The present crisis in Pakistan began on 25 February, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court gave a decision banning Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), and his brother Shahbaz from running for elected office. That decision, believed to have been made through prime minister Zardari’s manipulation of the judiciary, put an end to the uneasy alliance between the PML-N and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and provoked anti-government protests in Pakistani Punjab.
The protests, initiated by the PML-N, merged with the agitation by Pakistani lawyers for the reinstatement of the former chief justice of Pakistan’s supreme court, Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhary, and other judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf, the former military leader and president.
In the aftermath of the February 2008 general election, the PML-N and the PPP had, among other things, agreed to reinstate the judges arbitrarily sacked by Musharraf and to amend the constitutional provisions that gave power to the president to dissolve the National Assembly or dismiss an elected government. In a clear breach of faith, and motivated by factional considerations, Zardari has gone back on this commitment.
In taking the provocative step of being instrumental in the court decision to disqualify the Sharif brothers from holding office, Zardari had bitten off more than he could chew, however, for the Sharif brothers threw their weight fully behind the lawyers’ campaign for an independent judiciary through the reinstatement of the sacked judges.
The combined forces of the lawyers and the opposition planned a ‘long march’ to Islamabad for an indefinite sit-in protest on 16 March outside the National Assembly building in Islamabad. As preparations began for this march, police clashed with groups of lawyers and opposition supporters on 12 March in the port city of Karachi.
The day before (11 March), the government had arrested hundreds of activists and banned all public gatherings in Punjab and Sindh provinces. On 15 March, anti-government protesters led by Nawaz Sharif battled with police in Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
As the opposition prepared for the ‘long march’, the government got busy erecting barricades to prevent the protesters from coming anywhere close to the parliament building. With pitched battles raging between the police on the one hand, and the stone-throwing opposition and the lawyers on the other hand, what had been billed as a peaceful protest was beginning to turn into an open rebellion against the government.
The development of the biggest-ever civil disobedience movement in Pakistan, while taking the Zardari government by surprise, set alarm bells ringing in the camp of US imperialism. On 12 March, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, spoke with Nawaz Sharif, while Richard Holbrook, US president Obama’s special representative to the region, held a video conference with Zardari. On 14 March, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made two telephone calls – to Zardari and to Nawaz Sharif.
Frightened of the consequences of large-scale disturbances in Pakistan, and their resultant impact on the conduct of the US’s war against Afghanistan, the US administration acted with great speed. In the euphemistic language of the state department, in a call to president Zardari and his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, “the secretary’s friendly advice to Pakistani leadership was that you have to get the country under control … This [the political dispute] just distracts from efforts to combat Taliban and al-Qaeda.” (Quoted in ‘Sharif gains the upper hand after president retreats’ by Farhan Bukhari, James Lamont and Daniel Dombey, Financial Times , 17 March 2009)
Warning Zardari that his failure to settle the dispute with the opposition would risk prompting an emboldened Pakistani army to take over, and reminding him that it was the US, not Saudi Arabia or any other country, which had a finger on Pakistan’s financial jugular, Mrs Clinton gave the ‘friendly advice’ that, first, Zardari must allow the Sharif brothers to participate in the politics of the country and regain political control of Punjab; second, that Zardari must reinstate the former chief justice and other judges relieved of their posts by Musharraf in March 2007. Clinton also secured a commitment from Nawaz Sharif that he would not play footsie with the jihadists and thus undermine the US’s ‘war on terror’.
Considering that the Pakistani economy is teetering on the verge of collapse, and that Pakistan relies heavily on US financial and military support, Hillary Clinton’s ‘friendly advice’ must have sounded very persuasive to Zardari. By November 2008, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had plummeted 75 percent to just $3.5bn, while its debt stood at $46bn. It was facing a balance of payments crisis that threatened to exhaust its foreign reserves and precipitate a debt default.
When the Paris Club of international financiers refused its request for a large loan on soft terms, Pakistan was obliged to turn to the IMF, and secured from the latter, with the help of the US, a $7.6bn rescue package. The Bush administration, during its eight years in office, gave Pakistan $11bn-worth of military aid. The US is also Pakistan’s biggest trade partner, with a quarter of its annual exports, worth $3.6bn, going to the US. Pakistan’s imports from the US, armaments being the single biggest item, are of the order of $2bn a year.
To cap it all, hours before Zardari’s capitulation, General Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, held a crucial meeting with Zardari and prime minister Gilani, telling them to sort out their dispute with the opposition or face dire consequences.
The combined pressure of the US administration and the Pakistani army worked magic. The government, making a humiliating retreat, decided to move the Pakistani Supreme Court, challenging its ruling under which the Sharif brothers were banned from electoral politics. On 16 March, prime minister Gilani announced that Justice Chaudhary would be reinstated as from 21 March.
This turn of events has effected a complete reversal in the fortunes of the chief contenders in this latest episode. While the position of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N has been much strengthened, that of Zardari and the PPP has suffered a devastating blow. Zardari has been shown to be an amateurish, ineffectual and incompetent buffoon who, following the sympathy vote for his assassinated wife, was undeservedly thrust into high office, of which the sooner he is deprived, the better.
The temporary averting of the crisis has solved none of the problems facing Pakistan, and into the bargain has revealed the utter impotence of the civilian government in the face of the omnipotence of US imperialism and the Pakistani armed forces. What is more, the army, only recently so thoroughly discredited, has emerged stronger from Zardari’s handling of the situation. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator, has made this apt observation:
“Maybe a big crisis has been averted for the time being but at what cost? The army’s intervention as the problem solver has also demonstrated that politicians still do not have the capacity to resolve differences on their own. If the army now has a spot on the decision-making table, is that necessarily a cause for celebration?” (Quoted in ‘Zardari’s defeat seen as a step towards stronger democracy’ by Bukhari, Lamont and Dombey, Financial Times, 17 March, 2009)
A recent editorial in the International Herald Tribune came to a similar conclusion:
“Already some Washington analysts are suggesting there might be worse things than a return to military rule in Pakistan”, adding, however, that “We’ve seen this movie before, and it is not a strategy for long-term stability.” (‘Pakistan edges closer to the cliff’, 13 March 2009)
While Zardari, Sharif and the army are busy attempting to outmanoeuvre each other, Pakistan is in serious turmoil. As a matter of fact, it is burning.
Seasoned observers of the Pakistani social and political scene are of the view that, unless the ruling circles in that country take some drastic measures, and do so urgently, Pakistan might well disintegrate – with dire consequences for its people and the entire south Asian region. The recent events in Pakistan, while undermining the viability of the Pakistani state, are also threatening to destabilise the whole region.
Why the present situation?
The question arises: how has Pakistan come to such a pass? And the answer lies in the manipulation of the Pakistani ruling classes, especially the Pakistani army, by US imperialism, almost since its inception.
For more than half of its life as a state, Pakistan has been ruled by the army, which has strong links with US imperialism. Even during the periods when the army retired to barracks, it remained, as it does today, the real power behind the throne, with the elected governments serving merely as a civilian façade for the all too powerful armed forces. At times when the army, having been discredited, has had to make way for a civilian regime, the feuding factions of the Pakistani ruling class, obsessed with their mutual rivalry and internecine warfare over the spoils of office, have proved too weak to govern for any length of time – invariably ending up by creating the conditions for yet another military takeover.
Army-fundamentalist alliance with imperialism
The Pakistani army, lacking a social base and popular support, could only hope to rule through an alliance with the most reactionary, obscurantist and fundamentalist sections of the population at home, and with imperialism, especially US imperialism, abroad. It is this alliance of reactionary forces in Pakistan with imperialism, directed as much against the interests of the masses of Pakistan as against those of other peoples in the region, which has now brought Pakistan to a state of lawlessness that threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state.
Pakistan’s role in the US’s proxy war in Afghanistan
There were times, as for instance during the years of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, when, through their utter obsequiousness to US imperialism, the Pakistani army and its fundamentalist supporters felt they had everything going for them. Pakistan acted as a conduit for the $6bn-worth of imperialist military aid to fund the counter-revolutionary Afghan resistance against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.
The Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, trained the ‘holy warriors’, the mujahideen – at the behest of US imperialism – to wage war against the Afghan government and its ‘godless’ Soviet backers. In return, Pakistan received considerable aid from the US, most of which went to the military, with little finding its way to be used for economic construction.
Another source of funding for the US’s proxy war in Afghanistan was Saudi Arabia, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into that reactionary enterprise, which devastated the lives of the Afghan people for well over a decade.
The reactionary feudal Saudi Arabian regime, in addition to supplying funds, also despatched, with active US encouragement, the gangly figure of Osama bin Laden to galvanise, through the propagation of wahhabism, an extreme sunni version of Islam, the 40,000 foreign ‘volunteers’ who went into Afghanistan to fight America’s proxy war. Later on, a considerable number of these agents of imperialist counter-revolution were to fight in other places, from Bosnia to Chechnya.
Pakistan enrolled for the US predatory war
Eventually, the Soviet forces withdrew, and Kabul, after internecine warfare between various warlords, finally fell to the Taliban in September 1996. The US had no problem with an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban – until, that is, it met with opposition on the part of the Taliban to the construction of oil and gas pipelines backed by Unocal to carry oil and gas from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan out to the Persian Gulf without having to cross Russian or Iranian territory.
Using the events of 11 September 2001 as a pretext, US imperialism launched its predatory war against the Afghan people on 7 October of that year. Thus began the US’s ‘war on terror’ – a predatory war for world domination.
Pakistan, led by General Pervez Musharraf, who had come to power at gunpoint through the overthrow of an elected civilian government, was dragged willy-nilly into participating in this war on the side of the US, having been threatened with annihilation if Pakistan held back.
US war on terror destabilises Pakistan
It is this participation in the US’s ‘war on terror’ that made the Pakistani regime so unpopular and eventually led to the downfall of Musharraf last year.
Over the last few years, the Pakistani masses have given ample proof of their extreme disdain for, and opposition to, Pakistan’s collaboration with the US in the latter’s wars. They can no longer be mobilised to support the US’s predatory wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the latter.
In the 1980s, owing to the US backing for the reactionary Afghan medievalists fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime, the contradiction between US imperialism and the Pakistani people took a back seat. Since 11 September, however, these contradictions have erupted violently and are intensifying with each passing month.
While just as fundamentalist and obscurantist, just as medievalist in their world outlook as before, the objective circumstances have forced the Taliban and other mujahideen groups to end their role as counter-revolutionary instruments of US imperialism that they were in the 1980s and take the path of resistance against imperialist war and occupation. As such, they enjoy the support of progressive humanity in general and of the Pakistani people in particular.
In proportion as the Pakistani army, coerced by the US, has attacked its own people in the areas bordering Afghanistan, it has roused the anger of the inhabitants of those areas, who have taken up arms against the Pakistani army.
In response to US military attacks on the population in Pakistan’s frontier areas (on the pretext of pursuing leaders of the Afghan resistance), resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, the people in these places have taken up active armed resistance against the US, hitting US targets on Pakistani territory, through which three-quarters of the supplies for Nato forces in Afghanistan are channelled.
In early February, Pakistani militants blew up a bridge close to the Khyber Pass, resulting in the temporary severing of an essential supply line for US-led forces. This incident followed another, some months earlier, when a compound full of Nato-destined trucks in Peshawar was torched. Again, on 15 March, militants attacked a transport terminal in north-western Pakistan used for supplying Nato troops across the border, torching dozens of containers and military vehicles.
Thanks to the brutal war waged by US imperialism against the people of Afghanistan, and increasingly against the people of the frontier areas of Pakistan, as well as the collaboration of the Pakistani army with the Nato-led forces, the colonial-era border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as the Durand line, has effectively ceased to exist.
The 2,640km border, drawn in 1893 by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, foreign secretary in the British Indian government, has long been a source of friction, dividing as it does the Pashtun people, whose leaders on both sides reject it. The weakening authority of the Pakistani government, and the inability or unwillingness of the Pakistani army to defend the border regions against militant attacks, have precipitated a de facto merger of parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus serving to undermine the authority of the governments in both Islamabad and Kabul.
In other words, Pashtunistan is a reality. Something similar is going on in Baluchistan. The Pakistani Taliban control large swathes of territory in the border areas. Only recently, they overran the Swat Valley – a mere three hours’ drive from Islamabad.
The Pakistani army appears to be powerless when faced with these elements – at the beginning of February, 30 soldiers and policemen were captured by Taliban fighters after running out of ammunition.
Troubles spread beyond frontier areas
In nearly half of Pakistan, the writ of the state does not run. As for Karzai, his government does not control much beyond Kabul – if indeed it controls the capital city!
As a matter of fact, the armed activities of the jihadi groups pitted against the US and the Pakistani state are no longer confined to the frontier areas along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. They have shown their willingness and ability to strike anywhere and at will across Pakistan, hitting high-profile targets in all the major cities of the country – Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
To name just two of the most deadly attacks during the last few months: on 20 September 2008, anti-government militants attacked the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing 40 and wounding 200; and on 3 March, the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was the target of an attack that killed six police personnel and a bus driver.
In the second of these incidents, 12 attackers armed with 10 AK-47 rifles, two rocket launchers, 32 hand grenades and plastic explosives, having perpetrated their dastardly act, managed to effect their escape on motorcycles. This attack seriously undermined the stability and legitimacy of the Zardari government after less than seven months of its coming to office.
The government’s failure to protect the visiting Sri Lankans drew sharp criticism from the media, the opposition and the sports community. The former captain of the Pakistan cricket team, Imran Khan, now an opposition political leader, lambasted the Zardari government for the “shameful” lapse of security resulting in this attack, which has placed a question mark over Pakistan’s suitability as co-host of the 2011 World Cup, when it is scheduled to stage 14 matches, including one of the semi-finals.
US failure in Pakistan
The US began its barbarous predatory war against Afghanistan in October 2001, hoping to achieve a quick military victory and to install a puppet government to do its bidding. More than seven years later, the US-led 41-nation coalition is decidedly losing the war.
To the US’s already 35,000-strong troop presence, the Obama administration is adding another 17,000. The new troop ‘surge’ is unlikely to be of much help in view of the gathering strength of the Afghan resistance, which enjoys widespread support from the Afghan masses. In an informed article in the International Herald Tribune , Leslie H Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy , says:
“We [the US] can’t defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the last seven years have shown.” Instead, he says, the US should “focus more … resources and influence on the far more dire situation in Pakistan” . The Taliban, he continues, have found in north-western Pakistan a refuge that has proved almost impregnable. (‘How to leave’, 13 March 2009)
In other words, instead of subduing Afghanistan, the US-led war has served to spread it across the frontier to Pakistan and become the source of Pakistan’s destabilisation.
Unable, or unwilling, openly to reach the only correct conclusion, namely, that the US should forthwith and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, Mr Gelb comes up with suggestions that, in effect, amount to no more than face-saving formulae for the admission of failure by the US and the removal of its forces from Afghanistan.
Instead of following the present strategy of eliminating the Taliban, which is “unattainable”, the US, advises Mr Gelb, should set itself the “achievable” goal to “contain and deter the Taliban” . This “power extrication strategy” , he claims, could be achieved through a combination of economic support, negotiations with moderates among the resistance, an end to the flow of funds that come mainly through the Gulf states, the creation of a ring around Afghanistan through coalition with its neighbours, and the creation of a credible deterrence while withdrawing.
Whatever the merits of Mr Gelb’s lucubration,*i let alone whether the US administration will take any notice of it, one thing is certain: namely, that the present US mantra of pacifying Pakistan so as to pacify Afghanistan is inherently contradictory and unachievable. Since it is the war in Afghanistan, and its extension by the US to Pakistan, that is the main source of instability and the spread of jihadism within Pakistan, the latter cannot be pacified without the US stopping military attacks on Pakistani soil, which, in the final analysis, involves US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Since the US, unless defeated on the battlefields of Afghanistan, is most unlikely to follow this course, the only way Pakistan can be rescued from continuing destabilisation and creeping disintegration is for the civilian government and the armed forces of Pakistan to stiffen their spines and bluntly tell the US that they would no longer cooperate with its ‘war on terror’.
It may come to it that the US, refusing to take notice of such a Pakistani view, continues its operations against targets in Pakistan, in violation of the latter’s sovereignty. In that case, the Pakistani armed forces must be ready and willing to train their guns on US invaders. In such a scenario, the Pakistani army would enjoy the wholehearted and enthusiastic support of the Pakistani masses.
Whether the civilian government of Pakistan will feel strong enough to embark on such a course of action, and whether the Pakistani army would go along with it, we cannot say with certainty. One thing is clear, however, and that is that the jihadi cult in Pakistan is the product of a combination of the US’s predatory war in Afghanistan and the narrow caste interests of the Pakistan army.
The jihadi groups, created by the US and the Pakistani army to fight against the Soviets, incidentally enabled the Pakistani army to project power in Afghanistan and the part of Kashmir on the Indian side of the Line of Control, as well as to keep civilian governments in Pakistan at bay, for the army has managed over decades to arrogate to itself the role, not only of being protector of Pakistani soil, but also of the guardian of its ideology.
It will be very difficult indeed for the Pakistani armed forces to move away from this mindset. But move away they must, as this instrument, their own creation, has boomeranged to the point that jihadism is threatening to devour the Pakistani state itself.
Pakistani people are not inherently fundamentalist. They are secular-minded and easy-going. If they are coming to be influenced in any way by the jihadis, it is because of the situation created by the ruling circles – civilian and especially the military – in close collaboration with US imperialism. To save Pakistan and its people from the menace of jihadism, the country must be prised out of the clutches of US imperialism. Unless that happens, there will be no Pakistan for the army, the Zardaris and the Sharifs to lord over. This is the thought that must permeate the proletariat and the popular masses of Pakistan.
If the ruling classes won’t take this, the only course back from the precipice, the Pakistani masses must themselves take this task in their own hands, and, ridding themselves of the feudal-military leadership, chart for themselves a path to independence, freedom and prosperity.