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Pakistan on the edge of turmoil

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Pakistan is facing growing instability as a result of its role in the US-led "war on terror". Chris Harman looks at the dilemmas facing its rulers and the background to current events
Issue 2070

Regardless of the outcome of presidential elections planned for 6 October, massive changes of one sort or another seem inevitable in Pakistan.

The dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup in 1999, is in such deep trouble that he has been forced into talks with his sworn enemy Benazir Bhutto, one of two former prime ministers who went into “self-imposed” exile as he took office.

Many commentators expect Musharraf and Bhutto to come to an arrangement that will see all corruption charges against her dropped, and the constitution amended to allow her to return as prime minister. Musharraf would remain as president.

A second former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif who was overthrown in Musharraf’s coup, saw his own attempt at a triumphant return turn to dust.

Musharraf’s reluctant compromise with Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) follows a swell of opposition to him from two different directions in recent months.

On the one hand much of the middle class are up in arms over his unsuccessful attempt to remove the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from office.

On the other hand there is growing pressure from the right wing Islamist parties, who are angry at Musharraf’s steadfast commitment to George Bush’s “war on terror”.

There is an increase in military assaults on pro-Taliban towns and villages in Pakistan, particularly in the country’s Waziristan region, which borders Afghanistan.

A changed attitude towards the regime among the middle class is of huge concern to both the general and his backers in the US.

In 1999 Musharraf had found it easy to seize power because of massive popular disenchantment with both Sharif and Bhutto.

The administrations of both Bhutto and Sharif had been notoriously corrupt – and each had been prepared to do deals with virtually any sectarian political, religious or ethnic organisation in order to hang on to power.


As a result most of the middle class positively welcomed the coup. The Islamist parties also welcomed Musharraf, seizing the opportunity to take advantage of the vacuum created by the departure of the other political leaders.

But the corruption of the previous governments was not driven solely by the greed of those who led them. Rather it followed from deep-seated fissures in Pakistani society. It is these which have re-emerged to plague Musharraf.

Pakistan was founded 60 years ago with the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

The new state was based on the notion that there existed a “Muslim nation”. But in fact it was made up from six different linguistic groups, each with different traditions and customs.

Those most enthusiastic about the new state were the “Muhajirs” – who had arrived as immigrants from the parts of the Punjab that were designated Indian territory at the time of partition.

Over time the Muhajirs came to dominate the state machine, thereby causing widespread resentment.

Meanwhile, there were recurrent separatist pressures among other ethnic groups – the Baluchis in the south west had to be coerced into joining the state in the first place.

Many in the North West Frontier Province hankered after an independent state for Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan alike.

And the Bengalis in East Pakistan, separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory, did break away in 1971 to form what is today Bangladesh. 

These ethnic tensions might have subsided if the mass of people had, in the decades following the creation of Pakistan, seen any significant improvement in their lives. But they did not.

The old landowning classes continued to enjoy near feudal powers in much of the countryside.

A new class of industrialists began to grow up alongside them as the country experienced often quite fast paced economic growth that rested on the increasing impoverishment of the majority of the population.

There was brief hope in the early 1970s that something would be done to mend this state of affairs.

An offspring of one of the feudal families, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir), won a great electoral victory as he spoke of socialism and nationalisation of some major industries.

But he soon turned against his working class and peasant supporters, until one of his generals, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, felt powerful enough to first overthrow and then hang him.

Nawaz Sharif’s political career took off under the Zia dictatorship, serving as the military’s provincial prime minister in the Punjab.

From this time on the only way successive rulers could hold the country’s disparate groups together was to play each off against the other – one ethnic group against another, one interpretation of Islam against another, the more religiously minded against the more secular.

In such battles one section of the lower middle class mobilised politically to battle against others for positions in the state machine – struggles which often spilled over into bloody ethnic or religious violence.

Life threatening

For millions of ordinary Pakistanis the sporadic fighting was life threatening. But the rich found that there was little disturbance to their capacity to accumulate wealth.

So it continued under General Zia and, after his death in a plane crash in 1988, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who were prime ministers in turn. They all endorsed the use of Pakistan as a base in the US’s efforts to subvert the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Bhutto and Sharif alike sponsored the Taliban in the 1990s in the hope of getting a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan – thus placating Pakistan’s Pashtun minority and opening up trade routes through the country to Central Asia.

They both created nationalist furore over the disputed territory of Kashmir, obtaining Islamist volunteers to fight against India.

Meanwhile Pakistan’s big cities, especially Karachi, were increasingly awash with weapons. They were periodically brought to a halt by violence between rival ethnic or religious groupings.

Musharraf’s rule has developed along similar lines, but with one very big added complication.

The 2001 US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan forced him to turn against former allies among the Pashtuns, thus destabilising his carefully constructed political alliance.

Increasingly Musharraf has had to perform a precarious balancing act in order to hold on to power.

He has used Islamist parties sympathetic to the Taliban to keep the supporters of Bhutto and Sharif’s parties in check, while presenting himself to the US as the only person able to take on Taliban supporters in Pakistan.

In the last year this act has come unstuck. Nato’s continuing war in Afghanistan is seen by many Pashtuns as a war against them – especially when the US demands that the Pakistan army wages the war on its side of the border.

As a result the Islamist parties feel compelled to agitate against Musharraf, even though, with less than 20 percent of the vote, they fear that if the military government collapses they will lose out to Bhutto and Sharif.

The discovery of large reserves of gas in Baluchistan has caused many of its people, who did not want to be in Pakistan in the first place, to begin to struggle again for their independence, in what is now a serious uprising.

There is also increasing resentment among the middle classes at the way military officers indulge in the same forms of corruption as the old political elite – a resentment given expression by the recent movement in defence of chief justice Chaudhry.

Continuing pressure from the US on Pakistan to keep the peace with India, its new ally, makes it difficult for Musharraf to try to stampede the population into a feeling of national unity through the old tried and tested tactic of a war scare over Kashmir.

This is the background against which Musharraf began unleashing violence of his own.

He allowed his allies in one of Karachi’s armed ethnic groups, the MQM, to attack people demonstrating in support of the chief justice, killing scores, while the army was preparing an onslaught against Islamists occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Such resorts to violence were not, however, a sign of strength but of weakness – hence his attempt to do a deal with Bhutto.

This deal, though warmly welcomed by the US as it allows for a greater democratic veneer for the “war on terror”, is thought by many commentators as likely to further discredit them both.

Bhutto is regarded as having sold out the movement for democracy in Pakistan in order to grab a small hold on power. Musharraf’s clumsy attempts to make an alliance with a sworn enemy is clearly the product of desperation.

The only card Musharraf has left to play is the fear among some in the middle class – and many in the White House – of what will happen to Pakistan if he falls.

Any weakening of military domination, it is claimed, could lead to an explosive disintegration of the country, in which the right wing Islamists could be the main beneficiaries. 

But any weakening of military rule would also remove one of the obstacles preventing action by those forces capable of providing a very different sort of alternative to the country. 

A recent opinion poll suggested that 75 percent of the population believe that the Musharraf government has increased poverty.

The vast majority of those questioned said that they want to see a reduction in military spending, continuation of the policy of peace with India, and an end to privatisation.

This represents an approach that is radically different not only to that of the military, but also to that of Bhutto, Sharif and the right wing Islamist parties.

The key question is whether a popular movement emerges out of the present political crisis which takes up such questions.

Karachi has a large working class with some powerful traditions of struggle.

One function of military rule has been to prevent any re-emergence of that tradition, with the military in control of Karachi’s docks, the country’s main trading hub with the rest of the world, and of the rail links to the northern cities.

It was the great crisis of military rule in 1971, after the separation of Bangladesh, which precipitated the last great wave of struggle and provided the one moment of real hope for the mass of Pakistan’s people since the state was formed.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the fall of Musharraf would have such an effect.

What can be said, however, is that if he clings on to power, with or without the assistance of Bhutto, none of the problems facing Pakistan’s oppressed nationalities, workers and peasants will be solved.

And if that is so, there will continue to be a political space for the right wing Islamist parties to try and occupy.

Chris Harman is the editor of the International Socialism journal. Go to »

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