Pakistan at a critical juncture

On 20 September, close to 60 people were killed and over 250 were wounded when a suicide bomber targeted the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. It was the 29th suicide attack to have taken place in Pakistan in 2008. Less than a mile away from the site of this latest bombing, Pakistan’s newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari had just delivered his inaugural address to a joint session of parliament that had been attended by Pakistan’s military chiefs and foreign diplomats. The speech was considered to be significant, not only because it was symbolic of the country’s transition towards democracy, but because it addressed key issues facing the government, not least of which were the rising militancy of the Taliban in the country’s north, and the repeated violations of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty by US forces based in Afghanistan.

Since coming to power in February, the democratically-elected government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which replaced the dictatorial regime of General Musharraf, has reeled from crisis to crisis. In addition to an escalating military conflict with the various elements of the Taliban based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and increasing incidents of terrorism across the country, the government has had to contend with a rapidly deteriorating economic situation and the fallout from the global food crisis. While many of the problems can be attributed to external factors, such as the state of the global economy, as well as the flawed policies of the previous regime, the new civilian leadership’s handling of these issues has been inept, giving rise to an increasing disenchantment with democratic rule. Given the weakness of progressive, left-wing political forces in the country, the transition to democracy and away from authoritarian rule was seen as a positive political development in Pakistan. The failure of the current democratic regime would be disastrous for Pakistan.

The paralysis that has gripped the government stems from its reluctance to make good on promises made regarding the strengthening of the country’s judiciary. Having come to power following a popular movement aimed at restoring independence to a judiciary that had been undermined by the Musharraf regime, the PPP has thus far refused to empower the judiciary in line with the aspirations of the lawyers, judges, and activists who spearheaded the movement. Indeed, the PPP’s political manoeuvrings on the judiciary are seen to be aimed at preventing judges from challenging the PPP government on questions of corruption or inept governance. As a result the PPP has had to break with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), its major coalition partner at the centre, and arch-rival in the key province of Punjab. With much of the political activity having been reduced to a tug-of-war between the PPP and the PML-N, with smaller parties attempting to align themselves with either of the two in exchange for access to state patronage, Pakistan’s problems have taken a backseat to partisan bickering.

Amidst all of this, the different factions of the Taliban in FATA continue to challenge the state, taking control of territory inch by inch while implementing their strict, parochial version of Shariah Law. Although the government has launched a huge military operation against the Taliban, massive civilian casualties and high levels of displacement and dislocation have characterised the offensive thus far. Given how the Taliban feeds on the deprivation and resentment of the local populace in order to garner recruits, all of this ‘collateral damage’ has the potential to significantly increase the insurgency in FATA. The threat of worsening militancy in the North is compounded by the US’s complete disregard for Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. In the past month, repeated missile strikes by Predator drones, and an actual incursion by US ground forces into Pakistan, both resulting in civilian casualties, have whipped up public sentiment against a democratic government seemingly complicit with the US agenda and the campaign against the Taliban. The US, facing defeat in Afghanistan, has targeted FATA out of a belief that Taliban fighters in Afghanistan operate out of Pakistan’s predominantly Pashtun tribal belt.

The real tragedy here is that it is the people of Pakistan who will pay the price for the inefficacy of the government and its inability to deal with the twin threats of the Taliban and the US. In addition to the suicide attacks that have taken place this year, 56 took place in 2007, with the combined death toll from suicide bombs in Pakistan being higher than that for Afghanistan and Iraq in the same time period. While some of their defenders may claim that the Taliban constitute a form of resistance to the imperialist ambitions of the US, the fact remains that the Taliban is a threat to the people of Pakistan, not only because of its terrorism, but also because of its parochial, intolerant religious ideology that leaves no room for dissent and is at odds with the beliefs of the vast majority of Pakistanis.

Yet, although the Taliban needs to be contained, the government’s policy of recklessly employing force in FATA, in collusion with the US, risks inflaming the resentment that has fuelled the growth of the Taliban. For there to be peace in FATA and an end to terrorism in Pakistan, the government must recognise that in addition to fighting the Taliban, it must dismantle the training camps and madrassahs that provide the logistical and ideological basis for the Taliban, replacing them with schools and hospitals that would be part of a ‘development’ offensive aimed at addressing the neglect that has characterised the area. Furthermore, while dealing with the Taliban, the government must also make a break with the past and refuse to acquiesce to the demands of the US. US involvement in dealing with the Taliban has proved counter-productive, and acting in tandem with the imperialists will not settle the insurgency in FATA.

Hassan Javid

FRFI 205 October / November 2008


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