At the end of April, goaded by the US administration, the Pakistani army, backed by helicopter gunships and supported by fighter jets, launched its latest offensive against Taliban positions in the Swat Valley, putting an end to the peace deal signed in February between the Pakistani government and the Islamists, who are in virtual control of the area.
Highly trained Taliban fighters, numbering between 4,000-5,000, still control the area they did when the Swat peace deal was signed.
Inexperienced in the art of counter-insurgency warfare, the Pakistani military fights the only way it knows – with air strikes, artillery bombardment and tank shells, pounding its enemy from a distance, and fearful of coming within striking distance of suicide bombers. This method of fighting causes high casualties among the civilian population and thus acts as a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban.
In the opinion of military experts, the Pakistani army’s whisky-swilling officers, who have never participated in a battle, are not the type to head a successful fight against a determined, fanatical and battle-hardened foe, especially in the light of the sympathy that the latter enjoys among a section of the Pakistani army and among the population generally. The officer corps is one big corrupt conglomerate, more adept at running big chunks of Pakistani industry and property empires, and at leading luxurious lives, than at waging counter-insurgency campaigns.
In the light of its earlier campaigns against the Islamists, during which it lost 2,000 soldiers, the Pakistani army stands little chance of succeeding in its latest assault.
During the recent fighting, the Pakistani army claims to have killed 1,100 Taliban and to have lost just 60 of its own soldiers, while 1.5-2 million people have been forced to flee their homes for fear of falling victim to the indiscriminate and massive bombardments unleashed by the army and air force. The number of refugees thus created is threatening to swell to 3 million – creating a humanitarian crisis of greater proportions than any other suffered during Pakistan’s history, save for the war of 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, when some 10 million refugees fled into India from the then East Pakistan.
Relief camps in Pakistan are at present the biggest in the world, exceeding in size those of Sri Lanka or Sudan. What public support there is for the army’s operation could easily vanish if the humanitarian response to the crisis proves to be inept, or results in too many civilian casualties; or the US overreaches itself – or, indeed, the most likely scenario, namely, all of them.
Extension of war to Pakistan
The Taliban’s recent gains in Pakistan have come in the wake of the US administration’s intensification of drone attacks (remotely piloted airstrikes) on border areas – 16 in the first four months of 2009, as opposed to 36 during the whole of 2008.
The US has extended its predatory Afghan war to Pakistan on the pretext that the Afghan resistance is using the Pakistani frontier provinces as a sanctuary and a base from which to launch attacks on US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. By doing this, however, the US has practically obliterated the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and turned the Afghan war into an AfPak war.
US drones regularly attack places in Pakistan alleged by the US to be Taliban or al-Qaeda hideouts. The use of remote aerial attacks is imperialism’s response, on the one hand, to stubborn resistance to US occupation and aggression, and, on the other hand, to the unpopularity of the wars waged by imperialism among the populations of the warmongering imperialist countries who are demanding that troops should be brought home.
These attacks will be no more successful than was the counter-insurgency strategy deployed by British imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1920s. The reason for this is that air warfare, by obliterating the distinction between civilians and combatants, and by causing massive civilian casualties and material destruction, ends up by alienating the local population and causing it to join the resistance. At the same time, it serves to compromise the legitimacy of any local government seen to cooperate with the imperialist perpetrators of death and destruction on such a vast scale.
In any case, those determined to resist imperialist aggression always manage to find ways to evade the ‘all-seeing’ eyes of the enemy satellites in the sky.
Since 2006, US drone attacks have killed 14 mid-level or lower-level alleged al-Qaeda leaders, but resulted in 700 civilian deaths. “That’s a hit rate of two percent on 98 percent collateral. It’s not moral,” says David Kilcullen, former adviser to US General David Petraeus in Iraq.
The US has extended the Afghan war in its effort to succeed in Afghanistan. However, the actual effect of US attacks on Pakistan is to ensure its certain defeat in Afghanistan, while at the same time destabilising Pakistan and preparing the way for a possible Islamist takeover in that country. Once confined to the remote border regions and occasional acts of urban terrorism, the Pakistani Taliban has become a formidable force and is getting close to Islamabad, thanks to US actions and the Pakistani authorities’ complicity, no matter how reluctant, in the US-led unjust predatory war against Afghanistan.
Most Pakistanis are at the moment bitterly hostile to the US, and wish for nothing better than defeat for its army of occupation in Afghanistan. They harbour feelings of fraternity for the Afghan people and sympathise with and support their just resistance to the US war and occupation. As time goes on, and the casualties and the costs of the war mount up, the people of Pakistan are likely to turn against their own government for being in the pocket of Washington, and against their army as being nothing but a hireling of US imperialism.
In the present conditions, it is nothing short of a kiss of death for the Pakistani government and its armed forces to be seen siding with US imperialism and waging war on its own people.
The difficulties faced by the Pakistani army in securing and retaining control of the frontier areas can be gauged from the fact that, after several weeks of relentless bombardment, it has only managed to wrest control of a quarter of Mingora, the administrative headquarters of the Swat Valley, from the Taliban.
The US drone attacks and the latest offensive of the Pakistani armed forces, far from creating a safe security environment for US interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are more than likely – thanks to huge civilian casualties and forced displacement of millions of people – to provoke greater anger among the Pakistani masses against US imperialism and those seen to be collaborating with it, namely, the Pakistani government and military.
The Pakistani people, who are not fundamentalist and who by no means sympathise with the reactionary medievalist social programme of the Taliban, are, in the absence of a vibrant working-class movement, being slowly drawn closer to the Taliban, who are seen to be resisting US imperialism’s war against the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talk of a Taliban takeover is no longer unusual, for the fantastical is becoming frighteningly real.
On 11 May, 10 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a checkpoint outside Peshawar, prompting fears of a backlash from the Taliban in response to military action, aggravated by the apprehension that Taliban elements could easily escape to the heartland of Pakistan in the guise of refugees.
In the light of the foregoing, it does not look as though the Pakistani army’s latest offensive will meet with any greater success than did its previous attempts to dislodge the Taliban from the Swat Valley. Its failure will endanger Nato’s war in Afghanistan, as the Taliban could well be in a position to block supply routes from the North West Frontier Province, through which more than 89 percent of Nato’s supplies reach Afghanistan.
“We could be creating a Stalingrad in the Hindu Kush”, David Kilcullen has warned, adding that drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas are counterproductive as their effect is to incite Punjabi militancy and thus undermine both the Pakistani government and the US war effort in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are the product of the Pakistani armed forces, trained in the 1990s to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Pakistani army overwhelmingly regards India as the main enemy, but is now asked to fight the very people it trained to wage jihad against India. The Pakistani people overwhelmingly regard the US as their enemy, but now find their government ordering the Pakistani armed forces to wage war on their own people on behalf of the US. This is an unsustainable position for the Pakistani authorities to maintain.
The Pakistani state is strong enough to defeat the Taliban, but only on one condition, namely that Pakistan dissociates and breaks free from the US-led ‘war on terror’. Failing that, it is only a question of time before US forces enter Pakistan in large numbers to give backing to the Pakistani military. If that were to happen, Pakistan would turn into a vast and horrifying battlefield, with US imperialism and the Pakistani army ranged against the people of Pakistan – a battlefield compared to which Helmand Province in present-day Afghanistan would assume the appearance of a haven of peace.
The unfolding events present the greatest danger to the integrity and existence of Pakistan. To ward off and avert this danger, the Pakistani masses must force their government to stop acting as a tool in US imperialism’s predatory wars. Only such a course can save Pakistan from a fundamentalist takeover and from disintegration.
As we went to press, four bombs exploded in the north west of Pakistan, three in the city of Peshawar and one in Dera Ismail Khan. This followed a Taliban warning that they would commence a wider bombing campaign in response to the Swat offensive. The Pakistani Taliban also claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb and gun attack the previous day in the eastern city of Lahore, near to the offices of the country’s top security agency, which killed an estimated 35 people.