Pakistan on the brink

The recent elections in Pakistan have done nothing to change the balance of power in the country, which still rests with the army and its US imperialist backers.

On Sunday 11 May, Pakistani voters went to the polls to elect a new national assembly and four provincial ones. Close to 60 percent of Pakistan’s 86 million voters cast their ballots – a much higher turnout than the 44 percent who turned out in 2008.

With 124 seats, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), emerged the winner. Although short of an absolute majority, the PML-N is on course to form the next government. In a house of 272, it needs 137 national assembly members to secure a majority of one, which it should easily be able to muster through securing the support of some independent members along with its share of the 70 reserve seats (60 for women and 10 for religious minorities) that, under the Pakistani constitution, will be distributed among the parties in proportion to their strength in the assembly.

The former rulers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, found themselves reduced to a rump, with a mere 31 seats – just ahead of the 27 seats won by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Party of Justice) founded by former Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan.

Why PPP lost

The PPP was punished by Pakistan’s voters for several reasons. The first was for its alliance with, and subservience to, US imperialism, and its collaboration with the latter’s ‘war on terrorism – in particular for its acquiescence to US drone attacks on Pakistani citizens, which have claimed the lives of several thousand civilians.

The second was for the counterinsurgency measures undertaken by the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley, which have included carpet bombing and collective punishment, and which have resulted in the creation of millions of refugees. Although the Pakistani armed forces are a law unto themselves, and the government, if it did not wish to be toppled, had little choice but to go along with this ruthless offensive, nevertheless, since the brutality took place under the PPP government’s watch, it was perceived by the Pakistani people as being the perpetrator of this barbarous campaign.

The third was for the harsh austerity programme, implemented by the PPP at the behest of the IMF even as Pakistan suffered devastating floods, collapsing infrastructure, extreme power shortages and rising food prices.

All in all, the PPP government left its security and foreign policy to the army and the Pentagon, while in economic policy it carried out the IMF mandate.

On top of all this, the PPP government was characterised by monumental incompetence and corruption, hand in hand with extreme insensitivity towards the feelings and aspirations of the masses of Pakistan.

Scores of its candidates were unable to campaign freely during the run-up to the election out of fear of the Taliban, which targeted them for their party’s support for the US ‘anti-terror’ crusade. Bilwal Bhutto Zardari, the 24-year-old son of the party’s leader and official chairman of the PPP, stayed abroad during the election.


Imran Khan’s PTI, while not living up to its own expectations, did manage to win 27 seats in the national assembly, and emerged as the largest party in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the former North-West Frontier Province with Peshawar as its capital, and is on course to form the government in this sensitive region close to the Afghan border.

The PTI campaigned on a programme of fighting against corruption and dynastic politics and of opposition to drone attacks. Imran Khan asserted that, in the event of his party forming the government, he would order the military to shoot drones out of Pakistani air space, ignoring the fact that it was with the complete collusion of the Pakistani military that the US military used Pakistan’s skies at will. “We cannot bring peace to this country until we get out of America’s war,” he said in an interview, adding: “We have to get rid of this cancer.”

For his part, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani flatly rejected the notion that the army had been dragged into an American war, saying “there is no room for doubts when it comes to dealing with rebellion against the state”. In other words, whatever the civilian and elected leaders such as Imran Khan might say, the army will do as it pleases, and there is not a thing that any government can do about it. They should understand that it is the army that calls the tune.

In KP, the National Awami Party was wiped out, partly at least because its candidates were especially targeted by the fundamentalists, who hated its secular credentials. Seven hundred of its members, including senior minister Bashir Bilour, have been murdered. Be it said in passing that neither the PTI nor the PML-N faced any attacks from the Pakistani Taliban because of their conciliatory stance towards them and their willingness to hold talks with the fundamentalist outfits.

Why PML-N won

Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has done better than expected, for he campaigned on a broad programme which sent contradictory messages, designed to please the maximum number of people and thereby secure the maximum of electoral support. Among other things, he promised:

1. To deny the armed forces any role in politics.

2. To improve relations with India, with the dual aim of reviving the economy, through trade and economic cooperation between the two neighbours, and reducing the army’s pivotal role, which is based on enmity towards India.

3. To stop the use of Pakistani soil for attacks on India by the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed 160 people, and whose close relations with the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), allow it a free hand both in Pakistan and across the border.

4. To hold talks with the Taliban, even though Sharif knows full well that such talks in the past, far from resolving the problem of terrorism, have merely emboldened the jihadist armed outfits to perpetrate their outrages from their bases in Waziristan and KP.

5. To end Pakistan’s unpopular involvement in the US-led ‘war on terrorism’.

6. To revive the economy.

Negation of promises

The election over, and with his parliamentary majority more or less in the bag, Mr Sharif, in a style characteristic of all bourgeois politicians, has moved with effortless ease to negate many of the promises he made at the hustings.

Ignoring his own anti-drones stance and the disengagement from the US-led war that he advocated during the election campaign, he now emphasises the need to work with “our American friends”.

Again under US pressure, Sharif has promised to review the decision of the previous government to build a gas pipeline linking Iran and Pakistan. Any reversal of that decision will serve not only to isolate and bring greater economic pressure to bear upon Iran, but will also exacerbate Pakistan’s energy problems, which need to be solved as a matter of urgency.

Equally, he has made conciliatory gestures towards the military, saying that he has nothing against it as an institution but only against individuals such as General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew him in a coup in 1999.

On the economic front, Mr Sharif has made it abundantly clear that his government will continue to carry out IMF policies through a wholesale programme of privatising state-owned enterprises, removing subsidies, raising taxes, and making large-scale redundancies. The finance portfolio in his government is to be given to Ishaq Dar, a former World Bank and Asian Development Bank technocrat, who also served as finance minister in the previous Sharif government and there carried out the IMF’s behests.

Problems facing Sharif

Whatever the glaring disparity between his election campaign rhetoric and his stance in the days following his party’s victory, now that he is the head of the government once more, Mr Sharif will have to deal with real problems that will not be disposed of through vague phrases and weasel words.

His first problem will be that of relations with the powerful Pakistani military, which has overthrown four governments and ruled Pakistan directly for more than half of its existence as a state – and indirectly the rest of the time.

This 600,000-strong force consumes 30 percent of the national budget and runs a vast business and real-estate empire. It is determined to keep total control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policy and zealously guards the military budget and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Any attempt by the new Sharif government to reduce the army’s role will be fiercely resisted by the latter. In any case, the military does not like him, for in 1988 he sacked the then military chief of staff, General Jahangir Karamat, for criticising the government and replaced him with General Musharraf, who went on to overthrow him a little later.

Musharraf, who had been living in exile in London after his removal from the presidency, returned to Pakistan in March 2013 with a view to standing in the election. Instead, after his return, the judiciary has barred him from participation in politics for life and put him under house arrest. He faces several charges, including Benazir Bhutto’s murder, the killing of a Baloch nationalist leader, the sacking of senior judges, and possibly even treason.

Nawaz Sharif will very shortly be faced with having to make a decision on the fate of Musharraf. If he decides to drop all charges against the general who toppled him in 1999, he will be perceived, and rightly so, as impotent in the face of the military, and his promises to reduce the latter’s influence will have been revealed to be hollow. If, on the other hand, he sets in motion the process of prosecuting Musharraf for crimes that carry a possible death penalty, he will risk being toppled by the army yet again.

Much has been made in the bourgeois media of the fact that the last civilian government in Pakistan survived the full five-year term and made way for another elected civilian government. The explanation for that unprecedented achievement in Pakistan’s history lies in the fact that the PPP government surrendered to the military on every crucial issue – from foreign and security matters, including the Afghan war, to relations with the US and India, oversight of the country’s nuclear weapons and the scope and role of the ISI.

Closely connected with the relations between the civilian government and the military are the twin questions of Pakistan’s relations with its US patron and its Indian neighbour. To survive, Pakistan needs to disengage itself from the very unpopular US-led imperialist war in Afghanistan and concentrate on improving its economy. And the key to improving its economy lies in improving its relations with India.

Unfortunately, none of this can be accomplished without the consent of the all-powerful army, but the rationale for the army’s power rests precisely on treating India as an arch enemy and existential threat to Pakistan, while relying on an alliance with the US for military and economic support.

Ever since its birth, Pakistan has rested on an alliance between the mosque and the military. The country’s permanent policy tripod consists of:

a. Islamisation as a consistent state ideology;

b. irreconcilable hostility towards India; and

c. the building of military and economic strength through reliance on the US.

Without US economic and military support, Pakistan is unable to confront India, but the very idea of treating India other than as an arch enemy strikes at the root of the Pakistani military’s power. In view of this, the Nawaz Sharif government is more likely than not to continue its alliance with the US, and will therefore have very limited room for improving relations with India.

As to controlling extremist groups, the Pakistani army has been manipulating these groups in the service of its foreign policy goals in India and Afghanistan for several decades. That practice has had some extremely grave unintended consequences, however, resulting in the creation of an internal violent movement, the Pakistani Taliban, which aims at fighting and overthrowing the present Pakistani state.

The generals find themselves in a bind. Whereas they, through the ISI, initially created the Taliban to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and to tie half a million Indian troops in the Kashmir Valley, the Taliban are now busy biting the hand that created and fed them. Thus the army finds itself in a bloody struggle against a monster of its own creation.

It would be very difficult, to say the least, for the Nawaz Sharif government to negotiate with the Taliban when the latter are targeting the army in a bloody campaign of bombings and shootings, and while the army is waging a brutal war against Taliban strongholds. In this grisly fight, nearly 40,000 people, including 3,500 security personnel, have so far been killed.

While the Pakistani army is unable to break free from its alliance, no matter how unstable and duplicitous, with the American war, the Taliban, who on this question enjoy the sympathy of the majority of Pakistani people, are not inclined to declare a truce with the army. Hence the prospect of continued conflict, becoming even more intensified and bloody by the day.

Not only the military but Pakistan’s civilian governments, too, have a history of making politically-expedient deals with shia-baiting sunni muslim groups and turning a blind eye to the persecution of christians and ahmadi muslims – as did the outgoing PML-N regional government in Punjab (run by Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz). None of these deals last long, however. Encouraged and emboldened by such compromises, the fundamentalists make further unreasonable demands and indulge in atrocious acts of violence.

As to the economy, it is in a dreadful state. Pakistan suffers from massive unemployment, illiteracy and a very low per-capita income, with one third of the population existing below the poverty line, and another 21 percent only just above it. Sixty years after independence from direct colonial rule, literacy in Pakistan stands at a pathetic 35 percent, and the country spends just 2 percent of its meagre GDP on education, while forking out 5 percent on defence.

Shortage of electricity, with power cuts of 20 hours a day in some cities, knocks 3-4 percent off GDP. Net liquid foreign assets have fallen to $7.9bn according to ADB – equivalent to less than two months’-worth of imports – and will be reduced further with the repayment soon of the $1.7bn the country owes to the IMF from a previous loan. The outgoing PPP government had been negotiating with the IMF for a loan of $5-8bn to avert a balance of payments crisis.

Nawaz Sharif’s government will have no option but to sign on the dotted line and agree to all the IMF’s conditions demanding privatisation, elimination of subsidies and further attacks on the working-class and peasant masses. If for no other reason, the Nawaz Sharif government has to have the goodwill of US imperialism to get any help from the IMF. This being the case, it will find it next to impossible to extricate itself from the vice-like grip of US imperialism and its ‘war on terror’.

In view of all this, the elections just held in Pakistan, like all previous elections, will do no more than lend a ‘democratic’ façade to another anti-people government, subservient to the army and to US imperialism alike. The real agenda of the incoming administration is being set and settled in backroom discussions, away from the public gaze, between the government, the Pakistani military, Washington, the IMF and the business élites.

In his excellent book, Pakistan Between Mosque and Military, Hussain Haqqani emphasised that, as a result of the military’s dominant role, Pakistan has failed to develop “a consistent system of government, with persistent political polarisation along three major, intersecting fault lines: between the civilians and the military, among various ethnic and provincial groups, and between Islamists and secularists.

Hussain Haqqani could have gone further and said that the very creation of Pakistan, based as it is on religion and the totally erroneous ‘two nation’ theory, which conflates religion with nationhood (hindu and muslim in this case), and makes the false assertion that hindus and muslims cannot live in a single state, is the biggest fault line.

Having no other coherent ideology, the Pakistani ruling circles have had to rely on religion in an effort to hold together this artificial construct. This experiment never held any great prospect of success, but has now been rendered nearly unworkable because of the dominance of the army and the overweening influence exercised by US imperialism over the country – influence which has played a crucial role in perpetuating army rule.

The Pakistani army, steeped in corruption, and compromising Pakistani national security by its own actions, has been intervening in public life, accusing civilian politicians of the very sins it commits itself with abandon – namely, corruption and undermining national security. As the army regimes lack all legitimacy, the generals have to lean on the mullahs and religious parties, not to speak of the jihadist groups, to poison public life with religious fundamentalism.

This process reached a new height during President Zia ul-Haq’s 11-year military rule, which coincided with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in support of a progressive Afghan government and the organisation of mujahedeen outfits by US imperialism, with the close cooperation of the Pakistani government of General Zia, whose aim was to topple that Afghan government.

Far from holding Pakistan together and strengthening it, however, the islamisation of Pakistan, combined with the suffocating role of the all-powerful army and the malevolent influence of US imperialism, has become the single most potent force leading to the disintegration of the country. The separation of East Pakistan and the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh was a fairly early warning, from which the Pakistani ruling classes, it would seem, have learnt very little. They are hurtling along a road that can only lead to disaster and collapse.

The policy tripod – Islamisation, visceral hostility towards India, and alliance with the US – pursued by the Pakistani establishment became unravelled in the aftermath of the 11 September events, following which the reliance on the ideology of Islam on the one hand, and an alliance with the US on the other, suddenly became mutually exclusive. While the US came to regard Islamist jihadis, at least in that part of the world, as a threat to its interests, Pakistan viewed them as instruments for confronting India and for establishing a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul.

Confronted with extreme US pressure and threats, the Pakistani establishment caved in and adopted, albeit half-heartedly, the stance of suppressing a section of the violent jihadis, who responded by launching devastating attacks on targets, both civilian and military, inside Pakistan.

The only way out of its present predicament is for Pakistan to break its alliance with the US and with the fundamentalists. Without the break with the US and its so-called ‘war on terror’, the connection with fundamentalism cannot be broken, since the Pakistani alliance with the US is the major factor stoking the fires of fundamentalism at the present time.

In conjunction with these steps, Pakistan needs to reshape its military’s view of national interests away from its obsession with India as the arch enemy – a reshaping most difficult to accomplish, for it demolishes an ideological prop that has been central to the mindset of the Pakistani establishment since 1947. Moreover, such a reorientation cannot but hurt the material interests of the military caste, which dominates Pakistani society and devours a disproportionate share of its national budget solely on the basis of the supposed need to ‘defend the country’ against Indian aggression.

Such a difficult task cannot be accomplished even by a civilian regime as long as it continues to be dominated by the army. Thanks to the machinations of the army and the imperialists, fundamentalism has made significant inroads into Pakistani society. Yet despite this, the majority of the Pakistani masses remain of a secular disposition.

Only these masses, led by democratic and secular forces that are thoroughly determined to oust the army from politics and put an end to US imperialist domination, can save Pakistan from a collapse into warring feudalist fiefdoms.