Before Pakistan's president General Musharraf visited the US in October, the Economist magazine commented that by doing a deal with the Taliban in northern Pakistan his military regime had used an old colonial technique - buy those you cannot defeat. In the past three decades the Pakistani military, along with a section of the ruling class, has continued a mutually beneficial policy of cohabitation with radical Islam.
General Zia, who ruled between 1977 and 1988, helped the US wage war against the Russian occupiers of Afghanistan by using religious parties and militias as proxies. The democratic administrations that followed Zia continued the policy, allowing the military to keep arming and training them. In return, Pakistan's religious political parties lent their support to both military and democratic regimes. The policy continued under General Musharraf, who came to power in a coup in 1999.
But the mutual support of Musharraf and radical Islamists is about more than keeping an eye on what is happening on Pakistan's border. The ruling class in Pakistan know that their support for the "war on terror" and their programme of neoliberal "reforms" are causing both anger and suffering. The main democratic political parties are all associated with both these priorities and as a result they have lost support among ordinary people.
In such circumstances political stability is only maintained by the alliance of political Islam that is represented by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) coalition which seeks to channel all protests against neoliberalism and the war in a way that suits the needs of the middle class, without threatening Musharraf's regime.
Though formally in opposition since 2003, the MMA has helped to legalise the rigged referendum that allowed Musharraf to declare himself the elected president and has backed many anti working class laws. Musharraf has returned the favour by helping a number of MMA-supporting parties to win significant elections.
Recently, when Musharraf faced widespread opposition to his military operation to crush the Baloch nationalists of northwest Pakistan, the MMA stayed neutral. And while the military was busy killing civilians in Balochistan, Musharraf was doing his deal with the MMA-supported Taliban in Waziristan, on the Afghan border.
The class nature of the religious political and militant organisations associated with the MMA is varied. They have a following both in the urban centres and in highly poor rural areas, while in every locality their core support comes from the middle class. Nevertheless, by claiming to be an opposition movement, they are also able to appeal to the poor. Yet even when enraged by Musharraf's support for imperialism, the petty bourgeoisie cannot afford to be in confrontation with the state for too long, as they depend on it to guarantee their position above that of the workers and peasants. When it comes to economic issues that do not affect their class interests, like the privatisation of health and education, the petty bourgeoisie show themselves to be indifferent to the needs of the poor.
However, when their own economic interests are threatened, as with the "liberalisation" of media and telecom businesses, they will act to bring together religious groups of all shades into opposing the Western multinationals who are biting chunks out of their local businesses.
Unlike in many countries across the Middle East, the religious political groups have not tried to lead a mass movement against imperialism and neoliberalism but instead have focused on using these issues to bolster their own position, while continuing cohabitation with the state. A weak left and trade union movement, which continues to miss opportunities for growth, is the major factor that allows the vacillating MMA to maintain its leadership over many whose class interests are the same as those of the petty bourgeoisie.
That the right wing religious parties have coexisted with the changing nature of the Pakistani state while continuing to appear as the opposition to it is not largely by design or conspiracy. This is the response of the petty bourgeoisie in coping with the changing objectives of imperialism.
However, even the more militant religious outfits, realising their military limitations as well as those of the Pakistani ruling class, have regularly tried to urge the US administration to let them mind their own business. In return, they will turn a blind eye to US imperialism.
Hence the recent agreement between Musharraf and the Taliban commits the latter to cease harbouring foreign fighters in the tribal areas within Pakistan, while the state is committed to withdrawing from Taliban territory. The growing difficulties for Nato in Afghanistan and the panic to withdraw from Iraq have allowed Musharraf to find a respectable way out for himself. This may also be the last option for the increasingly defeated imperialist forces in Iraq.