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John Passant

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April 2009



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Pakistan: the new frontier in the war on terror?

To understand Pakistan’s present we need to understand two things – it was born of imperialism and is today the child of imperialism.

Pakistan is a poor country. It has a population of about 170 million people, 60 percent of whom earn less than US$2 a day – the UN poverty line.

97 percent of its population is Muslim. 77 percent are Sunni and 20 percent Shia. 

Agriculture accounts for only about 20 percent of GDP yet supports a rural population of over 100 million – i.e. somewhere around 65 per cent of the population.

The main manufacturing industries are textiles, leather and food processing. Industry contributes about 27 per cent of GDP and services over 50 per cent.

The working class numbers about 45 million, a bit under one-third of the population.

 Unemployment last year was around 8 per cent but is probably disguised quite a lot by the survival of workers in the rural areas in abject poverty. It is likely to get much worse as the wealthy gulf states and other countries expel Pakistani guest workers.

The economic crisis is hitting and will hit Pakistan hard. Senior economist Qaisar Bengali said:

We are on the verge of default and economic collapse… If we are unable to meet our debt requirements, if we are unable to pay for imports, then the wheels of agriculture and industry will certainly come to a stop.

The Pakistani currency has dropped by over 30 per cent against the US dollar. The IMF estimates GDP growth this year will be 2.5% .  In 2006 growth was almost 9 percent, and in 2007 was 7%.  In 2008 it was 6%.  To be now so low, and possibly heading further south, is a huge turnaround with massive social implications. 

Foreign investment is in free fall, down almost 50 per cent.

Agricultural and industrial output are falling.

Textile exports fell 23% last year and this will only get worse as the global economic crisis further worsens. Already 400,000 textile worker have lost their jobs.  That’s the equivalent of 200 Pacific Brands.

According to the Pakistan union federation over 1 million workers have lost their jobs since the Great Recession began.

Inflation on the Government’s own figures is now around 20 per cent, down 10 per cent over last year as the economy stalls.

According to some reports, the Pakistani economy is the weakest and most vulnerable of all the major developing countries.

The President and PM have been touring other countries begging for money. 

The US since September 11 has given $10 bn, most of which went to the military.

Obama has a package before Congress for another 1.5 billion a year for 5 years.

The IMF has agreed to give an extra $5 bn. 

Any IMF and World Bank rescue package will further impoverish Pakistani workers and peasants (eg by removing food and energy price subsidies and privatising government enterprises).

Food prices doubled last year.

Couple these economic issues with the increasing Talibanisation of the society, at least in some sections, and you are staring at yet another major crisis in Pakistan. 

Let’s look at a bit of history first to see where the solution to the crisis might lie.


Pakistan is an artificial state, yet another example of the failure of a two state solution to solve anything.

The British East India company ran the British Indian Empire from the mid 1700s until 1857.

This Empire stretched from Burma in the East to Afghanistan in the West. It encompassed what are now Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

In 1857 a rebellion broke out against British rule which the  British suppressed brutally. 

From then on London ran the British Indian Empire directly.

The Empire covered a number of peoples, religions and languages. For example there were Hindus, Sikhs, Sufis, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in this vast land.

A major tactic in British rule was to divide and conquer. If the vanquished were fighting themselves they weren’t fighting the British. 

The rulers used religion to divide the people against themselves. They developed Hindu parties, some of them extreme nationalists and the Muslims responded in kind. 

 Viewing their interests as fundamentally incompatible, Muslims developed a two state solution – a Muslim state of Pakistan (East and West) on either side of India.

After a long independence struggle the British adopted this and then left in 1947.  Millions moved across the borders – Hindus and Sikhs into India and Muslims into Pakistan.

In one sense Pakistan is defined by its fear of India. For example, with 600000 men under arms Pakistan has the eighth largest military in the world. And like India it has nuclear weapons.

While India became a stable but poor democracy, instability has wracked Pakistan. There have been a number of military coups.

In 1971 East Pakistan, with Indian help, defeated the Pakistani army and established a new state – Bangladesh.

West Pakistan became Pakistan.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is one source of tension between the two countries. It is one third run by Pakistan and two thirds by India. Its population is majority Muslim and probably wants independence from both countries, although India will not allow a referendum on the country’s future.

Pakistan is divided into four regions – Baluchistan, the Sindh, Punjab and the North West Frontier as well as federally administered tribal areas between Afghanistan and the North-West frontier.

The Sindh is the centre of industry and the Punjab of agriculture. The two main political parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muslim League –  have  their respective power bases in these areas.

The ethnic mix is explosive. The British normally draw borders to suit their interests, not those of the people living in the region and Afghanistan and Pakistan are no exception.

Punjab people live in both Pakistan and India, the Baluchi in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and the Pashtun in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The Border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is one that ‘divides’ the Pashtuns of the two countries and the Baluchis of the two countries. But it is a division in name only.

The Pashtun in Afghanistan are a stronghold of the Taliban and not surprisingly they have major support in the North West Frontier including the SWAT, a supposedly Administered Territory.

During the cold war, India leaned towards the USSR and Pakistan the US.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 strengthened US-Pakistani ties. The Americans poured in money and support to help the insurgents defeat the Russians. 

This included Osama Bin Laden who received much US support and became a hero of the resistance.

Millions of refugees – the largest refugee population in the world – fled the fighting and settled in the border areas of Pakistan.

The religious camps and schools there provided  the base for the Taliban.The word means student in Pashtun.

Both the US and Pakistan supported the Taliban in varying degrees but for different reasons. The US saw them as providing stability and as a a possible pro-US regime or at least one the US could work with; the Pakistanis saw them as their creation and willing puppets.

They proved to be neither.

They came to power in 1996 with popular support and provided the stability the country wanted. They defeated most of the corrupt warlords who had run the country in various forms over the years. 

The Taliban couldn’t completely defeat them and the Northern Alliance of some of these remnants continued to rule in parts of Northern Afghanistan.

September 11 changed the equation. Osama bin Laden was hiding in the hills on the border.The Taliban, after some debate, decided not to give him up to the Americans.

US led NATO forces (with Australia also involved) invaded in 2002 and quickly defeated the Government.  More refugees poured into Pakistan and the whole Taliban process has begun over again.

India has moved to increase its influence in Afghanistan (and to destabilise Pakistan as a consequence) through the US puppet regime of Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has responded by giving further support to the Taliban.

The Taliban continue to grow in strength on both sides of the border.

There are two factors here. First the brutal occupation of Afghanistan has produced a fightback from ordinary citizens, mainly peasants.The Taliban is the only force fighting the US invasion.

The US’s ongoing reign of terror on both sides of the border – killing innocent men, women and children – has increased support of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.   The war is now the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan war or more accurately the Obama War.

Their forces are now so strong that the Pakistan Government reached agreement with them to impose Sharia law in the Swat Valley, part of the North-West Frontier. The writ of Islamabad runs nowhere in this anarchic area. 

The West is in outrage about this but it was their dictator, General Zia, who introduced strict Islamic law in 1978.

The New York Times describes the Swat valley takeover as a revolution.  They said that the ‘Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power.

How?  They ‘organised peasants into armed gangs that became theri shock troops…’

The paper quoted a senior Pakistani official:

This was a bloody revolution in Swat.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan. 

The insurgents now feel strong enough to take the battle to the Punjab, the agricultural centre of Pakistan.

It would be a mistake for the Left to describe fear of an islamist takeover solely as US propaganda or paranoia.  It might in part be that, but it also represents what appears to be a change in tactics of the islamists.

They are appealing to Pakistani peasants for support on a class basis (even if it is couched in religious terms.) 

Pakistan is, like all countries, divided into classes. In most of Pakistan that division is between peasants and very rich landlords. 

The two main political parties represent to varying degrees the landlords and capitalist class, but appeal to the masses through talk about improving lives and so forth without in fact doing anything at all to achieve that.

For example there has been no thorough going land reform in Pakistan.  And the local courts are very slow and often side with the landlords.

The whole governing system is corrupt.  The leaders of both major parties have been convicted or overthrown because of corruption.

The Taliban are gaining in popularity and strength because they promise to redistribute the land to those who till it and to apply the law equally and fairly (i.e. including against the landlords.)  They have been forcing the rich landlord class to flee from areas under their control.

To a peasant in Pakistan, the choice is not between the ‘anti-democratic’ Taliban and the ‘democratic’ governing forces.  The choice appears for them to be between land and justice or corruption and poverty.  Not surprisingly more and more peasants are siding with the Pakistan Taliban.

Last year the US gave $7 billion in aid to Pakistan. 90 percent went to the military. 

The military plays a Bonapartist role – it seizes power to sort out the various internecine disputes between the Pakistani ruling elite and supposedly to destroy corruption. 

US drones on the border have been killing innocent Pakistani villagers. 

Only a few weeks into his presidency Obama had his first kill – old men, women and children in a village in Pakistan. 

So while his wife and kids and Portuguese water dog frolic in safety in the White House his policies and actions destroy the lives of women and children – there are no Portuguese water dogs – in Pakistan.

Far from winning the ‘war on terror’ US policies and actions have escalated it into Pakistan, so much so that we could eventually see the Taliban or some version of it in power in both Afghanistan and Pakistan over the coming years. 

There is one caveat. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a working class, especially in the Sindh region, and that class may not see its interests reflected in the Taliban.  

The Pakistani working class has a history of struggle for democracy and justice and they may be re-learning that history.  massive strikes in 68 and 69 brought a dictator down. 

The weak ruling class – a composition of feudal landlords, a few rich industrialists and the military – has responded to working class activity with repression. 

But despite the repression, there has been a fightback. One aspect of this has been the campaign to re-instate the Chief justice, dismissed by the dictator and not reinstated by the President (perhaps to avoid jail himself.)

The Pakistani working class played a major role in the campaign to re-instate the Chief Justice, including demonstrations and some strikes.

What is the US up to?

There is a silent war going on in Pakistan.  The US is using Pakistan as its proxy.

Shortly after taking office, the PPP Government sent 120,000 troops into the North-West Frontier.  It occupied the Swat valley and the people fought back.The Sharia law deal is the result – the people resisting the US backed Pakistan Army onslaught have won.

700,000 people fled the invasion, some even into Afghanistan it was that bad.

Every day the Pakistani Army kills 10 to 20 women and children as part of the invasion.

 The resistance is worrying the Pakistani ruling class and worrying the Americans.

The national section of the ruling class wants a more regulated war.  The international section wants to carry out the wishes of the US. 

The US is bombing and attacking on a regular basis and has killed hundreds of Pakistanis so far. 340 in 2008, although they don’t admit to doing it.  But who else has drones in the region that can deliver silent death?

Pakistan might be on the road to becoming the new Cambodia. In 1970 Nixon bombed the hell out of Cambodia to destroy Vietnamese safe areas in a desperate attempt to win an almost lost war.  it has the opposite effect and led to the Khmer Rouge taking power.

Iraq is in the stalemate of defeat.  Obama recognises this and wants to re-direct troops to Afghanistan, or more broadly against the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Anti-US feeling is rife in Pakistan because of the havoc they have wreaked and the ongoing support they have given for dictators sympathetic to the US.

For the US, the Taliban and the region are not about oil.

The war against the Taliban (encompassing both countries) is about prestige and power. It recognises the strategic importance of Afghanistan, but more importantly Pakistan, to US interests (eg the borders it has with Iran and China, as well as  Afghanistan and India).  It also is an attempt to overcome the ideological conclusion of the stalemate in Iraq, that America is not all powerful.

The Taliban represented a threat to US hegemony – they weren’t a compliant regime.  After September 11 the US had an excuse to invade an remove an irritant regime which might have been a model for and given inspiration to others.

But its success in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan laid the seeds for the spread of the resistance across the region, especially into the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. By escalating the war into Pakistan the US is escalating the resistance to its warmongering.

Let’s be clear,  Taliban rule is neither worse than nor better than the rule of the corrupt elites presently in control of Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

It is the one force fighting US imperialism in the region, but in Pakistan the working class could present an alternative pole of Opposition to Imperialism if it acted as a class.

The defeat of the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be a step forward for the peoples of the region, peoples who want nothing more than stability, bread and land, something the US and its allies in both countries cannot give them.

But that will not be enough. To truly achieve bread land and peace, a working class revolution will be necessary.

The spectre of permanent revolution haunts Pakistan. But that really is the topic for another talk.

The revolutionary left is weak, as is the Labor movement. Although they have supported the reinstatement campaign, the working class has not fought the new anti-worker industrial relations laws or to protect jobs and living standards in any meaningful way.

There have been some recent successful strikes, but there is no generalised anti-war movement for example or militancy across the class.

This weakness of the left opens up the possibility for the Taliban to appeal to class instincts among peasants to overthrow their landlords and rulers. 

Their success in the Swat Valley shows this is working and will have just as much appeal in Punjab unless the working class begins to act as a class.

One thing is certain.  The working class will attempt to defend its interests and in doing so that opens up the possibility of revolution.

The imperialist war in Afghanistan is now in Pakistan and has been for two years. 

Whether the US carries out the war there through its proxy, the unreliable Pakistani state, or goes in itself in the long term, the anarchy this war is producing and will produce will see a range of options come to the fore.  Working class revolution could be one of them.



These are draft notes for a talk on Pakistan on Thursday 23 April at 6 pm in Room G 039 of the Haydon Allen Building at the ANU.  They need correcting since they contain errors and many clarifications and qualifications are needed. But they are a start.



Comment from Arjay
Time April 22, 2009 at 10:44 pm

It is interesting that when the US moved into Afghanistan the poppy plants became abundant again.I would like to know who are the middlemen profiting from this?
The US Govt is mad .They willl not win in Afghanistan and now look like extending the war into Pakistan.Their country is broke and the poor US pop continues to suffer.

Comment from juan
Time April 23, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Bill, thanks for and excellent summary of the Pakistani issue.

Pingback from En Passant » Afghanistan – the new Vietnam?
Time April 29, 2009 at 11:00 pm

[…] The war in Afghanistan is spreading.  It has made Pakistan a possible victory of sorts for islamists.  (See my article ‘Pakistan: the new frontier in the war on terror?‘). […]

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