Crisis and conflict in Pakistan

Issue: 126

Sartaj Khan & Yuri Prasad

Sartaj Khan of the International Socialists of Pakistan spoke to Yuri Prasad about growing nationalist and ethnic tensions and the need for a working class response.

Pakistan’s political elite is desperate to please its paymasters in Washington. Military operations against the Pakistani Taliban pit the army against some of the country’s poorest people, while US forces are free to bomb with impunity. The result is a growing sense of crisis in a country that is also being squeezed economically. The Pakistani state is aggressively pursing the US “war on terror” within its own borders, even targeting the Islamist organisations it once forged alliances with. Does this mark a decisive break with past strategies, and are there tensions between different sections of the ruling class over the war?

There is no decisive break between the state and Islamists. The Islamist petty bourgeoisie and their middle class parties continue to support the state. And for its part, the state continues to nurture certain sections of the Islamist movement while conducting army operations against others. So the army spared Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group allegedly responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks, because they have distanced themselves from the Pakistani Taliban.

The politicians and parts of the army are bitterly divided on the issue. Pakistan has strategic interests in the border areas and in Afghanistan which cannot be ignored, and the Taliban are the only force it can rely on. The Pakistani state is desperate to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence, and keep India in check. Despite the wave of bombings in the cities of Pakistan that the state blames on “militants”, the Taliban continue to act as a proxy for the army. It is an open secret that the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI, supports the Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups that operate from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and which are engaged in fierce fighting with Nato troops.

The Pakistani ruling class is desperate to maintain its regional influence but its need for US economic and political backing means that it has been unable to oppose the use of American drone bombs and Blackwater mercenaries on its soil. This inability to maintain the state monopoly on the use of violence has greatly eroded its authority with the masses.

Nevertheless, the former liberals have rushed to support the government in the extension of the war on terror into Pakistan. Even sections of the left assert that this is a battle between the Pakistani ISI and the American CIA, and that nationalists, the left and liberals should unite to get rid of the monstrous Pakistani military by hook or by crook.

The Pakistani media seem happy to repeat military claims of great success for their operations. Are they right to do so?

There are no independent sources available to confirm it. The TV channels broadcast the military’s reports and news footage. However, locals tell a very different story. For example, a recent video shows a big army surrender to the Taliban. Most serious journalists admit that a combination of censorship and media self-censorship means it is very difficult to know the truth about what is happening in Waziristan and the tribal areas.

And no media organisation is reporting on the growing refugee crisis. Thousands of the poorest people in Pakistan are fleeing the fighting for makeshift refugee camps. One old Pashtu left intellectual recently described to me the conditions in Waziristan after military operations had begun. “It seems like a ghost house,” he said. “The mud-built houses have been abandoned. There is no one in the area.”

The state claims to have routed the Taliban during their offensive in the Swat Valley last year. Are the Taliban still strong there? Do they maintain popular authority?

Support for Taliban in Swat varies with time. They enjoyed mass support between 2007 and mid-2009. However, their harsh punishments impacted on their popularity after that. The state has pursued a carrot and stick policy in the region in an effort to break ordinary people from the Taliban. One the one hand, it provides money and food to the area, and on the other it has used the military operation to punish people who have committed the sin of allowing the Taliban to rule over them.

As the state has expanded the war on terror across Pakistan there has been a marked revival in the independence movement in the province of Baluchistan, where the army is involved in yet another internal war. Can you tell us what is driving this conflict?

There are many factors involved in the revival of the Baluchi people—some internal and some external. The importance of Baluchistan’s natural resources is crucial, as is the Pakistani state’s need for water to fend off drought. The province is rich in precious minerals, and has large oil and gas supplies, so you will not be surprised to learn that the impact of globalisation and neoliberalism is playing a very important role in shaping the present phase of struggle. This is the fifth major army operation in what is one of the most backward regions of the country. Baluchistan is Pakistan’s largest province, with 44 percent of the country’s area, but just 5 percent of the population. More than 60 percent of people there live in abject poverty.

As the province’s natural resources have become more important, it has become a battleground between the government and indigenous Baluchi tribes. The Pakistani capitalists, with the help of their international friends, want to exploit the area but this cannot be done without marginalising the indigenous population. But tribes are resisting, protecting their land and culture by leading a popular uprising against the “mega development projects” that the Pakistani state considers vital for the future of the country.

Who is leading the movement, and how would you characterise their politics?

There are many organisations. Some are tribally based, but the most effective one is led by splinter groups from the secular nationalist organisation, the Baloch Student Federation (BSO)—which, deceptively, is not a student group as such. It comprises poor youth, mostly from rural areas and those who have recently migrated to cities. Its handbook is the Urdu translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The BSO also gave rise to offshoot organisations such as the Baloch Liberation Army.

The BSO was inspired by the guerrilla struggle of Che Guevara, and in the past was influenced by both Maoism and Stalinism. Many of its leaders, like Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, claim to be Marxists. But, like others, the Baluchi nationalist movement suffered serious political disorientation in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

As a result of the different class interests involved in the Baluchi struggle, the movement is full of contradictions. The middle classes want control of the development projects for themselves so they can pocket the profits. Their bone of contention is the “due share” of local resources. On the other hand the common people are opposing anything that will disrupt their land and their livelihoods. Baluchi tribal leaders want greater control of the projects, and a greater say in the running of the Pakistani state. That is, they want a larger slice of the government bureaucracy, armed forces and other institutions.

The chieftains and middle classes are ready to compromise with the state but pressure from below compels them to keep their distance. The ruling elites and parliamentary parties are marginalised and have little or no public support. Increasing opposition to central government among the poor is widening the gap between the state and politicians still further. Elections in the province in 2008 were met with a complete boycott and strike, and politicians dare not say a word against the freedom fighters.

Have the growing nationalist and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan impacted on the ability of the working class to resist being made to pay for the economic crisis?

The recession has hit the Pakistani working class hard. Production is sharply down in the biggest industries—cotton and garment manufacturing. Meanwhile the military operations in the North West Frontier Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan, by emphasising ethnic rivalries, have helped keep the working class divided. This is especially true in the privately owned industries in industrial cities like Karachi. The situation is more positive in some state-run industries, and anger among workers at the huge corruption among the ruling elites, price hikes in basic utilities and shortages of basic commodities could lead to an explosion.

The government has announced that it wants to increase the power tariff by 24 percent in the next fiscal year. That means a price rise of 75 percent over two years. In ten months the price of flour has increased by 100 percent. The price of sugar has rocketed from 20 rupees a kilo in 2008 to 50 rupees a kilo today. Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, owns seven sugar mills and he and his cronies are profiting from the crisis.

There is a widespread feeling that bosses in the textile and garments industry are also using the crisis for their own ends. Workers are laid off from their jobs, then working hours for those who remain are increased and many are now forced to put in an extra two hours a day. And on top of that thousands of workers are transferred from permanent employers to contractors.

But the working class has not accepted all this without a fight. For example, clerks all over Pakistan have demanded a 200 percent increase in their salaries, and the power loom workers in Faisalabad are fighting hard to maintain power supplies to their homes.

With a ruling class fractured by the war on terror, widely despised by the poor majority and facing a growing nationalist movement, is there a danger that the Pakistani state could disintegrate?

The situation is complex, and in many ways is dependent on how the imperialist powers and their institutions force their policies on Pakistan. The ruling elites are corrupt to the core, the military conflicts are growing, but this does not mean the country is going to fall apart. And most people fear that attempts to destabilise Pakistan by outside intervention would result in mass bloodshed that even might surpass the events of 1947 when hundreds of thousands were killed in the partition of the subcontinent. Any destabilisation of this kind would affect the whole region, including Iran, Afghanistan and India.

The Islamist organisations, in spite of their opposition to elements of the state and its armed forces, are in favour of maintaining the unity of the country that is, for them, “the fortress of Islam” and “the only Islamic nuclear power”. And though the US wants to tame the Pakistan army, and especially its ISI intelligence agency, it knows it will not benefit from the disintegration of the country. Nevertheless the pressures that imperialism and neoliberalism are putting on the country are creating a complex mesh of ethnic and nationalist tensions that could lead to a spiralling war. Only by fighting for a unified working class response to the pressures of globalisation and war can we hope to be able to offer an alternative.