Pakistan: on the edge of instability

Issue: 110

Geoff Brown

As George W Bush weighs up the odds of military action against Iran, one factor his administration will be taking into consideration is instability in Pakistan. This longtime US client state lies at one end of the arc of instability caused by the US’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This now risks spilling over to undermine the hold of the military regime established by Musharraf seven years ago. There is open armed support for the Taliban forces fighting the US among Pushtun tribes in the north west of Pakistan. A little further south an armed uprising for national liberation is developing in the vast province of Baluchistan, which adjoins Iran as well as Afghanistan. There have been huge demonstrations in Pakistan’s major cities over the Danish cartoon affair and the Iraq war led by the very conservative Islamist parties that the military have encouraged in the past. And never to be ruled out is a further explosion of the dispute on its eastern borders with India over Kashmir. Geoff Brown provides a rough guide to Pakistan’s history and current instability.

Pakistan has known neither stability nor security since its creation in 1947. With the world’s sixth largest population, it is one of its poorest countries, weighed down by its vast army and state bureaucracy that, together with debt repayments, take up to four fifths of state spending. It is nevertheless one of eight countries in the world known to have nuclear weapons. With four army coups and a military dictatorship for over half of its existence, none of its five civilian governments has completed its term of office and every military regime has ended in failure. At war over Kashmir within weeks of its independence, it has so far fought and lost three wars with India, the last of which, in 1971, saw the breakaway of over half the country to form Bangladesh. As recently as 1999, there was a confrontation with India with a million soldiers facing each other across the India-Pakistan border. The nuclear-tipped missiles on both sides are reckoned to take as little as three minutes before hitting their targets.

This chaos is not an accident of history but the product of a world system where the powerful challenge each other and bully the weak. Pakistan’s instability owes much to its strategic location, with Russia, China, India and Iran as neighbours. For most of its existence it has been enmeshed in imperialist schemings,1 serving the US as a Muslim ally that can play a proxy role in the Middle East, providing an obstacle to Russian influence in Central Asia, tempering India’s ambitions, and, most recently, assisting in the ‘war on terror’.2

The price paid by the people of Pakistan is enormous, most obviously in the poverty and violence. Pakistan stands 144th out of 175 countries in the UNDP human development index.3 Outside of Africa, only Yemen and Haiti score lower. A third of its population, 50 million people, are living in absolute poverty according to official figures.4 The recent earthquake has shown dramatically the economic vulnerability of the mass of the population.

Corruption of the police and judiciary is such that ‘influentials’ routinely take the law into their own hands. Overwhelmingly their victims are the poor, with women suffering most. Anti-terrorist legislation gives the police more or less unlimited powers, and extra-judicial elimination of criminal suspects is commonplace. Cities are plagued with political and sectarian murders. Karachi has been shut down by mass protests triggered by bombings and targeted killings on average every second month over the last five years.

The origins of Pakistan

Pakistan was born out of the turmoil that followed British imperialism’s discovery in the years 1945-47 that it no longer had the capacity to control the whole of the Indian subcontinent, ‘the jewel in the crown’, the possession worth as much as the whole of the rest of its empire put together.

British rule had only ever been able to be established and maintained through divide and rule, given the tiny numbers of British in India—a few thousand in a population of hundreds of millions. The encouragement of Hindu-Muslim rivalry came to a peak during the Second World War, when Churchill’s government handed control of Indian provincial governments to the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah after Indian National Congress ministers had resigned over the refusal of Britain to concede independence. The league was dominated by certain elite groups—on the one hand, big landowners afraid that Congress would implement radical land reform, and on the other hand, members of the educated ‘salariat’ class competing with Hindus for positions in the state administration. This led it to oppose the biggest struggle against British rule since 1857, the Quit India Movement of 1942, and to justify its stance by arguing there were two nations in the subcontinent, one Hindu and the other Muslim, and that only the creation of an autonomous Muslim state to be called Pakistan could avoid oppression of Muslims in a ‘Hindu Raj’.

There were always very big holes in the league’s argument. The biggest enthusiasts for Pakistan were the urban middle classes in Muslim minority areas of north central India—areas which would not be part of the new state. By contrast there was neither great enthusiasm for the idea nor a mass base for the League in the provinces which make up present day Pakistan. But the League won a majority of Muslim seats in elections in 1946 amid a wave of communal riots across north India. This put it in a strong position to push its demands on both Congress and the British after a mutiny in the Indian navy convinced Britain that it could no longer rely on Indian troops to subdue India on its behalf. A civil servant drew lines down the middle of the two religiously mixed provinces of Punjab and Bengal, and there was an orgy of bloodletting as the majorities on each side drove the minorities out.

Academic historians still debate whether Jinnah pushed the demand for Pakistan out of a desire for a separate, fully independent state or merely as a bargaining counter in negotiations with Congress and the British over influence in a unified India. But whatever he originally intended, Pakistan was born amid the violence of partition, ethnic cleansing, a million deaths and 14 million refugees that had not been anticipated, let alone prepared for by Jinnah and the Muslim League.

Born unstable

Jinnah became titular head of a state in which the key forces were big landowners in the Muslim majority areas (even though they had been slow to support its foundation), officers who had made their careers in Britain’s Indian army and senior officials from Britain’s Indian civil service. Accustomed to operating as part of an elite colonial administration, military state bureaucracy played a dominant role in the new state which, with ups and downs, it has sustained ever since.

It was a state plagued with contradictions. India had taken the lion’s share of the subcontinent’s resources—four fifths of the population, nine tenths of the industry and almost all the military resources.6 It was split into two parts, West Pakistan (present day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. The ‘two nations’ theory could not for long cover up the fact that it was made up of at least six distinct linguistic groups—Bengalis, Punjabis, Baluchis, Pushtuns, Sindis and Urdu speakers. Urdu, as the official language of the state, was the first tongue of a mere 8 percent of the population, mainly immigrants from north central India:

Pakistan was founded in the name of Islam but it had little else in the way of common national or cultural values around which to unite. Besieged with the threat posed by separatism and ethnic tensions and the absence of a widely shared notion of nationhood, Islam became the only visible foundation on which to build unity.7

But even Islam as a religion was not practised uniformly—there was a history of clashes between Sunnis and Shias and of divisions within the Sunnis between the puritan Deobandi version and popular local versions focused on the shrines of saints. Jinnah stressed the state’s secular foundations, and it was another quarter of a century before religion was given a strong place in the constitution.

Problems beset the new state from the beginning. First there was the issue of Kashmir, with a majority Muslim population but a Hindu princely ruler and a mixed powerful Muslim-Hindu movement that wanted autonomy within a united India. No decision had been made as to whether Kashmir would join India or Pakistan at the time of independence, and a war for control of it started almost at once. It dragged on for 16 months, until a ceasefire left Pakistan controlling a third (known in Pakistan as Azad Kashmir) and India two thirds, with the future of state as a whole unresolved. The issue has poisoned relations between Pakistan and India ever since, increasing military spending on both sides and enhancing even more the role of the armed forces inside Pakistan.

Next there was the problem of the north west frontier. A 100,000-strong Pushtun nationalist force, the Red Shirts, had opposed Pakistan, wanting a Pushtun state to be part of India, and campaigned for independence when this was no longer possible. The Pakistani government set out to crush such agitation by repeatedly imprisoning its leader, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, but could not stop the sentiment for joining with the Pushtuns of Afghanistan to form an independent Pushtunistan country.

Then there was Baluchistan, which made up more than half the area of West Pakistan (one sixteenth of the population). Here too there was a princely state, Kalat. Both the ruler and the mass of the population rejected joining Pakistan, until the Pakistan army invaded in April 1948 and took control, using military force to crush an uprising. The brutality and arrogance with which this was done has remained a constant in the treatment of Baluchistan by the Pakistani state, prompting recurrent guerrilla resistance.

Adjacent to Baluchistan is Sind, the province in which lie the city of Karachi, the country’s first capital, and most of its industry. A million immigrants from the Muslim minority areas moved into the region with partition, taking the plum jobs in the public services and private industry, creating massive resentment among Sindis who felt they were being discriminated against.

Finally, the people of East Pakistan were soon beginning to feel they had lost out in the new state. The bureaucracy that dominated in East Pakistan as in the rest of the country used not only a different language but also a different script to them so that the Bengali middle class was at a disadvantage to newcomers from Bihar in India when it came to getting governmental jobs. The centre of military influence was in Punjab in the West. And it soon became apparent that what little wealth there was in East Pakistan was being used to develop industry in the West. By the early 1950s there was widespread agitation against West Pakistani domination.

The new state was able to suppress all these different pressures, but only by raising itself above society as a whole, ruling by a mixture of repression and corruption, and by reaching out to imperialist powers for support—in the first years Britain, and then for most of the country’s history the US. The dominant role of the state was formalised in 1958 when a military coup led to the 11-year dictatorship of Ayub Khan and the recurrent pattern of intervention that has continued to the present.

The economy and the ruling class

Pakistan’s rulers made considerable progress in the state’s first 20 years, despite the difficulties accompanying the country’s birth and the internal fragmentation. West Pakistan possessed just 5 percent of pre-partition India’s industry. It had three small hydroelectric power stations—the main sources of energy were wood and dung. Its financial and commercial sector was devastated by the flight of Hindu and Sikh merchants during partition. Despite the migration to the country of a handful of Muslim industrialists from India, the only way for the country to survive was for the state to take the leading role in industrialising Pakistan as quickly as possible. Growth of manufacturing was over 15 percent a year in the 1950s, and over 10 percent annually to the mid-1960s, at which point Pakistan’s development was held up as a major success. The state was further strengthened by the US’s search for military allies in the Cold War at a time when India was friendly to Russia and there was a great upsurge of Arab nationalism in the Middle East. Pakistan was the world’s third largest recipient of official development aid from 1960 to 1998, after India and Egypt.

One result of economic growth was to shift the balance within the ruling class away from the big landowners towards the state bureaucracy, the military and the ‘22 families’ who ran most industry in the late 1960s. The classic account of the Pakistani state from this time by Hamza Alavi depicts it as expressing the pressures of foreign capital, local capital and the landowners:

The central issue…is the relative autonomy of the state apparatus as a whole and its mediatory role between the competition of the three propertied classes, namely the domestic bourgeoisie, the metropolitan bourgeoisie and the landowning classes.8

Another effect of the economic growth was to create a new working class. The economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s swelled the size of Pakistan’s industrial working class. It numbered just a few tens of thousands in 1947; there were more than 1 million trade unionists in West Pakistan by 1977, and with a growth in size went a growth in confidence.

The crisis at the end of the 1960s

The different pressures on the state came to a head spectacularly at the end of the 1960s, as economic growth began to lag after the doubling of national output in a decade. Movements against the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan took off among students, among workers and among the oppressed nationalities. Even with the continuous repression of trade union activity, the movement against military rule in the 1960s saw many strikes, some of them very big, starting in 1962 and climaxing in March 1969 when, as part of the protests against Ayub Khan’s regime, Karachi was paralysed by industrial action. So powerful was the workers’ movement that one of Ayub Khan’s former ministers, the big landowner Zulfikar Bhutto, led his Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) to its 1970 election victory in the West on the slogan ‘Roti, kapra aur makhan’ (‘Bread, clothing and shelter’), and with talk of socialism.

But it was the national question which broke the state. Resentment continued to grow among the Bengalis of East Pakistan at the concentration of economic and political power in the bureaucratic and military elite of West Pakistan. They joined in a general upsurge of opposition to military rule in both wings of the country in 1968-69 and voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League, with its demand for autonomy in elections in 1970, enabling it to take all but two seats in East Pakistan and a majority of seat nationally. The military were not prepared to concede autonomy, arrested the party’s leaders and unleashed repression which caused a million or more deaths. The Indian army moved to break its rival apart and to prevent the emergence of a radical Bengali state by launching an invasion and overseeing the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

This was a devastating crisis, with ‘the collapse of the armed forces’, ‘the economic breakdown of the bourgeoisie’, and ‘the extreme crisis of the dominant ideology’.9 It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who enabled the rump West Pakistan state, its military and its bureaucracy to survive by pushing through a series of reforms after taking over the presidency in 1971. Concessions to the masses bought off working class and peasant discontent. The state sector of the economy was enlarged by a series of nationalisation measures and there was a broadening of the base of the dominant economic group beyond the ‘22 families’. A mild land reform encouraged the move of agriculture from a feudal to a capitalist basis, while leaving intact the vast holdings in the old feudal families. Meanwhile, the structures of the state were reinforced by increasing the role of the bureaucracy and rehabilitating the army.

The high point of the workers’ movement came in the great Karachi strike of summer 1972 when the large Sindh Industrial Trading Area, known as SITE, covering a population of over 100,000, came under the control of workers’ committees—effectively a soviet—for several months.

But ‘in the end the government came clearly on the side of the employers, with Bhutto’s warning that the power of the street will be met with the power of the state. In the summer of 1972 the power of the state did indeed prevail over the power of the street with incidents of police firing on demonstrating workers in several cities of Sind and Punjab’.10 Sections of the left who had enthusiastically greeted Bhutto’s government now faced repression. What is more, Bhutto, who had supported the military repression directed against the Bengalis, now unleashed repression of his own against a resurgent national movement in Baluchistan. The fighting peaked after he imprisoned the elected provincial government, with 80,000 troops holding down tens of thousands of insurgents, ‘with the familiar pattern of garrison towns and free fire zones, heliborne troops and population transfers…and routine missions to bomb and napalm the rural and semi-nomadic communities’.11

Bhutto stabilised the Pakistani state and laid the basis for further decades of capitalist growth. But his repression of the movements that had destroyed the military dictatorship undermined his own base of power. As discontent began to grow, Bhutto’s response was to use the repressive apparatus he had rebuilt to disrupt opposition rallies and to attempt to rig the 1977 general election, and to install fellow landowners as PPP candidates.
Opposition parties had their rallies disrupted. The result was fixed to produce a PPP majority, but the opposition continued to grow. Desperate for support, he sought to bolster himself up by pandering to conservative versions of Islamism. Bhutto, appealing to the religious parties, declared Pakistan to be an ‘Islamic Republic’, proclaimed one of the minority sects to be ‘non-Islamic’, and banned alcohol and gambling. Unable to stem the rising level of protest, Bhutto called on the army for support, only for the army, led by General Zia ul Haq, to seize power, arresting and then executing Bhutto.

It was not only Bhutto who suffered in the wave of repression. The Pakistani left, which had survived the 1950s and flourished in the late 1960s, was all but destroyed. Activists remained in the factories and unions, but it no longer projected a national presence.

From dictatorship to dictatorship

Zia’s dictatorship did not change the essentials of the model of capitalist growth developed under Bhutto. There was some watering down of land reform policies, but the essential push from feudal to capitalist agriculture continued. Even if the old dominant landholding families retained most of their land, leaving tens of millions of peasants landless, they were well and truly integrated into the global capitalist system. The state sector continued to be central to a model of accumulation that benefited the state bureaucracy as well as a layer of private capitalists.

But it was not by itself a model of development that could build a broad and stable basis for the regime under Zia any more than under Bhutto. He held on to power for ten years, before dying in a plane crash that many people do not believe was an accident. But he did not solve any of the country’s underlying problems. Nor did the 11 years of ‘democracy’ in the form of two PPP governments headed by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Bhutto, and two Muslim League governments headed by Nawaz Sharif, himself a protege of Zia ul Haq. During the dictatorship the PPP under Benazir had regained much of its popularity. It lost it in office, as it became as much a byword for corruption as did Sharif ’s Muslim League. When Musharraf staged his coup in 1999 it was greeted with considerable sympathy even by sections of the liberal left, who saw it as the only way of overcoming corruption and endemic violence.

There was economic growth in these two decades. In the manufacturing zones in Punjab and Sindh, and above all in Karachi, big industry dominated by textiles continued to grow, with large-scale manufacturing making up just over 50 percent of industrial production. Alongside it there was a huge class of small and middle sized business owners, the main force in local political party organisations. But growth overall was not at anything like the same rate as in the 1950s and 1960s. It was only 63 percent in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000, while India’s was 105 percent—and neither compared with countries like South Korea and Malaysia, which in the 1960s were at a similar level to them.

The response to the slowing growth rate of the state bureaucracy and of the local capitalists was to turn to neo-liberal remedies, which at least made it easier for them to work with multinational capitalism and to weaken the working class. As Hassan N Gardezi has said:

When Sharif replaced Benazir’s first short-lived government, he launched the first substantial package of structural adjustments to the economy in earnest. Controls on foreign exchange were lifted, the first batch of state assets were privatised, business and industry was deregulated, and public expenditures on social programmes were curtailed… Whatever these reforms may have accomplished for the health of the economy, for common people they spelled more misery of inflation and rising costs of basic necessities.12

The economy has grown in recent years. Despite a continuing low level of investment it reached 8.4 percent in 2004-05. But it has not translated into high living standards for the masses: ‘A textile worker in spinning and weaving in Pakistan gets hardly 25 to 30 cents an hour as against 50 cents an hour being earned by a textile worker in India and about 45 cents an hour in China’.13

In the rural areas big landowners exercise control, with the bulk of the population working as tenant farmers cultivating small plots. Sharecroppers typically hand over about 50 percent of what they produce to landlords. Many sharecroppers and landless labourers are bonded, in effect enslaved, to the landlords through accumulated debt. The green revolution has boosted the number of medium sized farmers but has not changed the pattern of patronage politics, with many big landlords—the so-called feudals—continuing to enjoy near absolute power within rural communities.14

Poverty is the determining factor in the lives of most Pakistanis. One recent study shows the monthly wage of a Pakistani is Rs 820 (£8) per month. Another gives the average income of the millions of small farmers15 as less than 49,000 rupees (£450) a year. Their expenditure averages 60,000 rupees, with the debt covered by informal sector lending at interest rates of 24 percent per annum.16 Two land reforms have both failed to do more than reinforce the status quo. From 2005, following WTO rules, the minimum support price for wheat and other grains will be reduced. Small farmers are being described as ‘an endangered species’.17

Official poverty statistics18 indicate that poverty levels are around 35 percent, the same as in 1970.19 There are hundreds of thousands of economic migrants annually, with Karachi the largest recipient. Currently the city has a population of at least 12 million. Growing by half a million a year, it is predicted to reach 19 million in 2015.20 Half the inhabitants live in squatter settlements, katchi abadis. Less than 10 percent of workers have any formal contract of employment. Wages for a casual daily labourer range from around 50 rupees a day in rural areas to 150 rupees a day in Karachi.21

Such a situation has ruled out any of the governments achieving sustained popular backing. To maintain themselves in power they have all relied on corruption, the further fragmentation of society and kowtowing to imperialism.

Sectarian violence: the rise of the Islamists

The founders of Pakistan saw it as a state which would provide a future for the Muslim minority in the subcontinent, not as one based on the inculcation of religious principles. The main religious parties had actually opposed the formation of the state, while many of the key figures in the state bureaucracy and the military hierarchy were from a secular background. But as the class and national tensions within the new state began to express themselves, an emphasis on the religious dimension began to be seen as a way to maintain its cohesion.

As Seyyed Avli Reza Nasr has explained, ‘Although many Pakistani political leaders did not like it, faced with the gravity of the situation few could resist the gravity of appealing to Islam… The tendency…became even stronger…after a plot with the backing of the left was uncovered in the army in 1951’.22 It was with the great crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the religious dimensions began to move towards the centre of politics, with Zulfikar Bhutto’s turn to conservative religious forces in an effort to bolster his position. This did not prevent the religious parties from exploiting discontent, playing a central role in the agitation against Bhutto, and working with Zia after the coup as he sought to cement his rule by introducing into the legal code the most conservative interpretations of Sharia law, with hudood punishments such as flogging for adultery.

The best known Islamist organisation was and is Jamaat-i-Islami, founded in the early 1940s. Its ideology sees the salvation for Muslims as lying in the top-down imposition of rigid adherence to its own puritanical interpretation of the religion—an interpretation which runs counter to much popular Islam in Pakistan, and encounters opposition from sections of the ulama (the imams and religious scholars). Its aim is to achieve political power for itself, or at least to be a decisive influence on those exercising it. To this end, it is a highly disciplined elitist organisation, with various levels of candidate membership, a student organisation that is capable of extreme violence on campuses, and a number of trade unions some with real influence. ‘Its student organisation has run an anarchic and violent form of politicking through gun-running, kidnapping, and intimidation of nationalist or liberal student groups to the extent of regular battles. It has systematically tried to eliminate opposition from educational campuses.23

The Jamaat’s social conservatism, centred on its defence of private property, means it has been on the side of reaction in times of crisis: it backed the Pakistani army’s onslaught on Bengal in 1970-71; its student wing fought to take control of university campuses from left wing supporters of Zulfikar Bhutto; its leader, Mawdudi, then offered to do a deal with Bhutto when he turned against the PPP left; it then briefly served in Zia’s government while he prepared the execution of Bhutto.

Nevertheless, the Jamaat is able to appeal to those sections of the urban lower middle class who feel they are missing out on the capitalist modernisation of Pakistan, and through them to influence sections of the poor who really are missing out. The abandonment of the poor by the secular parties as they line up behind neo-liberal policies has left a vacuum the Islamists can seek to fill. And they have also been able to take up the anti-imperialist rhetoric which was once part of the message of the PPP.

The Jaamat is not the only Islamist party. It faces often bitter competition from other religious-based parties, particularly two rival factions of the party more closely tied to the Islamic clergy, Jamiat-ul-ulama-i-Islami (JUI). Partly this is to do with differences of religious interpretation. The Jamaat tries to project a moderate image and, unlike its rivals, does not identify closely with the policies of the Taliban, such as closing girls’ schools and banning TV, while sections of the ulama see the Jamaat as sacrilegious. Partly it is a question of class base—the Jamaat-i-ulama are based on the rural middle class, the JUI on the urban middle class.

The combined vote of the religious parties has always been quite small—between 4.5 and 7 percent in the elections between 1988 and 1997, with their highest vote, in the 2002 elections, at only 11.1 percent. But they are able to have an impact out of all proportion to their real strength because of the willingness of the state bureaucracy, the military and the other parties to do deals with them to bolster their own position. They have also been able to use money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to build up their own welfare networks for those abandoned by the state. The religious schools—the madrassas—may have a narrow curriculum, but they educate very large numbers of the rural poor for whom the state provides no education.

Finally, the activists can unleash very powerful movements when their religious language provides them with an excuse to divert popular discontent from real social issues into attacks on religious minorities—the Ahmadis (a heretical Muslim sect formed about 120 years ago and making up about 2 percent of the population), the Ismaelis (followers of the Aga Khan and also around 2 percent), the Christians (also about 2 percent) and, increasingly, the Shias (16 percent).

So, in the Jhang district of Punjab, ‘by radicalising Muslim identities along sectarian lines, some of the Sunni ulama have sought to weaken the political status and fortunes of the wealthy Shia landlords and thus create a niche for the expanding Sunni merchant middle class…the leading religious scholars do not say that Shias should be killed, only that they are infidels… But enough justification is provided for the peripheral ulama and their operatives—who are often little more than mercenary terrorists—to wage an ongoing war against their sectarian opponents’.24

Periodic waves of destructive violence result, which cause havoc in great cities and small towns alike. But this does not mean that the Islamic parties are able to exercise a monolithic hold even over those who go along with much of their message. As one observer says, ‘Young and comparatively well educated village Muslims did not automatically turn towards Islamist and piety-inclined movements. Many, if not all, of them were critical of both the teaching and the practice of the Muslims they themselves referred to as “hardened” or “extremist”.’25 Even those who took part in preaching tours with one of the most puritan groups took part in the sorts of musical programmes to which it was opposed.

Karachi, Sind and the MQM

Karachi is Pakistan’s biggest city and industrial centre. But it has also been beset by bitter ethnic rivalries in recent years. The growing resentment among the indigenous population of Sind against the domination of the area by Urdu-speaking immigrants (mohajirs) was one component in the agitation against the Ayub Khan dictatorship of the 1960s. Zulfikar Bhutto, from a family of Sind big landowners, used this to feeling to build part of his political base, implementing a regulation that reserved a certain proportion of jobs for Sindis.

The mohajirs began to fear they werelosing out. Their fears were increased as Punjabis increasingly took privileged positions in the state machine with the military dictatorship, and the national capital was moved to Islamabad in Punjab. Urdu-speaking activists influenced by the experience of the Jaamat’s student wing set out to use its violent methods of organising for a different, non-religious, goal—the defence of mohajir interests. A new organisation Mohajir Qaumi Movement (Mohajir National Movement), was born. A rising tide of ethnic riots shook Karachi as the MQM fought Sindis for control of different parts of the city.

The MQM won 11 out of 13 seats in Karachi in the elections of 1988, but this did not produce any tangible benefits, and it turned to organising armed gangs of the unemployed. By 1992 the army had been ordered onto the streets to crush the MQM physically, ambushing and killing its activists. A government-engineered split in the MQM led to still more scores of militants dying in the faction tights and the flight of the MQM’s leader, Altai” Hussain, to London. State sanctioned extra-judicial killings saw the violence peak with over 1,500 murders in Karachi in 1995. The figure today is still in the hundreds each year, with much of the city divided into territories controlled by rival political parties and ethnic gangs.

Imperialism’s proxy: the two Afghan wars

When Russia invaded in December 1979. Pakistan became a frontline state in the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the main conduit of huge quantities of US and Saudi Arabian aid to the Mujahadeen. Pakistan’s secret service, the IS1, played a central role in recruiting and training Islamic militants from right across the Muslim world, the most famous of whom was Osama Bin Laden, brought in at first by the CIA to build the Khost tunnel complex. But there were also tens of thousands from among the millions of Afghan refugees who crossed the border into Iraq to escape from the war, and from volunteers provided by the Islamist parties in Pakistan.

Pakistani military intelligence set about training and arming these volunteers, and in the process deepening its links with the various rival Islamist parties, with them beginning to win support among the middle ranks of the armed forces. Arms passed into the hands of the parties, and a ‘Kalashnikov culture’ took root. One estimate is that the number of armed Islamist militants, the jihadists’, reached 200,000.2b This had a dramatic impact on politics in the areas it most affected, with sectarian and ethnic differences increasing sharply. The flow of drugs to pay for the arms also increased, until the country had a million heroin addicts, and so did corruption, with the massive injection of US aid to the government.

Once the USSR had withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US abandoned the country to the rival Mujahadeen organisations, which fought bitter civil wars to control it until the Taliban achieved victory in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Pakistani military intelligence, under Bhutto, Sharif and then Musharraf, kept up its links with the jihadists. Then came 9/11, and the US occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan once again became a frontline state, but with the jihadists now as its enemy, not its ally. The Pakistani government is under orders from the US to clamp down on the jihadist groups it sponsored in the past (and which sections of military intelligence still maintain links to). Many of the Pushtun tribes are giving active, armed backing to Pushtun supporters of the Taliban just across the border. The US has created enormous anger right across the country by bombing villages inside Pakistan. And the jihadist groups are venting their anger by trying to assassinate government figures and destabilise the country.

Kashmir again

The Indian state took control of most of Kashmir with a degree of popular backing in 1947. But it never took the rights of Kashmir’s people seriously In 1953 India imprisoned the political leader Sheikh Abdullah, who had backed it in 1947. When a wave of insurgency swept through Kashmir from 1988 onwards, the Indian army responded with the same sort of repression Pakistan had used against Baluchistan and the Bangladesh movement, massacring 100 demonstrators in Srimgar in 1990. Pakistan’s rulers had to so something, if they were to maintain their claim to legitimacy as representing all Muslims. What they did was to encourage jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan to cross into Indian-controlled Kashmir so as to further inflame the situation through bombings and shootings, which encouraged even more repression from the Indian army. This was seen as a wav of hegemon-lsing the Kashmir struggle, so marginalising the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front with its call tor self-determination, and of whipping up Islamic feeling to overcome domestic social and political tensions.

Pakistan and India escalated to armed conflict in the mountainous area of Kargil on the line of control in 1999, and threatened nuclear war in 2002. This was too much for the US, as it prepared to move on from invading Afghanistan to invading Iraq. It intervened to try to calm things down. Eventually Musharraf’s government has complied with its wishes, further antagonising the jihadist groups—and those in the military who see Kashmir as the supreme expression of the Islamist ideology that alone can hold Pakistan together in the long run.

A uncertain future

Nothing shows the weakness of Musharraf’s government better than his inability to open up a supposed ‘return to democracy’ by ‘taking off his uniform’, that is giving up his role of chief of army staff while continuing as president. This is meant to be the step which shows he has stabilised the political structure. But everyone, including Musharraf, is clear that this step would amount to his political suicide. He can only stay in power keeping his grip on the military chain of command while balancing between different political forces, none of which has any time tor him. He has tried to build up a layer of politicians bound to him by banning both former civilian prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from standing in elections.

This has, however, done nothing, to diminish the distrust of the mass of people in his regime. Neither national nor provincial assemblies have any legislative power. The parties that run them are weak and fractured. Musharraf will continue until either there is an explosion from below or his fellow generals decide to replace him.

Meanwhile, he allows the corruption at all levels to continue, and is unable to push through any significant reforms. The pressures on Pakistan from competitors and creditors cannot be met without a major increase in investment that is inconceivable while the country remains so volatile. Yet all elements of the political elite are responsible, one way or another, for the instability.27

One added sign of the instability is a new insurgency in Baluchistan, which the discovery of gas reserves has suddenly made economically as well as strategically important, with the production of oil, coal and, above all, gas, a planned pipeline from Central Asia and Iran and the establishment of a major, Chinese-built deep water port at Gwadar. A sense of being robbed of a way out of poverty has given new life to the national movement. The Guardian could report last year of an incident after an alleged rape by an army officer:

Members of the local Bugti clan… attacked the gas field with rockets, mortars and thousands of” AK-47 rounds. President Pervez Musharraf sent an uncompromising response—tanks, helicopters and an extra 4,500 soldiers to guard the installation. If the tribesmen failed to stop shooting, he warned on television, ‘they will not know what hit them’. But the guerrilla attacks have escalated, propelling a long-ignored province into the headlines and threatening civil war. Every day sees a new attack on military and government targets across the province. Insurgents have blown up railway tracks, toppled pylons and fired rockets into army camps. Sui supplies 45 percent of Pakistan’s gas, so supplies to Karachi, Lahore and other cities have been cut.28

Attacks which can lead to much of Karachi being forced to cook with charcoal are a major threat to President Musharraf’s credibility.

The Islamist parties have played a role in propping Musharraf up. He allowed them to run in coalition with each other as the MMA in his legislative elections, while banning the PPP and the Muslim League. This provided them with parliamentary influence and governmental office in the north west frontier and Baluchistan. In return they moderated their criticisms of him and tried to restrain the jihadist groups, despite the strain on them of having to watch him back the US in Afghanistan and wind down the conflict with India over Kashmir. Now, however, they believe he is weak, and have used the US bombing of a Pakistani village and the Danish cartoon affair to show their ability to mobilise very large numbers on the streets.

At the same time, Musharraf’s dependence on the US for military and economic aid has done nothing to make Pakistan a reliable ally of US imperialism. Not a single Pakistani soldier has been sent to Iraq. And George Bush, keen for an ally against China, gave the go-ahead for US cooperation with India’s nuclear weapons programme during a three-day visit to that country in March, while using his one day in Pakistan to lecture Musharraf on the fighting terrorism. Despite the unceasing efforts of its rulers to establish a permanent relationship with the US, Pakistan will continue as its stepchild, periodically embraced, only at some point to be cast out.

The weakness of Musharraf is, however, matched by a pessimism on the left. Much of the liberal left has gone so far as to back him as the only alternative to the corruption of the old parties and the threat from the Islamist parties.

The pessimism is misplaced. The 6 million industrial workers and tens of millions of small farmers of Pakistan have, as we have seen, a continuing history of resistance. Anti-union laws, state repression and corrupt trade union leaders remain weapons against workers.29 Nevertheless at every point there has been resistance. Bank workers struck against privatisation of UBL in the early 1990s. The newspaper workers at Jang, the main Urdu paper, took action against Nawaz Sharif when he attacked the paper in 1997. Both the cement workers and the sugar mill workers fought the privatisation of their industries. More recently, the fisherfolk30 in Sindh have been able to force the paramilitary Rangers to end their occupation ot fishing areas near the border. The Serena hotel workers in Quetta have successfully fought victimisation and won official recognition. The power loom workers in Faisalabad,31 based mainly in medium and small workplaces, successfully organised a major strike over pay in 2005. Shortly before this the telecom workers occupied their workplaces against privatisation. It took the mobilisation ot hundreds ot soldiers, surrounding key exchanges, and the mass arrests of strike leaders to defeat them. The opposition ot the Karachi electricity supply workers was a major cause ot the collapse ot the deal privatising it in 2004. Thousands of farmers in Okara, near Lahore, have resisted attempts by the army to take control of their land for five years now. At an everyday level, there are countless protests over water shortages, housing and corruption.

The left’s pessimism is a product of defeats in the past—some unnecessary. The left looked to Russia and the ideas of Stalinism. It accepted the need for an alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie, with socialist revolution only after the completion of the democratic revolution. The Communist Party’s decision, inspired by Moscow, to campaign tor partition and the creation of Pakistan weakened the left. Uncritical support tor Bhutto’s populism enabled him to outmanoeuvre the left during the great upturn of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR produced an unnecessary demoralisation of an already disoriented left.

But in Pakistan, as elsewhere in the world, there are at least the first signs of change. Though much of the old left remains depressed, sectarian and inward looking, a reorientation is clearly under way with the impact of the global anti-war movement,32 the recent battles against privatisation, and the involvement in the anti-capitalist movement, with the small but significant contingent of Pakistani activists at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004, followed by the decision to have Karachi as the Asian venue of the WSF in 2006.
The ability of the anti-war movement internationally to unite Muslims and non-Muslims is an argument against those Muslims who looked to a religiously exclusive approach to the light against imperialism— and also an argument with those on the secular left who see the islamists, rather than Musharraf, the state and capitalism, as the main enemy. If the left can win these arguments within the working class movement with all its weaknesses, then it can give a lead not just in the workplace but in Pakistani society as a whole.


I: Not exclusively the US. China and other powers have been involved.
2: For example, the recent sale of F-l6 planes to Pakistan as part of a five-year S3 billion assistance programme.
3: The UN Human Development Index (HDI) combines income, life expectancy and education (literacy, school attendance) in an attempt to measure wellbeing.
4: Pakistan’s GDP per head compares much more favourably internationally. It stands at around 130th in the GDP per capita rankings. 14 places higher than its HDI ranking, $684 per capita, compared to Zimbabwe at 144th. $49* Per capita. In other words, for its level of economic development, it is extremely backward socially.
5= There are numerous studies of the Muslim League and the origins of partition. This section is a brief summarv which necessarily glides over certain disputed aspects.
and over 90 percent of the industrial base. See section on the economy.
~] •. Seyyed Avli Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution-. The Jama at-i-Islami of Pakistan (University of California
Press, 1994). pil7.
8: H Alavi. The State in Post-Colonial
Societies’, New Left Review 74 0U^Y” August T97O. p63-
9: A Ahmed. Lineages of the Present
(Verso, 2000). p24-
IO: H N Gardezi, Globalisation and Pakistan s Dilemma of Development’.
II: A .Ahmed, as above, pp26-27-
12: HN Gardezi, as above.
13: Dawn, 20 February 2005.
14: The development of commodity production means the term, though widely used, is inaccurate. The local superstructure of family relations, law and order and welfare remains feudal in many aspects. See S Akbar Zaidi. Issues in Pakistan ‘s Economy (Oxford, 2006), ch 2.
15= Small farmer defined as working on less than five acres with an average household size of five to six.
16: Dawn, 26 April 2004.
17.- ebrl4-htm
18: Defined as an intake of 2,35° calories per adult per day; 75° rupees a month (200I prices).
19: ‘An Ode to IMF’, News. 28 April 2004.
20: United Nations. World Urbanisation Prospects: The I$$9 Revision.
21: Roughly 5OP *° f-I-50 attrie current rate of exchange, significantly higher when measured on a purchasing power parity basis.
22: Seyyed Avli Reza Nasr, as above. pII7-
23– I H Malik, State and Civil Society in Pakistan (Macmillan. I997),p32.
24: M Marsden, referring to the work of Zaman. in a review in Modern Asian Studies 39, part 4. 2005.
25-‘ M Marsden. as above.
26: International Institute for Peace Initiative, The Future of Pakistan (Mumbai. 2002), p5i.
27: One important consequence is the continuing emigration, particularly of skilled workers, whose remittances are essential to Pakistan’s ability to build up foreign exchange reserves.
28: Guardian, 21 February 2005.
29: Many unions are known as pocket
unions, a name that speaks for itself
30: Organised by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum:
31: About 100,000 struck. Faisalabad, an industrial city dominated by textiles, is known as the Manchester of Pakistan.
32: 15 February 2003 led to the largest demonstrations organised in recent years bv the left in Karachi and other cities