Who boosted the Taliban?

Submitted by martin on 27 March, 2009 - 11:25 Author: Faryal Velmi

The Taliban’s take-over of the scenic Swat valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province is a damning indictment of over six decades of military and “civilian” bourgeois rule in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s “revolving door” of government, with military dictators and corrupt politicians taking turns at creaming off central resources and accumulating wealth, has left a vast proportion of the country mired in poverty, illiteracy and without access to basic amenities like sanitation, clean water and electricity.

Where the state has abjectly failed, various shades of Islamist fundamentalists like the Taliban have stepped in. They not only offer an alternative madrassa (religious) schooling system in every corner of the country, but — as Swaa valley has shown — an alternative ‘government’ as well.

But how as Pakistan arrived at this precipice? Tracing back through the nation’s history offers some answers to what has caused its current predicament.


On August 14 1947, the British “Raj” was brought to an end throughout the Indian sub continent — creating an independent India and a new country, Pakistan. Formed out of West Pakistan (modern day Pakistan) and East Bengal (known as East Pakistan and now Bangladesh), the country’s birth was traumatic.

In the biggest migration the world has ever seen, millions of Hindus and Sikhs crossed from Pakistan into India — while millions of Muslims travelled the other way. At points where the travellers met, many thousands of people were killed in sectarian and ethnic violence.

Although a very small minority of Hindus and Sikhs stayed behind in Pakistan, a much larger Muslim population remained in India. (There are now around 200 million Muslims in India — out of a population of 1 billion — matching the entire population of Pakistan).

Pakistan’s “founding father” and first Govenor General was Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Pakistan only became a republic in 1956). With his monocle and three-piece suit, Quaid-E-Azam, (the Great Leader), was every bit a man of the Raj — his wheeling, dealing and lobbying within the British Empire and support for Britain in World War Two paid off, with the imperialists acceding to the creation of Pakistan. Although the new country was created on purely religious grounds — as a Muslim nation — Jinnah had secular aspirations for Pakistan.

He talked about a common pluralistic Pakistani national identity uniting Hindus and Muslims — as well as the various diverse ethnic populations of Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baluchis, Bengalis and the Mujahirs or Urdu-speaking refugees from India.

First military rule

In 1958, a decade after Jinnah’s death General Ayub Khan took over, imposed martial law, banned all trade unions and political parties and cracked down on all liberal newspapers and magazines. Rigged elections and suppression of any dissent kept Ayub in power; and it took 10 years for opposition against Pakistan’s first dictator to ferment.

When opposition finally burst through it was as explosive as the demonstrations that were happening in Europe at the time. Students and workers took to the street against Ayub and were met with gunfire from the police and military. In East Pakistan, separated from West Pakistan by thousands of miles of hostile Indian Territory, a nationalist movement that wanted independence from Pakistan burned at the heart of the protests.

Eventually this popular uprising in both east and west was too much for Ayub, and he ceded power to another general, Yaya Khan.

Trying to tap into this climate of dissent, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was formed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — a Sindhi from a wealthy landowning family. The Party’s popular slogan of “bread, clothes and shelter” got them much support from both the urban poor and the peasantry. But it was the Pakistani army’s brutal invasion of East Pakistan in 1971, and its subsequent defeat that routed the generals.

East Pakistan became Bangladesh and in what remained of Pakistan a new era of democratic civilian rule opened. But the political agenda of the PPP that had made them so popular was never realised. Although Bhutto had nationalised many of the nation’s banks and industry, little of the money found its way into the country’s beleaguered health or education systems. Bhutto never delivered on his rhetoric.

Instead he turned his attention into developing Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities — as regional enemy India conducted its first nuclear test in 1977.

Behind the scenes the military elite was re-grouping and General Zia-Ul-Haq was positioning himself to topple the PPP government. In Tariq Ali’s insightful book, The Duel – Pakistan on the flight path of American power, he details how every single military dictator in Pakistan has been aided and abetted by the US. The coup of 1977 was no different. Zia — trained in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas — was considered much more reliable by the US. He seized power and declared martial law in 1977. Two years later, Bhutto was hanged on trumped up conspiracy-to-murder charges.

In true feudal style, the PPP leadership was handed down to his children, and his young daughter Benazir later emerged as heir apparent.


General Zia ruled until 1988. He was both a tyrant and a rabid Islamist ideologue; his “Islamisation’ programme saw the introduction of many oppressive laws and ordinances and a paralled sharia court system. The ranks of Islamist organisations like Jamaat-I-Islami swelled due to official government patronage.

But as Soviet tanks rolled across the border of neighbouring Afghanistan in 1979, the tyrant became an even more vital ally of the “free world” who would side with the US and put Pakistan on the front line of the Cold War. Zia relished this role, his shrewd instinct for self preservation cloaked in a burkha of shrill Islamist rhetoric.

With endless millions of dollars flowing from Washington, Zia directed the Pakistan’s secret service the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to create a “jihad” — recruiting, funding and training a guerrilla Afghani resistance, the more extremist the better — to fight the “infidel” USSR army. And Osama Bin Laden surfed into Afghanistan on a wave of Saudi petrodollars to add a bit of oppositional Wahabism to the mix. With a CIA handbook in one hand and AK47 in the other, he joined forces with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and set about building up the “Base” or Al-Qaeda network. Both the CIA and ISI had roles in the creation of the Afghan-based jihadi networks which would have earth shaking ramifications both in Afghanistan and on their own home soil.

After a bloody conflict that left tens of thousands dead and Afghanistan’s towns bombed to destruction by the USSR, the USSR withdrew. But Zia’s time was also up. In 1988 he, along with the US ambassador, was blown up in a mid-air explosion. Everyone from Rajiv Ghandhi to PPP supporters was blamed, but the truth has never been discovered.

Benazir Bhutto had already returned to Pakistan from exile, a short while before Zia’s death, to be greeted by a million people with great expectations that she would resurrect her father’s perceived radical political agenda. After a hastily arranged marriage to Asif Ali-Zardari, Bhutto was elected in 1989. That a 35-year-old woman could win the popular vote after the reactionary Zia years is a fine testament to the political grit of the working class and peasantry of Pakistan. But her victory unfortunately remained merely symbolic.

Benazir ruled unashamedly for her class, with nepotism and wide scale corruption reaching stomach-turning heights. Zia’s reactionary laws were left intact; illiteracy, poverty and infant mortality remained staggeringly high. Sectarian violence between the Sindhi-dominated PPP and the Mujjahir Quami Movement (MQM) spilled out onto the streets of Sindh, especially in Karachi.

The MQM had been set up by Altaf Hussein in 1984 to represent the interests of Urdu-speaking Mujjahirs and their families who had travelled from India after partition. Protesting against prejudice and discrimination that Mujjahirs faced, the MQM set up a power base of working-class and middle-class supporters. Emergency “shutter down” strikes and protests called by the MQM against the PPP government were capable of bringing the country’s financial capital Karachi to a standstill.

Benazir was ousted from power in 1990.

Family dynasties

With BB (as she was known) gone, Nawaz Sharif, a Zia protégé, was elected as Prime Minister, with his Muslim League party winning the elections. The rest of the decade would play out much the same, with a revolving door at the gates of Prime Minister House being shared by the two family dynasties — Bhutto and Sharif.

Sharif, from a wealthy industrialist family, made benevolent gestures to the country, particularly to his native Punjab — but like the PPP government before him, he only excelled in lining his own pockets.

Sharif was ousted on corruption charges in 1993. It was BB’s turn again. Voted in by an indifferent electorate who felt there were no alternatives, second time round the corruption and looting reached un-paralleled heights. BB’s polo playing husband Asif Ali Zardari appointed himself as a freelance investment minister, roaming the globe and striking up deals and contracts with multinational companies on behalf of the Pakistani government. He became known as Mr 10%, after the cut he took for himself out of these multimillion-dollar deals. Some estimates suggest that the couple amassed over $1.5 billion during their time in power, with a vast amount of that being transferred to foreign bank accounts.

Another, less well-known but all together more odious, legacy left behind by BB at this time is her government’s funding and arming of the Taliban. “Taliban” means “students” in Pashtun. These were the children of Afghani refugees who populated the madrassas and refugee camps in the country — especially North West Frontier Province. The Pakistani Pashtuns have always had a close affinity with their Afghani Pashtun neighbours, with a cultural and ethnic link that transcends the porous border of the two countries. As these Afghani refugees were sent back to their war-ravaged country, many were armed and encouraged to join the ranks of the jihadists who had gone decidedly “off message” after the defeat of the USSR.


The Taliban had turned on the West. Led by Mullah Omar and Bin Laden they took control of the vast swathes of the country including Kabul, and dragged the country and its inhabitants into the dark ages. BB’s patronage of the Taliban were a crucial factor in the initial successes of the Taliban. BB wanted to have a regime in the politically volatile country that she could have some control or influence over.

But the Taliban and Al-Qaeda network had other plans. As they grew in power they turned vehemently against Pakistan’s rulers.

Bhutto didn’t stick around to see things through. She was deposed of again in 1996 on corruption charges — with the excesses of her unpopular husband Asif being largely blamed for her demise.

Fast forward 13 years, and in an ironic twist of fate this husband is now President of Pakistan. The PPP was elected in February 2008 after Bhutto’s assassination. However the fact that Zardari became president has not been easy to swallow for those who still remember his greed and excesses.

Deeply unpopular, he is slowly loosing all grip on the country. Rocked by the lawyers’ democracy movement, which forced Zardari to reinstate the country’s sacked Chief Justice, and by a rocky relationship with political enemy Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s latest “civilian” government looking very shakey indeed.

General Musharraf may be living out a comfortable retirement funded courtesy of the nation’s coffers — but the army has by no means left the political arena. In Solidarity 3/146 part one of this article documented the Musharraf years. His “key ally” status in the “war on terror” and compliance in drone attacks across the northern semi-autonomous area of Pakistan has pushed thousands of people under the “protection” of the Taliban. With the complete failure of his time in government to alleviate the social and economic hardships of the populace, it’s increasingly the Taliban who are seen as the only alternative.

Meanwhile, the PPP government has allowed the Taliban to introduce sharia law in Swat – claiming that this is necessary in order to hold the line against the Taliban!

The poisonous legacy of decades of military and corrupt bourgeois rule is behind the black and white flag of the Taliban being hoisted over Pakistani territory in 2009.

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