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Pakistan: faultline of the war on terror

This article is over 14 years, 5 months old
The "war on terror" has devastated Iraq and Afghanistan, and is destabilising a number of other countries. The war has spiralled to create dreadful conflicts in Yemen and Somalia, and intensified tensions across the world. Bu
Issue 2182

Faced with growing anger in Britain at the bloody war in Afghanistan, prime minister Gordon Brown last month chose to put the blame for its failures on Pakistan.

“I believe that after eight years, we should have been able to do more, with all the Pakistani forces working together with the rest of the world,” he said.

“We’ve got to ask ourselves why, eight years after 11 September, nobody has been able to spot or detain or get close to Osama bin Laden, nobody’s been able to get close to Zawahiri, the number two in Al Qaida.”

The speech caused consternation in Pakistan, not least because the question should really be levelled at the Nato countries that have occupied Afghanistan since 2001.

But Pakistan’s rulers were also annoyed as they have signed up to the war, by engaging in a brutal offensive against the people the West regards as “terrorists”.

In October this year, at the behest of Britain and the US, the Pakistani army launched a major offensive in South Waziristan, a mountainous tribal region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.

More than 30,000 troops are fighting fierce battles with groups loosely united under the banner of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – the so-called Pakistani Taliban.

Support for these Islamists has grown as anger at the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the economic crisis, has risen. The Taliban have fought the government, the US and in some cases wealthy landlords.

Army mortars and shells bombard the villages on a daily basis, while US drone bombs fall on unsuspecting civilians and fighters with almost mundane regularity.

Gordon Brown and US president Barack Obama’s demand that Pakistan does more to fight the Taliban supposes that “terror” is the main enemy of the people. It is not. For the vast majority of Pakistanis, the main enemy is hunger.

The country is ranked 144th out of 175 in the United Nations’ human development index. Outside of Africa, only Yemen and Haiti score lower. More than 50 million people, around a third of Pakistan’s population, live in absolute poverty.

And with the refugee crisis now spiralling out of control as a result of the military offensive, things are set to get much worse.

According to the United Nations, more than a quarter of million people have fled the fighting in Waziristan.

They joined the 1.9 million that remain displaced after being forced to desert their homes during the military offensive in the Swat Valley earlier this year.

The government has closed the areas surrounding the conflict in Waziristan to journalists, meaning there are few reports of this human tragedy.

The West’s attempts to use slogans of freedom and democracy to justify the extension of the “war on terror” into Pakistan are looking increasingly hollow.

The government of president Asif Ali Zardari, which bowed to US pressure to order Pakistani forces to bomb their own citizens, is already completely discredited less than two years into its rule.


The country is on the brink of economic collapse and has asked the International Monetary Fund to help it avert a balance of payments crisis.

Food and energy shortages, escalating fuel prices and a sinking currency are hitting the poor.

Millions face the ravages of unemployment. But Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party does not care about the poor. Elite figures are mired in corruption.

Zardari owns property throughout the world, including Britain, where he paid £4.35 million for an estate in 1995.

It is little wonder then that a recent wave of bombings that have targeted government and military institutions have not elicited much public sympathy with the victims.

“The government is in tatters,” says Karachi-based socialist Riaz Ahmed. “It is barricaded in their headquarters. The imposing structures where the government ‘rules’ from are now the prisons of a bygone power.”

Riaz says that the government has responded to the growing sense of crisis by attempting to create a “false polarisation” between itself and the Taliban.

It hopes that repeated terror attacks in the cities will push the people into its arms.

“Whenever the government is attacked in its military or police torture headquarters, the next day a city centre is bombed,” he says. “It seems designed to appear as though the war between the Taliban and the military is in fact a war between the Taliban and the Pakistani people.

“The resulting condemnation of the Taliban then becomes an act of endorsing the US-led wars in Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.”

As part of its campaign to enlist public support for the war against the Taliban, Pakistan’s rulers are increasingly prepared to do deals with militias that have blood on their hands.

Government ministers are known to have obtained weapons for the armed wing of the MQM party that controls Karachi – despite the fact that it uses them for the purposes of ethnic cleansing.

These are same thugs who gunned down the democracy movement that rose against the dictatorship of General Musharraf in 2008.

The supporters of the “war on terror” ignore these actions by their allies.

There are few signs that the military campaign in Waziristan is winning. The population there owes little loyalty to the Pakistani state, having rarely seen any economic or social benefits from being part of it.

Instead, the US and Pakistani barrage of bombs is likely to drive the fiercely independent tribal people into the arms of the very Taliban fighters that the West wants targeted.

Ordinary Pakistani soldiers, who almost universally come from poor peasant backgrounds, are unlikely to be happy about being ordered to kill other poor Pakistani peasants.

The growing worries are causing divisions in the Pakistani ruling class. Some sections of the army are dismayed at the assault on “Islamic fighters” who have proved so useful to the military regimes that have run Pakistan for most of its 62-year history.

They envisage a situation where the tribes that played a central role in the Mujahadeen struggle against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s could again have their uses – especially if Nato were to be defeated on the other side of the border.

The combination of the extension of the “war on terror” into Pakistan with the growing economic crisis is fuelling tensions – including demands for secession by oppressed nations that never accepted their forced incorporation into Pakistan in 1947.

If the military campaign in Waziristan went badly, there are some who predict that the whole country could begin to crack.

Were this to happen, the West would have to accept the lion’s share of responsibility.

In its bid to shore up the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, a country of 30 million, it will have brought an all-out civil war to a country of some 175 million.

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