Pakistan ‘Democracy’ brings no benefit for the poor / FRFI 215 Jun/ Jul 2010

FRFI 215 June/ July 2010

As the summer begins in Pakistan, soaring temperatures are matched by rising prices and increased electricity black-outs. For the people of Pakistan, everyday life has yet to see the promised benefits of the transition to democracy. This is not surprising: the movement that ousted General Pervez Musharraf in 2008 lacked any clear ideological vision for Pakistan. Necessary though it was to end Musharraf’s dictatorship, the vacuum created by his removal was filled by the same corrupt and discredited political elite that has historically dominated Pakistan’s politics.

In the two years since it came to power, the government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has made limited progress in some areas. Through a consensus on the perennially problematic National Finance Commission Award, which divides financial re­sources between the different pro­vinces of Pakistan, the PPP has been able to defuse some of the tension between Pakistan’s smaller ethnic groups and the federal government. Similarly, the decision to change the name of the North-Western Frontier Province to Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, in line with the wishes of the predominantly Pukhtun population of the province, has also addressed one of the longest standing issues in Paki­stan’s provincial politics. Most importantly, by passing the 18th Amend­ment, the PPP has managed to bring about important changes to Pakistan’s constitution that undo many of the anti-democratic laws introduced by the Musharraf regime.

However, these achievements pale before the problems that continue to beset Pakistan. The PPP continues to confront an energised judiciary; over the past couple of months, the PPP and the Supreme Court have appeared to be on a collision course over the implementation of the court’s verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordi­nance (NRO). This illegal measure was introduced by the Musharraf government to facilitate the return of corrupt politicians barred from holding office. Much of the top leadership of the PPP, including President Asif Ali Zardari, benefited from this law and continue to resist attempts by the Supreme Court to reverse the NRO’s effects. Given the fragility of democratic politics in Pakistan, this clash could jeopardise attempts to manage the different crises faced by the country and could even provide the pretext for yet another intervention by the military.

In the north, the Pakistani army continues to wage its campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As always, information remains strictly regulated, yet amidst army claims of victory and progress, evidence continues to emerge of the tremendous human cost of the operation. Civilian casualties continue to mount, and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes continue to live as refugees in camps scattered across the country. Meanwhile, in the areas the military claims to have ‘liberated’, targeted killings and assassinations herald the return of regrouped factions of the Taliban. Despite dozens of drone strikes by the United States, as well as months of fighting by the Pakistan Army, the war in FATA does not seem to be any closer to an end.

Part of the problem lies with the entire strategy of using military force in the region. There is no room for negotiation nor, indeed, for addressing the root causes of militancy in FATA: poverty, deprivation and decades of political marginalisation. The millions of dollars of aid granted to Pakistan for reconstruction in the war zone remain unaccounted for, and the state harbours no apparent interest in implementing a non-military solution to the problem. This is undoubtedly because of US influence which has pushed Pakistan to fight in FATA to achieve its imperialist objectives in the region, especially in Afghanistan. The futility of this approach is evinced by the weakness of the Karzai government in Kabul as well as the military stalemate in FATA.

By subordinating itself to the military interests of the US, Pakistan continues to ignore the need for a broader-based approach to combating religious extremism. As the recent ban on Facebook shows, the religious right continues to exercise disproportionate control over the country’s politics. Coupled with mounting evidence of the existence of militant groups in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most populous province, it becomes clear that the ideological threat posed by the right is one that must be urgently addressed.

The religious right in Pakistan is a reactionary force completely detrimental to the interests of Pakistan’s people. However, in the absence of a credible progressive alternative, it is to the right that Pakistan’s dispossessed and disenfranchised turn when all other options fail. That the government has done nothing for the people is not surprising given the interests of the elite who constitute it. Yet, unless measures are taken to change the current status quo, Pakistan will continue its inexorable drift towards violence and fanaticism.

Hassan Javid

Pakistan: military fight against Taliban counterproductive / FRFI 212 Dec 2009 / Jan 2010

FRFI 212 December 2009 / January 2010

As the military operation launched by the Pakistani government against the Taliban in the northern areas of the country enters its eighth month, there are several fundamental questions about the effectiveness of the Zardari government’s approach to dealing with the Taliban. While there can be no doubt that the Taliban and its millenarian vision must be challenged in Pakistan, the state’s response has been insufficient and misguided.

Military force

Following abortive attempts at appeasing the Taliban at the start of 2009, the government and military establishment have initiated and sustained a military campaign against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). While the military has retaken control of Swat from the Taliban and dislodged it from key towns in FATA, the human cost has been tremendous. Over three million people have been displaced and now live in makeshift refugee camps scattered across the rest of the country. Information from the battle zone is tightly controlled by the military, making it virtually impossible to independently verify government claims of success, or to determine the number of civilians killed in the conflict, or the extent of the damage to cities, towns, and villages in the region.

For the government, and those sections of the liberal elite that have endorsed its use of military force in the north, such costs are outweighed by the prospect of eliminating the Taliban. However, it is far from clear that the use of force against the Taliban signifies a radical shift in the worldview of the state and military establishment. The Pakistani military has historically enjoyed a close, symbiotic relationship with militant Islam. The military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq trained and equipped the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s; this infrastructure was retained by the military to produce groups that could act as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir during the 1990s and has not yet been dismantled.  The military remains reluctant to completely sever its ties with militant Islamic groups that it believes could be used to pursue its broader strategic objectives. Although the Taliban is seen as a threat to the state, we should remain sceptical of the military’s relationship with Islamist groups that do not directly challenge state power.

The role of the US

The prominent involvement of the US in the fight against the Taliban is deeply unpopular across Pakistan. The US has used its influence and power, clothed in the rhetoric of ‘fighting terrorism’, to pressurise Pakistan into using force against the Taliban as part of its broader imperialist project in Afghanistan. This assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty is compounded by the use of US drones to attack Taliban targets within Pakistan. While proponents of US involvement vaunt the success of drone strikes in eliminating key Taliban figures, the resulting tremendous loss of civilian lives has made them incredibly unpopular. The resulting anti-US sentiment has in turn  strengthened support for the Taliban and provided it with ideological justification for continuing its own fight against the state and its imperialist patron.

Root cause of militancy

Decades of neglect, low levels of socio-economic development, and the absence of any space for political participation have created both deprivation and resentment that is used by the Taliban to shore up support. In the absence of any credible government commitment to ameliorating the lives of the people living in the region, and caught between grinding poverty and a US-sponsored military assault, many feel only the Taliban can challenge the status quo. This does not mean that the Taliban represents any kind of popular political alternative. The ability to tap into popular resentment does not make the Taliban any less anti-people or any more anti-imperialist. Indeed, levels of support for the Taliban remain low in the north, and have declined as evidence emerges of its reactionary ideological vision. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s ability to claim that it is an anti-imperialist, anti-systemic movement has been key to their garnering legitimacy. As the military conflict wreaks ever-increasing death and destruction in the north, increased opposition to the state and military, as well as to the US, could well result in greater support for the Taliban.

The absence of a viable left in Pakistan has created a political vacuum that has been occupied by political Islam. Successive regimes in Pakistan have used Islam as a means to legitimise their rule, making it a central feature of the country’s political discourse.  This helps explain  why the state has tolerated the existence of groups that propagate the particularly virulent religious outlook that informs the Taliban ideology. While a broad consensus may have been reached in Pakistan over the need to fight the Taliban, primarily because of the dozens of bombings and suicide attacks they have carried out over the past few years across Pakistan, a broader debate on the role of religion in Pakistan has yet to take place. This means that even if the military operation succeeds against the Taliban today, the ideological climate which allowed it to emerge in the first place will remain fundamentally unchanged and groups with an ideological framework similar to the Taliban will continue to emerge.

It is the responsibility of the left to propose an ideological alternative that recognises the reactionary nature of the Taliban while simultaneously attacking the role played by the state and imperialism in creating the circumstances that allowed the Taliban to emerge in the first place.

Hassan Javid

Poor communities devastated by earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir

Poor communities devastated by earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir

On 8 October an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale devastated parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The earthquake has so far claimed more than 90,000 lives and if the relief effort is not stepped up the death toll will be far greater. This terrible disaster has worsened the suffering for the people of the area already divided by India and Pakistan’s dispute over territorial control of Kashmir.

On 11 October, India responded to the relief operation by supplying medicine and other supplies. They have also opened up the Line of Control with Pakistan to make rescue work easier.

Pakistan is internally divided by language, class and social conflict. All forms of democracy have failed in Pakistan and military dictatorship is entrenched. Following the 1947 partition, Pakistan has repeatedly been involved in direct conflict with India. Its brutal politics led to the civil war of 1971 resulting in the division of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Under the leadership of General Musharraff, Pakistan plays the role of US lackey in South East Asia. He provided the US administration with a naval base during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. He systematically oppresses both radical and reformist political groups and is a great supporter of globalisation.

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Pakistan: Dictatorship and resistance

The movement now challenging General Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan is the greatest threat to his control of the state since he seized power in 1999. Although it is dominated by largely bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements lacking the organisational capacity to foster popular participation in the struggle against military rule, the movement itself represents an opening of the political space within Pakistan that has historically been dominated by an extremely reactionary military. While the extant political parties in Pakistan, dominated as they are by the interests of the propertied classes, are not going to promote the interests of Pakistan’s underprivileged majority once the current regime collapses, the current wave of popular protest presents an opportunity for the impoverished masses to organise and advance their own independent interests in a situation freed from the repressive authoritarianism of the military. HASSAN JAVID reports.

The proclamation of emergency rule in Pakistan is the latest episode in a saga stretching back to General Musharraf’s failed attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from the Supreme Court in March 2007. Despite having tacitly supported military dictatorships throughout Pakistan’s history, the judiciary had begun to assert its own independence by investigating reports of the Musharraf government’s increasingly evident abuses of power. Consequently, the court proceeded to block the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mill, one of the largest industrial units in the country, on the grounds that the bidding process had disproportionately favoured groups with links to members of the government, and also started to look into the ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of people allegedly involved in terrorist activities. Musharraf’s subsequent unconstitutional dismissal of Iftikhar Chaudhry was an attempt to coerce the judiciary into obedience and was met with fierce resistance by judges and lawyers across the country. In scenes reminiscent of the movement that toppled Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator in 1968, rights activists and political parties rapidly joined the lawyers who had taken to the streets demanding an immediate end to military rule. As protests wracked Pakistan’s major cities, Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated as Chief Justice in July, following a ruling by a panel of Supreme Court judges formed to investigate the allegations levelled against him by the government.

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Pakistan: instability deepens

In the days following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007, Pakistan was brought to a complete standstill as thousands of protestors demanded that Bhutto’s killers be brought to justice. Much of the agitation was directed against the state, with Musharraf being blamed for not taking security measures that could have prevented the assassination. Indeed conspiracy theories swiftly circulated directly implicating the regime in the incident.

This is very doubtful. Bhutto and Musharraf had been on the verge of striking a political deal that would have seen Bhutto’s PPP come to power with Musharraf as President following general elections scheduled for 8 January. The widespread protests at Musharraf’s crackdown in 2007 questioned the regime’s ability to maintain its hold on power. In the face of waning international support and rising domestic op position, reaching a power-sharing agreement with a popular mainstream party like the PPP was one of the few means through which Musharraf could hope to cling on to power.

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