Pakistan: over the edge?

Issue: 117

The title of an article we ran on Pakistan 18 months ago was “On the Edge of Instability”. Now the country is well inside the arc of instability created by the “war on terror”, adding to the multitude of problems besetting US and British imperialism all the way from the Horn of Africa to the Indus.

The crisis in Pakistan has not just been of the Musharraf regime. It is also part of the crisis of US power in the region—witness the suggestion by Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, that it should prepare to send troops into the capital, Islamabad, if the situation gets out of control.

Pakistan was born 60 years ago as the stepchild of British imperialism, a by-product of the divide and rule policies used to rule the whole subcontinent for more than a century and half. It was then succoured through most of its life by US imperialism as a useful Cold War client state.

But increasingly it became a politically unstable client state. Partition of the subcontinent corralled into a single state half a dozen linguistic groups, supposedly bound to each other by a single Muslim identity. In fact there were bitter divisions over religious beliefs and practices, while the pattern of capitalist development exacerbated national, class and religious divisions as economic growth was accompanied by increasing rather than diminishing poverty, and in recent years by counter-reforms in public provision.

Politics came to be centred on the struggles of particular ethnic or religious groupings within the middle class to secure for themselves well paid posts that were not available for all. The use of right wing Islamist groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami by US imperialism, Saudi Arabia and successive Pakistani governments (the civilian governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto as well as the military government of Zia ul-Haq) to intervene against the USSR in Afghanistan provided them with arms, money and influence well beyond their popular support (only about 10 percent in elections) and gave a violent edge to political clashes between different groups.

Every government since the 1970s has relied on backing from the state’s generals and bureaucrats on the one hand, and alliances with pick and mix selections of the ethnic and politico-religious groupings on the other. Principles have never played a role in this. Allies can suddenly turn on each other and sworn enemies suddenly work together. The sheer scale of corruption under the Bhutto and Sharif governments of the 1990s meant that liberal minded sections of the middle class actually welcomed the military coup which brought Musharraf to power in 1999. They believed that the armed forces, as the embodiment of the national identity, could never be as bad as the politicians. They also saw him as a barrier to the right wing politico-religious parties. Over the past year they have discovered how wrong they were.

From the outset Musharraf used the same corrupt political methods as his predecessors. He consciously promoted the influence of the MMA coalition of religious parties in order to ensure a safe outcome in stage managed elections. (His own party formed a coalition government with them in the province of Baluchistan.) Then last year he let loose one of the politico-ethnic thug parties, the MQM, to attack and kill scores of those demonstrating in Karachi in support of the lawyers’ movement that sprang up around sacked chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

But the liberal section of the middle class has not suffered the most under Musharraf. Workers and peasants have been hit hardest by the increasing poverty. Military control of the national railway network and the use of naval ratings in Karachi docks have been used to keep down potentially very powerful workforces. Temporary contracts deny union rights to tens of thousands of workers in Karachi’s textile mills. Musharraf has pushed through a succession of privatisations. The military tried to seize the land of thousands of peasants in the “canal colonies” of Okara in the Punjab and shot down some of those who resisted.

Musharraf also faced two other forms of resistance which dealt him serious blows. There is an armed movement for national rights in the huge, but not very heavily populated, province of Baluchistan. Then there is the armed resistance of what is known as the “Pakistani Taliban” in the north west of the country. This began as a spill-over of the war in Afghanistan into “tribal areas” of Pakistan, particularly Waziristan. Peasants were drawn into the Taliban-led struggles of fellow Pushtuns on the other side of a border, which they have rejected ever since it was drawn by the British in the 19th century.

The ideas of those leading the resistance are, as Riaz Ahmed, of the International Socialists of Pakistan, writes from Karachi, “obscurantist”. But the repression they are fighting is real enough. On 30 October 2006 the US forces bombed a madrassa (religious school) in Bajur, killing over 80 students. Riaz writes that 757 people were killed in north Waziristan by Pakistani military aerial bombings between July and October 2007. In response a full-scale rising has developed: “Since July 2007, 278 soldiers and 72 policemen have been killed and over 361 soldiers captured, including 240 captured without resistance on 2 September. There appears to be a mutiny in the Pakistani military, which is fighting a lost war against the tribes and Taliban in Waziristan and huge parts of North West Province.”

The politics behind the lawyers’ movement and those of the war in north west Pakistan are very different. But the combination undermined the standing not only of Musharraf but of the military as a whole. Hence Musharraf’s desperate attempt to bolster his position by declaring a state of emergency and ordering mass arrests on 2 November. But this exposed his weakness rather than his strength, leading him finally to take off his uniform and promise to lift the state of emergency before elections in the hope that this would restore stability.

Pakistan’s ruling class and US imperialism may have been losing some of their faith in Musharraf, but not in the central role of the military in Pakistan’s politics. Their ideal solution would be for one of the former prime ministers, Benazir or Sharif, or perhaps both, to strike a deal with the military to stabilise the situation. But they are terrified that things have already gone too far for such an agreement to work.

Certainly, it cannot be an answer for the mass of people. Benazir and Sharif were both integral to the alignment with imperialism, the corruption of Pakistan politics, the growth of poverty and the encouragement of ethnic and religious strife. With or without Musharraf, neither has a political project that corresponds in any way to the popular mood that provoked the upsurge against military rule.

Hope lies with the potential shown by the upsurge in the great cities. Riaz writes how the movement among the lawyers sparked off the first struggles for decades among students: “Two days after the declaration of emergency, on 6 November, the privileged students of an elite management science university, LUMS, rose in their hundreds against dictatorial rule. The day after, over a thousand of them marched inside the campus, with a couple of hundred daring to protest outside the campus too. That inspired other local colleges and universities and by 9 November the state-run Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and its neighbouring military controlled science and technology university, FAST, had daily demonstrations of students.

“Over 5,000 students of Punjab University demonstrated against the right wing Islami Jamiat-e-Talba and the military dictatorship on Friday 17 November. This was the second big demo in two days. On Thursday over 3,000 students came out of their classes to protest against the collaboration of Jamiat with the police in the kidnapping, beating and handing over of the somewhat popular leader Imran Khan as he tried to bring out a rally of students against the emergency. The way in which Jamiat collaborated angered millions across the country and spontaneous demonstrations erupted the next day, forcing an apparent end to an age-old campus hegemony by the right wingers… A huge number of female students are in the forefront of the demonstrations.”

It is impossible to tell at the time of writing where these movements will go next. Reports suggest that the collaboration of university authorities with right wing Islamists has pushed back the student protests in Punjab University. But that does not detract from the importance of what occurred. Were the movement, having spread from lawyers to students, to impact upon workers—among whom there has been a small upturn in struggle over the past two years—the explosive potential would be enormous. The weakness, as in many other parts of the world, is that the old left has been very weak, very demoralised and in no condition to provide leadership to mass movements that suddenly emerge, apparently from nowhere. But sometimes new leaderships crystallise out of mass movements.