Pakistan on the brink

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As the protest movement in Pakistan scores a victory, the Afghanistan war threatens increasing instability along the countries' shared border. Geoff Brown assesses this key faultline of US imperialism

It is hard to exaggerate the mood in Pakistan when it was announced that the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was returning to office. The protest movement, led by lawyers, which threatened to overwhelm President Asif Zardari, won a real victory. People were dancing in the street.

Zardari was elected president a year ago following the end of military rule. During her election campaign Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Zardari's wife, had promised to restore Chaudhry. He had been sacked in 2007 by General Musharraf after he was reinstated under the pressure of the strong protest movement led by lawyers. Unlike his predecessors, Chaudhry refused to resign after Musharraf found him an obstacle to the "war on terror" and privatisation.

Since Chaudhry's dismissal the national lawyers' movement has been organising street protests outside high court buildings across Pakistan week in, week out, sometimes facing police baton charges. It had called for a "Long March" on the capital, Islamabad, to demand the Pakistan Peoples Party keeps its election promise which Zardari repeatedly confirmed publicly and then broke. Zardari's reaction was to have hundreds of lawyers and other activists arrested as well as putting his rival, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, under house arrest.

Across Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, main streets were blocked with giant transport containers. Earlier on 12 March police attacked lawyers and political activists when they tried to start the Long March from Karachi and other cities in the south. Despite all this, on 15 March, a day people will remember, over 4,000 people from across Pakistan managed to get to the rallying point outside Lahore High Court. For hours they defended themselves with stones from hundreds of tear gas shells, police baton charges and arrests. All the while millions watched via cable news channels. As the day wore on Zardari's resolve crumbled, senior police officers in Lahore started to resign and at 5am, 16 March, the day the Long March was to convert into a sit-in, Yusuf Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, announced the return of Chaudhry to office.

This victory reflects both the movement from below and splits within the ruling class. This has been shown in particular by the recent supreme court decision to bar Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and powerful province, and his brother Nawaz, from standing for elected office. Nawaz reacted by throwing his weight into the movement for the chief justice's restoration. The pressure on Zardari, not least from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton who threatened to withdraw $1.5 billion annually in civilian aid, forced his hand, despite the fear that Chaudhry may now use his position to remove presidential powers that Musharraf had given himself and that Zardari now enjoys.

Zardari's popularity has been falling rapidly. Brought to power on a sympathy vote following the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Zardari is best known for his greed which gained him the nickname "Mr 10 percent" during the two periods in the 1990s when Benazir was prime minister and he had his fingers in every government contract. It was only the prospect of the collapse of the dictatorship of General Musharraf that bought Bhutto and Zardari back from the voluntary exile they chose because of outstanding criminal charges against them.

Chaudhry is an exceptional and contradictory figure. There is no tradition in Pakistan of an independent judiciary. He surprised many when he used his position as chief justice to require the powerful intelligence services to produce in open court individuals who had been "disappeared". He also forced the reversal of the privatisation of Pakistan Steel which had been sold off shamelessly at a ridiculously low price to some of Musharraf's cronies. He represents those in the ruling class, including the leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League, who seek a degree of independence from the US which requires 100 percent support for the "war on terror" and neoliberalism. This section of the ruling class is willing to risk using mass support to strengthen its position.

The economic and political situation could hardly be worse in Pakistan. The country was part of the global expansion of recent years, growing by 7 to 8 percent annually. With this came much speculation, hot money from abroad and high-risk lending by banks. Now, as everywhere else, exports, mainly textiles, are in freefall and the stock exchange has crashed spectacularly. The IMF has come in with a $7 billion emergency loan that looks unlikely to be large enough. Almost unbelievably, the speculators argued for and got $1 billion in financial support for the stock exchange. This outrage sums up much of what is wrong with Pakistan: a blatantly corrupt ruling class that knows no limits to its greed. Transparency International, in its annual global survey of corruption, regularly finds that only Nigeria manages to be more corrupt than Pakistan. This means that whether it is refusing to allow workers their rights, bribing police and judges, stealing resources, such as water, or polluting the environment, Pakistan is as bad as or worse than Britain was in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

A survey of the system

Pakistan's poverty and inequality indicators are among the worst in the world. A third of the 160 million population live in poverty, up from a quarter less than five years ago. Throughout its history there has been a continuing failure to develop health, education, housing and welfare for the mass of the population. The increasing number of children educated at madrassahs, religious schools, is a product not of a rise in the strength of the Islamic parties but of the poverty of much of the population, for whom madrassahs are the only education they can afford for their children. Similarly, the figures for the number of women dying in childbirth is a measure of how the rich systematically avoid paying taxes while what state resources exist are diverted to meet the priorities of the powerful, above all the army. The prospects for young people are such that those who can emigrate do so.

Politically, matters are just as bad. Pakistan is a product of imperialism. The "divide and rule" methods of the British Empire in India, in particular exacerbating conflict between Hindu and Muslim, led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. It was in the interests of a tiny minority of landlords and the educated Muslim middle classes of northern India who saw the opportunities they could gain from having their own state. A divided subcontinent, which if united would have a bigger population than China, has been an enormous benefit to the big powers - primarily the US, which has been the dominant influence on Pakistan since the early 1950s.

It is a familiar story of an ally kept loyal with aid, overwhelmingly military assistance. Consequently, the army has been the dominant force in society, with four periods of military dictatorship together covering more than half of Pakistan's existence. The army has used its power to build up its own interests and to play a key role at every point in Pakistan's history. This includes the most recent crisis when the army leadership, no doubt listening closely to advice from the US State Department, made it clear that it would not intervene openly.

Not that the Pakistani state is simply a puppet. In the 1970s the nationalist prime minister, Zulfiqar Bhutto, father of Benazir and the Bhutto political dynasty, made the first steps in the development of Pakistan's own nuclear weapons. This was in the teeth of opposition from Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state. Today Pakistan is one of just nine states known to possess nuclear weapons.

For all the strength of the "armed bodies of men" that make up the core of the Pakistani state, the question "Will Pakistan survive?" is raised repeatedly. Within 25 years of its creation, it split in half after a bloody civil war with Bangladesh, which won its independence in 1971. Of the four provinces that remain, three, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Balochistan and Sindh, have separatist movements. There has been a big increase in recent years in the influence of Islamist militants in NWFP and the border areas known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Here since 2002 there have been bombing raids by US forces using unmanned drones to fire missiles, attempting to destroy Al Qaida and Afghan Taliban refuges and to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden.

The only achievement of these attacks has been to kill large numbers of civilians and produce ever more support for those forces organising resistance. But these attacks are not the only factor. There were also those by the Pakistani army and the failure of the Pakistani state to deliver any proper economic or welfare assistance. This holds even in major disasters such as earthquakes, with the result that migration to the big cities, especially Karachi, is often the only future that is on offer.

Under pressure to support its US ally and to show that US military aid is not being siphoned off for conflict with India, Pakistan's army has stepped up its operations in NWFP and FATA, further antagonising the local population and leading to a number of humiliating surrenders by Pakistani troops, who are often far from committed to the operations they are carrying out.

These operations climaxed in August 2008 in the Swat region, just a few hours' drive from the capital, Islamabad, hitherto known best for its beauty and tourist potential. In a major assault, supported by both the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party, the army created 400,000 refugees in a few weeks. They fled seeking safety in their tens of thousands, only to find in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, that they were attacked by the mayor for bringing the Taliban to the city. Predictably, given Karachi's recent history of inter-ethnic violence, the result was pogroms against the refugees leading to several dozen deaths and a shutdown for two days of a city with a population of 15 million.

The abject failure of this strategy has led Zardari to seek a humiliating truce with the insurgents, signing an agreement which hands over the 1.6 million people of Swat to the rule of the Taliban-led mullahs. Sharia law has been imposed; the mullahs now control the courts. Girls are restricted in their education, women banned from shopping and, in rural areas, from fetching water from wells. This is not what the rural poor had fought for when they accepted the leadership of the Taliban against US and Pakistani military operations. Their anger is now turning against the Taliban.

The overall result has been to create what is known in the smooth official speak of Barack Obama's administration as the "AfPak" war. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are inseparable. As David Miliband said last month following his trip to Washington, there can be no stable Afghanistan without a stable Pakistan. The border is, as so often, an arbitrary line drawn by a 19th century British colonial administrator. It was opposed then as now by the Pashtun population, many of whom call for an independent Pashtunistan stretching across the border, and by the Afghan government which signed up only under duress.

Obama has already dispatched several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan, with plans to increase this to 17,000, and will be arguing hard at the Nato meeting in Strasbourg that the US's allies should also send more. While the rhetoric of the Obama administration is very different from that of George Bush, there is more continuity than change in foreign policy. The existing popular discontent is going to increase even if the US commitment to triple non-military aid is carried out. The weakness of the US position is such that even within the White House options being considered include supporting the establishment of a Pashtunistan.

Balochistan, Pakistan's largest and poorest province, with the smallest population, of 10 million, was never formally part of British India. Having opted for independence in 1947, after a few months it was simply invaded by the new Pakistan army and annexed. Since then there have been repeated uprisings, all of which have been suppressed bloodily. In the 1970s 80,000 troops were needed to hold down tens of thousands of insurgents. The insurgency continues. In 2005, attacks on the gas pipeline from the important Sui gas field forced people in Karachi to cook on charcoal while highlighting the fact that the development of the gas field has brought no benefit to the people of Balochistan. Meanwhile, many hundreds of Balochis have been "disappeared" by the intelligence services.

A fifth province, Kashmir, to which Pakistan has laid claim since 1947, has triggered two wars with India, both of which Pakistan lost, and remains a major point of conflict with India. Pakistan's intelligence services have sponsored and trained armed Islamist groups which have infiltrated Indian-occupied Kashmir - a war by proxy. Violence in Kashmir escalated with the insurgency that started in July 1988 on the Indian side of the ceasefire line, now known as the line of control. Since then tens of thousands have died in the conflict, with many more, both Hindus and Muslims, becoming refugees. The Pakistani state has rejected calls for self-determination, with Islamists becoming the dominant force and many groups recruiting mujahedin veterans from Afghanistan.

Among the sponsored Islamist groups, of which Lashkar-e-Taiba are the best known, are almost certainly those responsible for the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 and quite probably those who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last month.

State sponsorship of Islamist groups did not start with the intervention in Kashmir but with the mujahedin, trained by the Pakistan intelligence services to attack the Russian army occupying Afghanistan. This used US and Saudi aid, including some channelled through the young Saudi entrepreneur Osama bin Laden. The conflict created over a million refugees living in massive slums in Pakistan's cities and caused a flood of Kalashnikovs and heroin into the regions.

The movement that helped bring Chaudhry back to office shows the way forward. There was the stamina of the lawyers and other activists, willing where necessary to face police violence and arrest, but there were also huge spontaneous turnouts in support of Chaudhry in 2007 when he campaigned for his reinstatement. Up to a million turned out to greet him on the road from Lahore to Islamabad in July 2007. Other events, such as the World Social Forum in Karachi in March 2006 which saw 30,000 participants, show there is a huge potential in the fight for justice and democracy and an audience for anti-capitalist and socialist ideas. While the left in Pakistan, as elsewhere, has been weakened in recent years, it has not forgotten that it had its own 1968 with the mass movement of workers and students that brought down Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military dictator. With its rulers in such disarray, it is impossible to say that we will not see such a movement again.