The war in Afghanistan is spiralling so dangerously out of control that it now threatens to engulf Pakistan, in a process that is being actively encouraged by Nato.
US and British commanders talk openly about the “Pakistani Taliban” moving from regions that border Afghanistan to threaten a takeover of Peshawar, the regional capital.
The US is petrified that this could close its supply line running from the Pakistani port of Karachi through the Khyber Pass to the battlefields of Afghanistan.
There has been sporadic fighting in and around Peshawar for several weeks now, and convoys of US military supplies have already been targeted.
In response to the threat the US is demanding that Pakistan breaks off peace talks with rebels in the area and restarts military action.
Where this strategy has been tried in the past, local tribes have swelled the ranks of those who are prepared to take up arms against Nato and the Pakistani state.
In 2006, at the behest of the US, Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf sent 120,000 troops to the border area in an effort to quell militancy.
In recent weeks the military has again been engaged in fierce fighting in the Khyber area.
Talk of the loss of the entire North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area that border Afghanistan has encouraged a segment of the country’s liberal elite to urge the government to reattach itself to the “war on terror”.
Writing in the English language Dawn newspaper Pervez Hoodbhoy – a supporter of the US – said, “Taliban victory would transport us into the darkest of dark ages. These fanatics dream of transforming the country into a religious state where they will be the law. Pakistan must find the will to fight the Taliban.”
But many on the left in Pakistan are deeply suspicious of the way the “Taliban threat” is being used. Das Naeemi from the International Socialists in Karachi says the government is attempting to rebrand its efforts to curtail militancy as a “people’s war on terror”.
He says, “They are linking the fighting in the tribal areas to that in the plains of Swat (a region in the north of the country) and to sporadic campaigns in the cities. They are saying that unless we halt the advance of the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ with military action in the city of Peshawar, then the whole state is in danger.
“However, the real problem is that years of neoliberal and pro-war policies have devastated these areas, and in the eyes of many the state no longer has legitimacy.”
Naeemi argues that there are myriad different groups engaged in a battle with the state.
What unites them is revulsion at the way the US and Pakistani military have bombarded the areas.
“Musharraf’s plea for ‘moderate enlightenment’ means nothing to people whose children don’t even have access to basic schooling,” says Naeemi.
The rise of the Taliban is based on its opposition to both the war and the landlords that exploit among the rural poor.
In the cities, their support is concentrated in the mass of petty traders who are suffering from huge hikes in the cost of food and fuel.
The Pakistani ruling class is clearly attempting to manipulate growing fears about this for its own ends.
However this elite is deeply split on the question of the “war on terror”. In the 1980s it backed the Islamic fighters that resisted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the hope of bringing a friendly force to power in the country.
When the Taliban took control of the country in 1996 the Pakistani state under Musharraf was one of its most fervent backers.
In the wake of the “war on terror” the ruling classes split between those who saw the country’s future as being closely linked to the US and those who harboured a more independent vision.
Many are worried that military action against Islamic militants could eventually lead to a civil war in Pakistan.
The result is that the new government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is trying to please its US backers by vowing to “root out extremism”, while at the same time suggesting Pakistan has become a “petri-dish of extremism” because the West has used it to achieve short-term objectives.
Such division has helped to paralyse the government in the four months since its election, leading to speculation as to who it is that really runs the country – the PPP, president Musharraf or George Bush.