parties were beginning to operate along the Afghan border on a basis which mixed Islamic fundamentalism and Pashtun nationalism.

Imperialism, the military and the Islamic far-right

Very early on, the need to keep together such an explosive mixture gave the Pakistani army a disproportionate role. But what really boosted its importance was the US leaders' choice to use it as one of the pillars of its regional order.

In 1951, the British commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army was replaced with a Pakistani, general Ayub Khan. But Ayub Khan was still a pure by-product of the British military, having graduating in the British military academy of Sandhurst and fought in the British army during World War II.

However, shortly after Khan's nomination, a permanent US military advisory body was set up at the Pakistani army's headquarters, in Rawalpindi. Meanwhile, Pakistan signed a "Mutual Defence Agreement Pact" with the US, before joining two US-dominated Cold War bodies - SEATO, the regional equivalent of NATO, and the Central Treaty Organisation.

In 1958, having lost their trusted Iraqi ally, following the overthrow of its British-backed monarchy, the US leaders reinforced their links with the Pakistani military. A US air base was built near Peshawar (near the Afghan border) and the US air force was granted a permanent right to use Pakistan's civilian airports. Ever increasing amounts of US aid were flowing in, in every shape and form, filling the arsenal of the army as well as the large pockets of its senior officers.

Meanwhile, general Ayub Khan had staged a coup and Pakistan was to remain under his dictatorship he was forced to resign by five months of mass demonstrations, in 1969. One year later, faced with rising social unrest, his successor, general Yahya Khan, legalised political parties, introduced the universal franchise (for the first time in Pakistan), announced the transformation of the country into a federation of semi-autonomous provinces and called a general election - which eventually brought into office the PPP and its populist founder, Zulficar Ali Bhutto.

But the military did not remain in its barracks for very long. In July 1977, general Zia ul-Haq staged a coup, arresting Ali Bhutto together with thousands of PPP and left-wing activists and banning all political parties. But rather than just maintaining order, Zia wanted to eradicate any memory of the extraordinary freedom experienced by the masses during the numerous battles they had fought between 1968 and 1976. Institutionalising some of the most archaic forms of Islam was Zia's way of achieving this.

So far, although most Pakistani politicians paid allegiance to Islam, religion had never played much of a role in the institutions of the country. In fact, the words "Islamic Republic" had only been inserted in the Constitution in 1973, under the "progressive" Ali Bhutto! But Zia proceeded to go much further, adding elements of sharia law to the Constitution, including barbaric punishments for certain offences. In addition, Zia enacted the infamous "blasphemy laws" whereby anyone accused of "insulting" Islam - or the government, for that matter - could be sanctioned with a life sentence or even the death penalty.

Zia's "Islamisation" of society also included entrusting many social functions, including education and welfare, to clerics. This policy provided religious parties and institutions with a legitimacy and social weight that they had never enjoyed before. While tightening the regime's control over society considerably, this created an atmosphere of reaction which stifled any form of opposition and justified, among other things, turning the clock back on the still recent relative freedom enjoyed by women in urban areas.

The military also reversed Ali Bhutto's nationalisation programme - at least for the benefit of their selected protégés, because many "denationalised" companies were just incorporated into the army's huge industrial and trading empire. Among these protégés was a certain Nawaz Sharif, who had just been appointed to the post of Punjab finance minister by the provincial governor - himself a former director-general of the infamous ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence). After this, the Sharif family's nationalised steel business, Ittefaq group, was returned to them. This was the beginning of Nawaz Sharif's career in the shadow of the military, both as a politician (he was soon appointed prime minister of Punjab) and as an industrialist (the Ittefaq Group saw a mysterious and meteoric rise under Zia's regime).

Two years after Zia's coup, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Overnight, Pakistan, which was already seen by the US leaders as a front line in the Cold War, due to its border with the pro-Soviet Afghan state, took on a unique importance. US imperialism was not going to waste the opportunity to wage a proxy war with the Soviet Union - and Pakistan was the only possible intermediary for that. So, the Pakistani military - and more specifically its ISI intelligence wing - were enrolled in a massive covert operation to arm the most anti-communist forces that could be found in Afghanistan - its fundamentalist warlords. And the channels used by the ISI to carry out this task were Pakistan's own far-right religious parties, especially the JUI (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), which had the additional advantage of being Pashtun-based, like most of the fundamentalist Afghan warlords operating on the other side of the border.

In 1988, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash, probably at the hands of a rival faction within the army. But the civilian governments which followed under either the PPP or the PML retained most of his policies, if not his language. Not much was changed in the "islamisation" process, the "blasphemy laws" were not repealed, nor the elements of sharia law inserted by Zia into the Constitution.

Things were somewhat more complicated in the army. As long as Soviet troops had been in Afghanistan, it had solidly backed the CIA's efforts to arm all Afghan fundamentalists. But once Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the Pakistani army's traditional factional fights resumed, with each faction pushing its own pawn on the Afghan chessboard. In particular, all evidence shows that it was the ISI which, originally at least, funded and armed the Taliban in their march to power.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani religious far-right was flourishing. From the Zia era, its parties had kept a huge social network - covering education, welfare and healthcare - which gave them access to large sections of a population which was desperately short of state-funded public services. Besides, parties like the JUI, which had never won any significant score in an election, were invited to participate in government - mostly to placate the faction of the army to which they were closest. But, by the same token, this provided these parties with more legitimacy and more recruits.

The western invasion of Afghanistan and its impact

Around 1993, the army's meddling in Afghanistan started to backfire in Pakistan itself. The 15-year long covert operation masterminded by the military had produced a whole economy of its own, which was just as much reliant on the weapons smuggled into Afghanistan as it was on the heroin which was smuggled back. Now that the demand for an armoury was slowing down in Afghanistan, Pakistan was awash with weapons of every description which were traded at bargain-basement prices. In Karachi, in particular, this flood of weapons turned the turf-war between the MQM and its rivals into a bloodbath.

At the same time, Islamic far-right fighters who had been sent over from Pakistan into Afghanistan over the previous years, were coming back home, with only one objective in mind - to retain in Pakistan the same warlord status they had enjoyed in Afghanistan. Many had connexions with one faction or another of the military and, therefore, access to weapons and funds. Some were connected with the Taliban, others with rival Afghan warlords whose fighters were seeking shelter from the Taliban in Pakistan. But all began to form armed groups, taking advantage of the difficult terrain alongside the Afghan border, especially in the FATA area and eastern Baluchistan, with the declared objective to establish their own "khalifat", if not over Pakistan as a whole - for the time being, in any case - at least over the smaller territories they had chosen as their base. It was in these lawless parts of the country - where the army did not bother, dare or want, to intervene and where the authority of the federal administration was largely irrelevant to the sparse population  - that today's Islamic terrorist groups began to train new recruits and to prepare for their future offensives across the country.

The western invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001, trapped the Pakistani ruling circles into a dilemma. On the one hand, they were determined to preserve the country's "special relationship" with the US and the economic and financial aid that came with it - and this meant meeting in full the military and logistical demands of the US. But, on the other hand, they had to take into account the fact that the western invasion was deeply unpopular among all layers of Pakistani society - so that virtually no party, whatever its political stripe and real position, dared openly to back the invasion.

Ironically, what saved the Pakistani political institutions and establishment from total discredit was the fact that the invasion took place during general Musharraf's martial law - whose declaration in 1999 had been so sternly condemned by the US leaders! Martial law allowed Pakistani parties to keep a low profile over the invasion issue, without risking losing credit by condoning it, while the task of complying with US demands was left to Musharraf himself at first, and then, after he got himself elected president, to a spin-off of Nawaz Sharif's PML which led the government until 2008.

Within the army, the invasion caused sharp splits. The factions which had been propelling the Taliban into power were outraged by the loss of what they considered as a client state - but there was not much they could do about it, at least initially. And the other factions redoubled their efforts to push their preferred Afghan pawns to take advantage of the new conditions created by the downfall of the Taliban. As to Musharraf, who had been part of the ISI leadership in the first half of the 1990s, and therefore closely involved in promoting the Taliban, he knew better than to take on the army head on, in order to restore some order in its ranks. After all, whatever their rivalries, the military factions had too much to lose in an open split - especially, in terms of social and economic weight. So, the military factions were allowed to follow their own chosen agenda, as long as they remained sufficiently discreet about it, so that this did not threaten the integrity of the army nor the flow of US aid.

But this "laissez faire" policy had unforeseen consequences. The choice of the US to favour northern Afghan warlords - who had more connections with India and the central Asian republics than with Pakistan - meant that the Pakistani army's mostly southern Pashtun pawns were sidelined by the new US-backed regime and opted to fight against the western occupation. This, together with the defeat of the Taliban and the frequent western military operations in the Afghan regions bordering Pakistan, resulted in an inflow of Afghan fundamentalist fighters into Pakistan, who went on to reinforce Pakistan's own aspiring Islamic warlords, while a huge flow of Afghan refugees provided these warlords with a fresh pool of potential recruits.

Islamic far-right terrorism spreads

Predictably, the army proved reluctant to deal with the Pakistani warlords. When army units were ordered to move into one of the self-proclaimed "khalifats" to restore order, nothing ever seemed to happen. True, the local population always displayed even more hostility to the army itself than to the Islamic warlords. But there were also endless reports about the complicit relations between senior officers and the warlords they were supposed to hunt down.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the support provided by Musharraf's regime to the western occupation of Afghanistan was pushing more recruits into the arms of the Islamic far-right, which was staging on-going demonstrations, occupying public buildings and organising armed groups in order to enforce "sharia law" in residential neighbourhoods. This agitation came to a head in July 2007, when the regime decided to evict the fundamentalist groups which, for months, had barricaded themselves in Islamabad's Red Mosque complex. The occupants were armed and the police assault, which lasted a whole day, left an estimated 400 dead.

Admittedly, political violence was a long-standing fact of life in Pakistan. Factional rivalries and political differences often resulted in targeted murders, abductions, torture, etc.. In particular, both politicians and the military often used such methods to get rid of prosecutors who were taking their job too seriously, of rivals or just of vocal critics.

Besides, forms of political violence verging on gangsterism were common - like the on-going turf-war which plagued Karachi's slum districts. But there was also what is known in Pakistan as "land-grab" - raids carried out by armed thugs in order to terrorise dwellers of entire districts into fleeing their homes so as to allow real estate speculators or big rural landlords to take over the land. Lawlessness often ruled, either because the local police was on the take or because it was too afraid to do anything against well-armed thugs who, in addition, were well-connected in high spheres.

But the 2007 Red Mosque massacre marked a turning point. After that, terrorist attacks began to spread to most parts of the country and they have continued to spread ever since. Today, it is estimated that, since the invasion of Afghanistan, 55,000 people have died as a result of terrorist attacks by the Islamic far-right, of which more than two-thirds have been killed since 2007.

The Islamic far-right groups focused their murderous activity in two directions. On the one hand, they targeted official institutions, including the police and their paramilitary auxiliaries, administrative centres and state-sponsored social services, such as primary schools and travelling clinics. Significantly, the army itself has rarely been targeted - which probably says a lot about the links these terrorist groups still have with the military. On the other hand, especially in urban areas, they targeted "infidels" - non-Muslims or Muslims who do not pledge allegiance to the particular brand of Sunni Islam which is promoted by these groups. So, in Baluchistan and Karachi, the Hazara minority - which is Shia - has paid a particularly high price. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, Christians and Ahmadis - a reformist Muslim sect whose members were denied the right to call themselves Muslims and deprived of their civil rights in the 1970s - have been the main targets of terrorist attacks.

The PPP, which has been in office continuously since 2008 up to this year's elections, has usually responded to these urban attacks by looking the other way. In the country's remote areas, it has been seeking compromises with some of the warlords by formally allowing them to enforce their version of "sharia law" on the population of their territory. Meanwhile the PPP administration was using the constant threat of terrorist attacks to justify clamping down on all kinds of opponents, particularly those who were exposing the corruption of the regime and the dubious role of the military. As to the recently-elected PML administration, its pledge to negotiate with the Islamic far-right only announces more of the same, at best - and, at worst, even more concessions to these reactionary bigots.

The past 34 years of western power games in the region have not just turned Afghanistan into a battlefield. They have also turned Pakistan into a war zone, in which 180 million Pakistanis are now trapped, between the parasitism of their capitalist class, the corruption of their politicians and military, and the always possible risk of western intervention in Pakistan itself, emphasised by the systematic use of US drones in Pakistan's border areas since Obama came into office.

Just as in Afghanistan, by indirectly propping up the Islamic far-right, imperialism has primed an explosive in Pakistan - which is also bound to go off in their hands at some stage. But, unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a large working class and proletarian urban population which, in the 1960s-70s, has already proved its dynamism and courage in confronting its exploiters. We must hope, therefore, that this proletariat will remember its own past fighting tradition and use it to wrest the Pakistani time-bomb from the hands of the Islamic reactionary bigots and ensure that when it explodes, it does so in the cause of social change.

29 June 2013