Sunday, July 11, 2010
Obama's Pakistan frontiers posted by Richard Seymour
Our understanding of the war in Pakistan is bracketed by implicit, unspoken exclusions. The glimpses we get are like occasional narrow slits in an otherwise solid screen. We are encouraged to draw our attention to, for example, suicide attacks on government officials in Peshawar. But we otherwise have little context with which to interpret such bloody doings, apart from some general catch-all explanations about the medievalism and bloodlust of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This narrowness of focus, instead of contextualising such attacks in the war launched by the Pakistani military, at the behest of the US, on the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), rather provides a pretext and pseudo-explanation for that war. A multi-faceted conflict is reduced to the simple dichotomy of 'extremists' and 'moderates'.
To the extent that there is context in the Anglophone press, it tends to come from the perspective of counterinsurgency, and reduces the population of the NWFP to a xenophobic, insular, ethnonationalist rump, and reduces the insurgency to the issue of nationalism. In Pakistan itself, this analysis has manifested itself as deep-seated bigotry toward the Pashtuns, as Riaz Ahmed recently wrote. In fact, the insurgency is more complex, transcending Pashtun nationalism in the name of pragmatic alliances and an Islamist ideology that is not specific to any ethnicity. Its primary motivation in this war is opposing the US expansion of the 'war on terror' into Pakistan and the decision of the Pakistani military to join Washington in attacking pro-Taliban forces in these areas. But its relationship with the state is by no means one-dimensional, as the Pakistani military has previously relied on the TTP to support Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, which is why some in the Pakistani ruling class are unhappy with the strategy of aligning with the Washington axis.
Pakistan's entanglement in this war has continued after the majority of the population rejected Washington's candidate, Musharraff, in the 2008 elections - Washington's military and economic clout, ensured that there would be no deviation from the script. If the military clout is expressed in the ability of the US to engage in attacks in Pakistani territory without seeking prior approval, the economic leverage has been expressed over billions of dollars in aid/bribes, and regular loans from eg the World Bank to keep the Pakistani treasury ticking over and assist with counterinsurgency and rebuilding in 'conflict' zones. Divisions in the Pakistani ruling class are matched by concerns about the long-term cohesiveness and territorial integrity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Class struggles and civil society movements intersect with the war in telling ways, as when the lawyers' movement was launched in response to the government's sacking of the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, for the crime of revealing state complicity in the 'disappearing' of citizens to be rendered to the CIA for 'interrogation'. Thus, the war raises deeper questions about the direction of Pakistani society, and the relationship between imperialism and postcolonial statehood in the subcontinent, than are open for discussion in the press.
Postcolonial statehood, and the alliance with Washington
The creation of Pakistan as a Muslim state was driven by numerous processes. Among these were growing divergences of interest between the Indian National Congress and Indian Muslims. The former's tendency to sequester Indian nationhood on behalf of the Hindu bourgeoisie, and the failings of non-violent strategies which resulted in much unnecessary death and suffering, led to millions of Indian Muslims aligning with the Muslim League and its campaign for a separate Muslim state. Support for the state of Pakistan was not uniform. The Pushtun nationalists in the north-west wanted to create unity with India. When that was not possible, they fought for independence. The Red Shirts, and their celebrated leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, were militarily crushed. But there, as in Balochistan, resistance to the Pakistani state project has fuelled an ongoing 'national question' that has flared up in repeated struggles. The state that issued was basically run by the country's landowners, businessmen, officers and civil servants, all of whom had come to the fore under colonial rule. The administrators were those who had been incubated and developed by the British empire, and the ruling class oriented toward Washington with the Baghdad Pact (now SEATO) in 1954. Institutions of formally representative government initially provided a facade of popular rule, but they didn't survive for more than a decade. By 1958, the army took power and the country was ruled by the Sandhurst graduate Ayub Khan and his clan.
Attempting to express popular interests were a variety of leftist parties. The Communist Party (CPP) had aligned itself with the bourgeosie in the Muslim League, but were driven out. It then attempted to go for a coup in alliance with another section of the bourgeosie, unsuccessfully, and was banned in 1951. Some of its exiles joined the National Awami Party (NAP), a coalition of progressive liberals, radical nationalists and socialists, rooted mainly in the peasantry. Its elderly leader, Maulana Bhashani, was rooted particularly in the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) peasants movement, and was he and the party were driven to the left by the emergence of a militant labour movement in the 1950s. It was in response to this labour movement, emerging from Lahore but spreading across the country, that the military took control in 1958 and imposed martial law. A more entrenched ruling class with a robust civil society underpinning its rule would not have been compelled to resort to military rule. But the Pakistani ruling class has repeatedly had to resort to military dictatorship to contain challenges to its control. The NAP, for its part, muted its critique of Ayub Khan through much of the Sixties because of the latter's common pact with the People's Republic of China against India, which for some made him an 'anti-imperialist'.
From revolution to dictatorship
Out of the great revolutionary upsurge in 1967-68 came a new formation, the Pakistan People's Party. The conditions for the revolutionary movement to emerge had been provided by the intensified rates of exploitation in the society as capitalist social relations spread, and the concentration of society's resources - the banks, the insurance companies, industrial capital - in the top 22 families. Ayub himself became extraordinarily wealthy, of course, while the long-term interpenetration of military and capitalist elites has led to a situation today in which the Pakistani military is estimated to have a private capitalist empire worth £10bn. The labour movement showed its first signs of breaking out of the military straitjacket in the railway strikes of 1966. Then in 1967, a students movement arose. The established left parties showed no sign of understanding the significance of this, believing that it would easily be contained by the military dictatorship. But it was later joined by lower middle class layers and peasants. Only when workers in some urban centres responded to a call for a general strike from student leaders with an all-out stoppage did the ruling class, the established left, and the student movement itself begin to see what was being awoken. The labour movements arose amid revolutionary turmoil, as did a national independence movement in East Pakistan, which had long been exploited by the western ruling class. These combined forces were not sufficient to overthrow the rulers of Pakistan, but they did compel Ayub to declare that he would step back and allow the addled General Yahya Khan to take over in 1969. Yahya promised elections within a year.
The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), a radical socialist organisation led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, won in the west. In the east, the Awami League, of which Maulana Bahsani was a co-founder, stormed to victory. But the new PPP government was not in a mood to negotiate a settlement with the Awami League and, by boycotting the new assembly set up in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, gave the military space to plan an assault. The occupation, when it came, was supported by Bhutto's government, even as it degenerated into outright genocidal slaughter. There was an orchestrated massacre of left-wing activists and intellectuals, with the connivance of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Pakistani state's favourite Islamist party whose assistance in the slaughter helped them overcome their catastrophic loss in the 1970 elections. The Bhutto government, having aligned itself with the slaughter in what is now Bangladesh, largely failed to deliver on its radical social democratic programme, for example shelving the rural reform package to placate landowners. Instead, it cracked down on its left-wing opponents, banning the NAP in 1975 (it was reinvented in 1986, out of four pro-Soviet parties, as the Awami National Party), suppressing Balochistan provincial autonomy in the same year (resulting in an insurgency that the Pakistani army would crush with customary brutality) and attempted to outflank the religious right by adopting their policies. It was Bhutto who turned Pakistan into a nuclear state, and it was he who promoted his ultimate nemesis General Zia ul-Haq to army chief of staff.
This, and the PPP's manipulation of the 1977 elections, gave the military a chance to strike against the civilian government and introduce one of the deadliest phases in Pakistani politics. Zia had been most notable for his role in helping the Jordanian monarchy to crush increasingly militant Palestinian refugees in 'Black September', a horrendous period in which thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered. He was an outright reactionary, and when the civil unrest provoked by the PPP's ballot-rigging became impossible for the government to contain, he stepped into and imposed martial law. Bhutto was hanged. His crime as far as the ruling class was concerned had nothing to do with ballot-rigging, since they didn't care for democracy, but rather the mild reforms he introduced, which were duly reversed. Zia privatized and de-regulated industry, and oversaw the "Islamization" (sic) of the Pakistani polity, in an attempt to crush the Left and the trade unions. He re-founded the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) as a conservative bloc, the basis of today's PML-N (Nawaz Sharif's faction) and PML-Q (the other factions). Zia's willingness to cooperate with Carter's intervention in Afghanistan consolidated Islamabad's position as a key link in Washington's chain of pliable dictatorships, and Carter rewarded him by reversing a ban on nuclear fuels imposed two years earlier, allowing Zia to fortify the nuclear weapons programme initiated by Bhutto. (This ban was re-imposed after Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon in 1978, only to be lifted in time for the 'war on terror'). It was in this period that the Pakistani state began to incubate reactionary Islamist movements, among them the 'Talibs' who would go on to take over Afghanistan after the defeat of Soviet Union, and who would becomes allies of the Pakistani military in the NWFP and FATA.
The north-west remade by blood and iron
The combination of martial law and participation in the proxy war with Russia also meant that local martial governors had a great deal of authority and clout under the dictatorship. Lt Gen Fazle Haq could saturate the NWFP with heroin and weapons, Gen Rahimudden Khan could drench Balochistan in blood as he annihilated the insurgency, and Nawaz Sharif used his governorship of Punjab to build his political career as a conservative, pro-privatization administrator. Political power was increasingly parcellised, and religious, nationalist and ethnic ideologies used to divide people, with politicians playing one group off against the other. Both Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who ran civilian administrations after Zia's death, learned how to play these games. It formed an important part of the state's strategizing. When Bhutto and Sharif supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, this was in part a way of consolidating support among some layers of Pashtuns, as well as a foreign policy interest in itself, and an assured way to open up trade routes through the Khyber Pass to central Asia. The Taliban could not have taken power without the assistance of Pakistan, just as its decision to withdraw rapidly in 2001 came at the behest of the Pakistani military leadership. In a similar way, both Sharif and Bhutto used the issue of Kashmir to mobilise local support, recruiting Islamist volunteers to fight India, thereby pursuing a domestic agenda and a foreign policy objective at the same time. As rulers used ethnoreligious divisions and clientelist politics to win support and cultivated armed gangs to fight important battles for them, Pakistan was flooded with weapons and fights between different gangs would periodically shut down parts of big cities like Karachi. The current demonisation of Pashtuns is of a piece with this method of divide-and-rule.
The FATA and NWFP in particular were dramatically transformed by the Afghan wars, the heroin traffick that followed raising the number of addicts in Pakistan from hundreds to millions, the arms trade, and the vast refugee flows that left millions of Pashtuns. Elements in the Pakistani military were able to make a fortune as narco-capitalists and arms dealers in this period, their money laundered by the notorious BCCI, and the ready use of reactionary militias to terrorise opponents was always handy for any ruling class. The origins of the present day TTP, and various allied groups, are in the madrasas and camps set up in the provinces to train and house international jihadis, with US, Saudi and Pakistani funding and equipment. The current corruption and weakness of law enforcement has roots in this period, as does the complete paucity of healthcare and education. The fact that the CIA pretty well turned the provinces into a theme park for warlords, gun-runners and drug-traffickers undermined any prospect for development of a sustainable infrastructure. Today, the FATA and NWFP are the poorest provinces in Pakistan, with local administrators almost wholly dependent on federal funding due to the absence of a local tax base. The 'war on terror' isn't doing either province any favours.
The collapse of the Left, the Taliban and the 'war on terror'
Zia's best efforts did not destroy the Left. For example, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a coalition uniting the PPP with others on the Left, was launched to combat Zia's dictatorship, and the PPP experienced some rejuvenation as a result. What hammered the Left was its support for the USSR. The pro-Moscow parties failed to relate to the nationalist struggle in Balochistan in part because Moscow had, in its Afghanistan venture, opposed the traditional Leninist line on national liberation (not for the first time). The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a blow to those who opposed the 'Mujahideen' and saw Russia as the progressive force in the region. The collapse of the USSR was devastating. Most of the Stalinist groups moved to the right, and much of the Left disintegrated. The communist parties shrank to tiny groupuscules. The formerly leftist Awami National Party, which is strongly rooted in NWFP, has become a secular Pushtun nationalist party. The PPP is run by millionaires and property-owners. President Zardari has a personal fortune of almost $2bn. The vacation of socialism from the political scene left a vacuum, which the bourgeois parties have struggled to fill - their naked corruption and clientelism allowed the return of the military in 1999, to only muted protest at first.
Despite the state's patronising of Islamist parties and militias, a tradition continued by Musharraf, confessional politics has rarely enjoyed much popular support in Pakistan. Only in limited, localised circumstances have Islamists been able to gain any measure of mass support. The Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), also based in the NWFP, was able to channel petit-bourgeois hostility to government corruption during the real estate boom of the 1990s, and gain some support because of that. But since 2001, it has been mainly embroiled in combatting NATO forces in Afghanistan. The 2002 elections were won by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in NWFP, a reformist Islamist grouping standing against the government's corruption and promising to end nepotism and bring about a fairer justice system. In those stated goals, they failed by a spectacular margin, leading to their defeat by secular forces, as we shall see. What the MMA did accomplish was 'Islamization' of the education system, a ban on music in public transport, and prevented women from being treated by male doctors - in a vicinity with a dearth of trained healthcare professionals. As I say, secular forces largely benefited from the MMA's failures, but at the same time the escalation of Pakistan's war in FATA and NWFP between 2007 and 2009 led to the TTP showing its first signs of developing some support among masses of the population, particularly in the Swat valley where atrocities by Pakistani troops have included the levelling of villages and the destruction of schools and medical facilities, producing millions of refugees.
The Pakistani Taliban
The TTP started to coagulate as a de facto formation in around 2002, though it was only formally consolidated in December 2007 following a shura of 40 Taliban leaders. It is in many ways a deeply unpleasant, cruel and tyrannical grouping, reflecting both its reactionary social doctrines and its CIA/ISI training. Some of the Taliban membership in the early 2000s was drawn from among veterans of Afghanistan, who fled on orders from the Pakistani military. Throughout this period, they were being held in reserve for a future battle to conserve Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. It would seem that the decision to go after the TTP leadership when it was formed, was taken under heavy US pressure. The bounty on TTP leader Baitulla Mehsud's head is offered mainly by the US, with Pakistan reluctantly contributing $600k of the $5.6m bounty. The Taliban, in the period between 2002 and the escalation of war in NWFP in 2007, developed de facto institutions of government in some areas. Since the formation of the TTP, the party has promulgated some grisly discipline. To deter informers, for example, they have broadcast footage of men having their throats cut. In one brutal act, which backfired dramatically, the TTP broadcast the flogging of a Swati woman, and were forced by public outrage to dissociate themselves from it. Their allies have included the TNSM, which formed a brutal parallel government in the Swat valley in 2007. Musharraf and the CIA have claimed that the TNSM bore primary responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, though this is hardly believed by anyone in the PPP since Bhutto knew herself to be the target of potential assassination by leading elements in the state and military intelligence.
Such groups, though initially dependent on ties to the Pakistani state - which have not been completely broken - have also shown the ability to thrive in war. Meanwhile, the military has demonstrated that it can shift between rival gangs of Islamists, playing one group off against the other. It us currently using the Kashmir-based Lashkar e-Toiba group, supposedly banned in 2002, to attack the TTP in NWFP. According to Nasreen Ghufran, based at the University of Peshawar, part of the problem for the government was that in the period from 2001 to 2007, the Taliban had been using its relationship with the military to create a space for itself, gradually converting passive into active support among a layer of the population in FATA and NWFP. A succession of peace deals bartered by the Pakistani military, intended to gain the agreement of Taliban and tribal leaders not to give sanctuary to 'foreign' militants, failed. It failed partly because the term 'foreign' is inapplicable for those who don't recognise the Durand Line, and partly because the basis of support for the Taliban was their use of anti-imperialist rhetoric, which they would undermine by appearing to be party to the 'war on terror'.
Pakistan's reluctant - but once launched, brutal - war against the TTP and its support base has resulted in a dramatic escalation in the activities of the TTP and sympathetic groups. The Pakistani military's massacres, and the murderous drone assaults that Obama has escalated, threw people into the arms of the Taliban and other Islamist groups that are prepared to fight NATO and the military. The TTP have demonstrated their ability to strike in unpredictable ways, with devastating results. Between 2005 and 2008, the rate of insurgent attacks in Pakistan increased by 746%. Thousands were killed and injured as a result, as officials in the government, police and military headquarters. Neither a change in the national government, nor in the local administration has restrained this trend. In the February 2008 provincial elections, a 'progressive' coalition of the Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party (ANP) took control of NWFP, defeating the reformist Islamist grouping who had run the region until then.
If these parties had a solution to the grievances of local populations, they would have retained support. Instead the war continued, and the Taliban sought to position themselves as the most committed anti-US force in the province. There followed a sharp rise in attacks on local government officials, particularly in the provincial capital, Peshawar. Whatever people thought of the perpetrators, the targets didn't gain much sympathy. Unable to offer an alternative, the ANP sought to cut deals with the Islamists, and lost much of the support they had previously gained. The TTP have also lost support since mid-2009, however, due to their harsh disciplinary practises and the gruelling civilian toll of their insurgency. Gallup polls estimated that they had the sympathy of about 11% of people in NWFP by June 2009, and that it had fallen to 1%. It's possible that such polls underestimate Taliban support, as they have been known to do in Afghanistan, but the decline is likely to be real.
The state's attempt to overcome its unpopularity by using American dollars to bring food and development projects into these provinces, on the other hand, is hardly likely to work for as long as the military is butchering people. And for all that the Pakistani military has complied with the US, and remains dependent on American aid, there are strains in the alliance, as expressed in America's nuclear agreement with India, an attempt to outflank China. Pakistan can participate in the 'war on terror' on its own doorstep, but did not send a single soldier to Iraq. The more the US breaches Pakistani sovereignty, and the less the war in Afghanistan looks like succeeding, the more difficult and tenuous the alliance becomes. The middle ranking officers in the Pakistani military are already, Tariq Ali reports, deeply unhappy with the war they are being forced to prosecute, and such divisions are likely to come to the fore.
Of course, the Islamists don't have the answer to US imperialism, any more than they have an alternative to the corrupt state and brutally exploitative forms of accumulation that persist in Pakistan. But the weakened Left has often failed to offer anything in opposition, other than support for secular fractions of the ruling class and military. Just as sections of the Left fell behind Musharraf throughout the 2000s, many on the Left have supported the 'war on terror', and particularly the counterinsurgency in FATA and NWFP. Having collapsed into despondency and inward-looking sectarianism after the fall of the USSR, and having little faith in the potential strength of the organised labour movements, they see Pakistan's secular rulers as the last bulwark against the Islamists. Sadly, support for military rule and conquest is not new for sections of the Pakistani left (and even less happily, such stances are hardly unique to the left in Pakistan). The urban working class is, for sure, a minority in Pakistan, and anti-union laws and corrupt trade union officials have helped keep a lid on struggles. But it hasn't always worked, as Geoff Brown points out, struggles continued throughout the 1990s as the Left fell apart, and:
[m]ore recently, the fisherfolk in Sindh have been able to force the paramilitary Rangers to end their occupation of 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, 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.
Similarly, Sartaj Khan of the International Socialists of Pakistan, argues that the energy tarrif increases, price rises and lay offs that have come with the global recession are not being met without resistance. These are the constituencies that a left worth its name has to look to. These, as Geoff Brown points out, have been looking outward to the global antiwar and anticapitalist movements. In Balochistan, where the state is battling with local movements over the control of natural resources, a new radical left is emerging. Karachi provided a venue for the World Social Forum in 2006, and there are layers of activists looking beyond the dynastic, corrupt, bourgeois politics of the PPP. The old left that sees the Islamists as a greater enemy than the military, and thus aligns itself with US imperialism and the vicious Pakistani ruling class - the same forces that have hammered the Left and the working class for decades - has no answers for such people. A defeat for NATO in Afghanistan would put a stop this war, undermine support for the Islamists, weaken the Pakistani military, and give people a breathing space to organise. Pakistan's entanglement in such imperialist adventures has done nothing but strengthen the forces of reaction inside the country.