Pakistan at a crossroads

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Pakistan stands at a crossroads, where past meets present and national identity meets regional influences. It does not seem to be at a crossroads, as some have described, between a nuclear-armed democratic state vs. a nuclear-armed failed state.

The Taliban’s emergence as an armed force in Pakistan has led the Obama administration to prioritize Pakistan along with its neighbor Afghanistan as a top foreign policy challenge. President Obama appointed as a special envoy to the two countries, Richard Holbrooke, and recently met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.

The Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to stop the Taliban’s growth, and has used drone attacks inside Pakistan against Taliban operatives. As a result of the military operations, the number of civilian deaths in both countries has risen, thereby fueling anger at the U.S. and driving people to the Taliban’s side.

Obama faces opposition to his unfolding military initiatives in the region. Antiwar Democrats insist there needs to be an “exit strategy” and much more aid for development – controlled by the Afghans and Pakistanis themselves – than for military hardware.

Obama will also face opposition from right-wingers who have thrown their lot in with dictators like Pervez Musharaff and are helping to whip up the idea of Pakistan as a “failed state.”

Debunking ‘failed state-ism’

Corporate-owned media have trumpeted almost hysterically the idea that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are on the brink of falling into Taliban hands.

While the security situation is serious – especially for the Pakistanis caught in the violence – more reasonable voices insist that Pakistan is not a failed state.

There are many government institutions functioning in Pakistan. For example, the Pakistani judiciary system functions, after a huge recent struggle for its “independence” and integrity.

Arguing that the failed state alarmism is being pushed by some forces within Pakistan, professor and analyst Juan Cole the claim is “frankly ridiculous” that “some rural Pushtun tribesmen turned Taliban are about to sweep into Islamabad and overthrow the government of Pakistan” with such a well-armed military at the ready.

Cole believes that the deposed president and former U.S. ally, Pervez Musharraf, may be behind the alarmism, along with “civilian politicians in Islamabad, who want to extract more money from the U.S. to fight the Taliban that they are secretly also bribing to attack Afghanistan.”

Rejecting extremism

The Pakistani people have rejected both dictatorship and Taliban-type extremism in the last year. In 2007, after Musharraf dismissed Pakistan’s chief justice, a tidal wave of protest ensued, eventually leading to the election of a civilian government headed by Pakistan Peoples Party (the party of slain-leader Benazir Bhutto) and the resignation in August 2008 of Musharraf.

In the February 2008 elections, extremist right-wing clerical parties got even lower vote totals than the tiny percentage won by Musharraf’s party.

This is not to say that there aren’t political wheelings and dealings between Pakistani power centers, which include the civilian government headed by Bhutto’s widower Zardari, the army and Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI), the elite and land-owning families and external forces that sow division, backwardness and confusion.

But the evidence currently suggests that Pakistan is not on the brink of being overtaken by extremism in religious garb and that Pakistanis reject this type of national identity and government.

Background brief

Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country of 165 million. Founded in 1947 out of the fight for Indian independence from Britain, the country shares borders (some disputed) with India, Iran, Afghanistan and China.

Called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the nation’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, visualized a secular state where all Pakistanis are equal regardless of which area religion one follows, including Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Hindus.

But Pakistan’s birth was tumultuous with many forces at play. These included, the role and status of Muslims in a Hindu-majority society (India), British divide-and-conquer tactics which led to the “partition” of India between West Pakistan, India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the newly emerging Cold War where global alliances broke down between U.S. and allies vs. Soviet Union and allies. Such historical forces are still at work today.

Inequalities and corruption

The Taliban’s recent growth in influence in Pakistan has rested primarily on their ability to exploit the very real weaknesses in Pakistan, including ethnic inequalities, class divisions and wide-spread corruption. Pakistan’s military or elite ruling families (the Bhuttos are among these families) control an overwhelming majority of the land and economic activity.

This kind of long-term dictatorship and oligarchy has had an imprint on women, children, workers and farmers of both genders and all ethnicities. People mistrust the army. Trade union rights are often suspended, child labor laws broken, women’s literacy rates are much lower than men’s, left-wing political activists are targeted and sometimes killed– all of which has contributed to the current situation.

Secular vs. religious state

Pakistan’s military dictatorships, religious extremism and U.S. support for both are all inextricably intertwined with fighting the Soviet Union and so-called “communist threat.” This would include the Pak-Indo relations as well.

Pakistan has received billions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. over the years to prop up dictators, train “mujahideen” and launch operations against the former Soviet Union and the left-led Afghan government in the 1970s and ’80s.

The U.S. bolstered the Ziaul Haq, the general who orchestrated a coup and overthrew the government headed by Benzir Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977. He ruled until his death in 1988. According to Pakistani analysts, Haq played a major role in mobilizing the youth of the North-West Frontier Province to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s. What started under the presidency of Jimmy Carter with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s secret, dirty war in Afghanistan to undermine the Soviet Union – whose Central Asian republics bordered Afghanistan – was developed fully under Ronald Reagan.

The North-West Frontier Province which includes Taliban-dominated areas of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing these areas currently, creating a crisis of “internally displaced people” or IDPs.

Frankenstein’s monsters

Analyses throughout the region refer to the Pakistani Taliban as “Frankenstein’s monster” pointing directly at the U.S.-led Cold War anti-communist policies towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Soviet Union.

The CIA and ISI set up military training camps and madrasas, financed in part by the Saudis, to indoctrinate the young population with extremist ideology to fight the “communist infidels.”

Even to this day, the Taliban – and its ideological twin al Qaeda – use PR videos showing unbelievable brutality – beheadings – calling their victims “communists,” according to a Pakistani source.

After the Soviet Union fell, the U.S. continued to prop up military dictators in Pakistan and corrupt “warlords” in Afghanistan all to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, Afghans and the world’s people.

One important statement on how this history has impacted the situation today came recently from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In testimony before Congress late last month, Clinton warned of reaping what the U.S. helped to sow.

“Let’s remember here the people we are fighting today, we funded them 20 years ago and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union” over control of Central Asia, she said, adding that the Saudis and others came “importing their Wahabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union.”

“So there is a very strong argument, which is it wasn’t a bad investment to end the Soviet Union but let’s be careful with what we sow because we will harvest.”

Or in other words, Frankenstein brought to life his “monster” helping to crush important secular, democratic and left-wing indigenous movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Regional influences

There are many countries actively involved in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Israel and Russia.

But perhaps the country with the largest shadow over goings on in Pakistan is its significantly larger “birth partner” India.

The disputed area currently shared by India and Pakistan, called Kashmir, is so explosive an issue that Special Envoy Holbrooke refuses to mention it in his dealings with Pakistan. Kashmir (also called Jammu and Kashmir) is one of the 28 states of India. With a majority Muslim population, it has a history of being ruled by Hindus – and a culture shared by both Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus. Kashmir was one of the 500-plus “princely states” of British-ruled India.

Ever since the founding of Pakistan and India, Kashmir has been a point of contention with both countries laying claim to it. There is also a movement for Kashmiri independence.

India asserts that Kashmir rightfully belongs to it, and it has many historic documents to back this assertion up. Any border dispute with Pakistan must be worked out bi-laterally, the policy goes.

Practically since its inception, Pakistani rulers (more often military dictators than elected civilians) have made India its number one enemy. India and Pakistan fought three wars and have had ongoing skirmishes, including along the militarized Kashmir border. When the Hindu-chauvinist BJP party led India, the tensions grew so strong, the world thought the two nuclear-armed nations were on the brink of a fourth war.

India has been on the receiving end of a number of terrorist attacks, either suspected of or proven to have ties to Pakistan-based groups or intelligence agency.

Many of these “extremist” foot soldiers were also trained by the ISI for operations and attacks in Kashmir.

Cold War policies shaped much of Indo-Pak relations. When India declared itself part of the Non-Aligned Movement, wanting good relations with both the U.S. and the USSR, such a declaration was not good enough for U.S. Cold War hawks mistrusted any country that had friendly relations with the Soviet Union. As a result, the U.S. chose Pakistan as its close ally and encouraged anti-Indian policies throughout the Cold War period.

India and Afghanistan

Growing Kabul-New Delhi ties have worried Pakistan’s previous rulers. India has invested $1 billion in Afghanistan. Last year a deadly suicide bombing outside of the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 58 people and wounded 141. The New York Times reported that an unnamed U.S. official said Pak’s ISI helped plan the bombing.

This has helped anti-Indian militarists argue that Pakistan is being “encircled.”

There is a lot of jockeying around in this area for access to and control over the region’s vast natural gas and oil supplies. Pipelines from the fields of Central Asia and Iran are being planned to crisscross through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Needless to say, U.S.-based oil companies – like Unocal – are active in this. Unocal had a relationship with the Taliban government in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001. But other countries, like India and China, also have growing energy needs and want access to the areas supplies.

U.S. foreign policy

There are several major steps the Obama administration has taken that will help the overall world atmosphere. Most importantly, announcing the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, initiatives on nuclear disarmament, talking to Iran, closing Guantanamo, banning torture and pushing for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Other positive developments are Obama’s pledge to support the civilian government and democratic institutions along with his outlook that the U.S. cannot get rid of the Taliban through the military alone – that a commitment to economic development is critical. Such developments must also take into account improving women’s, workers’ and ethnic minorities’ status. Pakistani workers have called for their government to enforce existing labor laws such as minimum wage, health and safety, working hours, social security, old age benefits and to conform to ILO Conventions.

These are all steps the peace and democratic movements in the United States can build on for solidarity and stability in the region.

Working against these initiatives is the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan and use of drones in Pakistan to attack suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives.

There is overwhelming evidence that further militarization of the region will lead to more civilian deaths, property destruction, hated house searches, wrongful imprisonments, refugees and displaced people.

Militarization will also lead to more drug and arms dealing to pay for military hardware by either the Taliban or NATO/U.S. forces. (After all who can forget Iran-Contra trading weapons with Iran to pay for anti-communist Contra paramilitaries in Central America, which included CIA drug smuggling.)

People in the region already mistrust American policies a great deal since many in Afghanistan and Pakistan have complained that they have been “forgotten.” Used in the Cold War and then tossed aside, they say. It’s not that far a leap to say both Pakistanis and Afghans could be “used” in the fight against the Taliban and then “tossed aside” and “forgotten” afterwards.

Plus militarization – whether coming from U.S. coffers or Pakistan’s – means not enough money for “human capital” like health care and education.

Finally shedding the Cold War

The United States has to be willing to work with indigenous democratic and secular forces that would include communists and socialists, and once and for all shed the Cold War anti-communism, which has led to so many of these problems. In World War II the U.S. refused to work with the Italian partisans because there were so many communists and left-wingers among them. Instead they chose to work with shadowy criminal gangs in Sicily and Naples which later on – with such U.S. support – grew into the famed “Mafia.”

After the Soviet Union collapsed and U.S. leaders declared triumphantly that the Cold War had been won, Americans expected a more peaceful world. Instead, a world with more dangerous regional conflicts has emerged.

Pakistan is at a crossroads, crowded with many pressures and voices. Yet, the optimists among us consider that when presented with history’s choices, Pakistanis (and others) will struggle and do the right things for democracy, peace and security.

Teresa Albano is editor of People's Weekly World.