Pakistan's new catastrophe

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Recent attacks on the Swat region of Pakistan have caused a deep political crisis in the country. Geoff Brown looks at the situation and talks with Asim Jaan, a socialist based in Karachi, about the impact of the offensive and how the left is responding

Since early May the new frontline in Barack Obama's so-called Afpak war has been Swat - a large hilly area with a population of just 1.5 million. Only a few hours drive from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, it has been called "the Switzerland of Pakistan" because of its beautiful mountains - though its only ski resort was closed two years ago because of worsening security. Beautiful as it is, the reality for most of its inhabitants has been that life is hard, dominated by landlords whose corruption knows no limits. Many migrate to big cities in Pakistan and abroad, hoping for a better life.

Over the past 25 years radical Islamists have been able to slowly establish themselves. The New York Times recently described how they had presented themselves as Robin Hood figures, intimidating big landlords and forcing some to flee. The best known figure, Maulana Fazlullah, created a local FM radio station using transmitters mounted on motorcycles and trucks. He and his followers were able to set up Sharia courts in dozens of villages, challenging the official courts. They have also threatened those sending their daughters to school or listening to Western music.

The US attacks in Pakistan have been spearheaded by drones targeting Al Qaida. The result of dozens of these attacks has been 14 Al Qaida leaders killed - as well as 700 civilians. A former aide to General Petraeus, Colonel David Kilcullen, has said, "A hit rate of 2 percent on 98 percent collateral. It's not moral." The anger the attacks have generated has not only boosted Fazlullah and his supporters, but has also affected the Pakistan army's capacity to fight back. Many soldiers do not see Fazlullah and his Islamic militant supporters as the enemy. They are fellow Pakistanis and fellow Muslims.

When their parents' generation, the mujahideen (resistance fighters), were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US was paying the Pakistani military to train and supply them. It isn't easy now to let the US, which gives $1 billion a year in military aid to Pakistan, order the Pakistan army to kill them. Yet that is precisely what Hillary Clinton intended when in April, just before the current offensive, she spoke of Pakistan facing "an existential threat" from Islamic militants, and accusing the government of "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists".


GB: Asim, can you tell us about the background to the recent attacks?

AJ: The first military operation in Swat was started in November 2007 by the Musharraf regime. It displaced 900,000 people and failed in its stated objective of "establishing the writ of the state" - that is, crushing indigenous resistance against military operations.

The second military operation started in July 2008 along with an operation near the Afghan border in Bajaur and Khyber agency.It displaced 650,000 from Swat alone, 450,000 from Bajaur agency, and failed again.

The third operation started on 26 April 2009 after the official "military pause" where the Pakistani provincial government of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) brokered a power-sharing agreement with an otherwise peaceful former militant group, Tehreek e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohamadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic law, or TNSM). TNSM is led by madrassa owners and has been engaged in campaigns for Sharia law since 1984. These won the right for imams to become judges in lower and higher courts of Swat.

This is not the first time that the state has failed to crush the militancy organisations like TNSM and then allowed restoration of the rule of local khans. The economic power of the old class of khans and other influentials is withering away because neoliberal policies have hit agriculture and local trades, while emerging new middle class expatriates are keen on purchasing and reclaiming land and on filling the void created by the state in the areas of education and health.

So a fragile peace is followed by a horrific war. The concerns of the poorer classes are never addressed in the peace deals. Hence the sharia law of the TNSM challenges the old order but ends up compromising with it because it never addresses the fundamental class contradictions of society. The Islamic resistance, while fighting imperialism, appeals to the lower echelons with condemnation of khans while imposing another oppressive order that allows the continuation of khanism.

The peace deal was made because there was a military stalemate, the army was taking a lot of casualties and there were growing local protests and repeated huge public demonstrations demanding an end to the military operation. The ANP won the NWFP elections on the promise of peace. It came under public pressure and brokered this peace deal.

Then suddenly at the end of April the military invaded. The attack has created 2.5 million refugees. In Landhi, a large working class area of Karachi where we are working, refugees are arriving every day. Relief camps are being set up in every corner to help them, even by the parties that support the army offensive.

Why is the army carrying out this offensive now?

The current offensive in Swat is a continuation of previous attempts by the Pakistani state to invade other parts of NWFP and the federally administered border areas. This process started with its agreeing to act as the "frontline state" in the "war on terror" launched by the US after 9/11. So first Waziristan was invaded, then Kurram agency, then Bajaur agency, places where the Pakistani army never operated before 2004. Even the incorporation of Swat into Pakistan in 1969 was only possible on condition that the military was not going to have a presence.

The operation was synchronised with President Zardari's visit to Washington. The government was under pressure from US imperialism but it was also willing to go along with that pressure in the local rulers' own interests.

Why have the Taliban been getting some popular support?

The legal system in Pakistan is corrupt to the core and serves only the interests of the powerful. Before Swat joined Pakistan it was a princely state with a much more efficient judicial system than that which developed afterwards. After 30 years of Pakistan, people have started to ask to go back to that system, especially when it comes to sorting out land disputes that are a big issue in this area.

What has been the reaction in the rest of Pakistan?

Once the Taliban got power in Swat they committed atrocities against whoever they thought was against them or represented the state, but they also attacked the rich khan landlords. Many people are against any authoritarian version of Islam. The liberal elite is, of course, totally against it. The media have backed the government 99 percent, so people only get the version given by the military spokesmen in the media, reporting they have killed a hundred Taliban that day or whatever. There are no independent sources. The media do not show the atrocities that are going on. Most people support the operation, saying you can't have a state within a state. Most importantly, though people recognise the brutality, they ask us, "What do you propose? What other solution is there?"

What about the left?

The genuine left is very weak. We have found in our work that some of the people we have met belonging to religious parties have shown most willingness to protest against this war. They are clear that this is an imperialist war, whereas leftists and liberals are very confused; they see the Taliban solely as barbarians who will take away all their liberties.

Secondly most of the left here is not composed of working people but middle class intellectuals. This crisis has forced them to discard the thin progressive veneer they had, and they have come out in their true colours. They now proclaim Pakistani nationalism and say, "We must protect Pakistan." On the basis of their fear of Islamisation they justify the killing of thousands of people.

In my view, in our efforts to organise resistance against the war and to stop imperialism, we would mostly get people with religious orientation, but who are frustrated by the stand of established religious political parties such as Jamaat e Islami and Jamiat e Ulama, who compromise with the state and backstab the resistance because of the class interests of their leadership. Thus these people with religious orientation will be the next socialists if we can take them along in this struggle.

What will happen now?

Our government has said that it will be a short and surgical operation. At the moment most people's emphasis is on the relief work, helping people fleeing from the area. We have found ourselves getting into arguments with them. For the last two weeks we have been organising protests in the city centre against the war. Now we have moved our attention to the Landhi area, which has a very large Pashtun population. We are pointing out that the government's strategy is a long term one which is likely to last for years. How long can we cope with feeding people here?

We are planning a very large protest in this area so that we can put pressure on to stop the war, which is the cause of this human catastrophe. Some people agree with us. Others are putting all their energies into collecting money for the people who are hungry.

This is not going to stop in Swat. This is a guerrilla war which will be long drawn out and can spread throughout the Frontier province, and the humanitarian problem will only increase. Unless there are big protests in all the big cities this war is not going to end and it may result in a civil war in Pakistan.