It is too early to know what effect the earthquake will have on the volatile political conditions inside Pakistan, but it is certain to exacerbate existing trends. Cathy Nugent reports
Before 9/11 Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, had supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, believing it could help Pakistan’s regional interests and be a bulwark against the other major regional power, India.
It was only when the US made it worth their while — with debt relief and a rescheduling of interest payments worth $3 billion — that the Pakistani government dropped the Taliban, joined the “war on terror”, and backed the invasion of Afghanistan.
A limited crackdown on Pakistani jihadist groups (many of them formally sponsored by the state) followed. But in Pakistan the “war on terror” was not accompanied by a return to “normal” bourgeois democratic rule, nor has the US or UK pressed for it.
The US wants the Pakistani government to root out Taliban and al-Queda operatives who had fled from Afghanistan. Musharraf wants to sustain his own rule — a tricky business in Pakistan.
The common Muslim identity of the majority of Pakistanis has never overcome the many structural divisions of the state. Rivalries between the elites of the various regions and competition for access to political power and military position became the source of many conflicts after it’s foundation in 1947.
Balochistan and Sind have pushed for political autonomy. In the 70s rebellion by Baluchistani tribal leaders failed, but not before it claimed 9,000 lives and 80,000 Pakistani army troops had been deployed. In recent years Baluchistan nationalists have resumed a fight.
In 1971 Bangladesh (once East Pakistan) seceded following a bloody civil war, in which the Indian army intervened.
Murder by bomb and other means, between Sunni majority and Shia minority armed groups continues in the Punjab and other areas. Between January 1989 and May 2005 1,784 people were killed and 4,279 injured.
People of minority religions — the Christians, the Asmailis, and Hindus — have been oppressed and attacked by the jihadists.
Urdu-speaking “immigrants” from northern India, the so-called “mohajir” mostly settled in Sind and in Karachi after 1947. They became the majority population and an economically very important group though. They never really achieved political power.
There was a clash between the aspirations of the mohajirs and the nationalism of Sind. By the late 80s Karachi’s poor were divided on sectarian lines, all competing for scarce resources. In December 1986 communal slaughter broke out. The military cracked down on the mohajir political class, which was by this time organised in (sometimes rival) militias.
The chronic inability of the ruling class to mediate Pakistan’s divisions and the massive inequalities of the society have led time and again to political and military repression. For most of Pakistan’s existence it has been a military dictatorship. Parliamentary democracy when it did exist was dominated by parties who failed to meet any of their promises, while being massively, conspicuously wealthy.
It sometimes seemed that only Pakistan’s rivalry with India was holding Pakistan together as a coherent entity. Hostility to India and Pakistani nationalism was fuelled by dispute over the territory of Kashmir. Kashmir, a princely state under British colonial rule, was divided between India and Pakistan after a war at the time of partition.
Successive Pakistani governments have held that Indian-controlled Kashmir — where a majority of Muslims, a large Hindu minority and other smaller religious/ethnic minorities live — should be for Pakistan. India and Pakistan have gone to war four times for this territory.
One result of Musharraf’s backing for the “war on terror” and attempt to normalise Pakistan-Indian relations has been to soften the state’s claim on Kashmir.
Islam was increasingly used by the state as a way to bind together this fractured and impoverished society — a pattern that Musharraf, probably by conviction, as well as circumstance, has had to distance himself from.
The “Islamising” trend from the state was accelerated under General Zia ul Haq, who came to power in a coup in 1977. Under Zia, Pakistan, in collaboration with the US and Saudi Arabia, recruited and trained a “mujahideen” to fight the Soviet colonial power in Afghanistan, giving a huge boost to Islamist forces which after the Afghan war went on to fight in Bosnia, Kashmir and Chechnya. Some of them later signed up to the more extreme al Qaeda-type “global” jihad.
Complex links grew up between the mujahideen, religious groups and institutions along and the state agencies (especially Pakistan’s secret police, the ISI). If Musharraf is serious about tackling the terror groups in Pakistan he would have to dismantle this network. He probably can’t do it.
After the military coup of October 1999 Musharraf promised to return Pakistan to “normal” democratic rule. A new National Assembly was established but Musharraf retained many executive powers, remained the head of the army, and organised for the extension of his rule to 2007. The lack of parliamentary democracy exists alongside legal discrimination against women, arbitrary detention, and much censorship of the media.
Musharraf’s policy against terror is all about doing as little or as much as he thinks necessary to please the US while fending off internal pressure from Islamists and Kashmiri hardliners. He has moved against some terror groups — a total of five Sunni-Shia sectarian groups and a few of the groups operating in Kashmir. The offices of Harakat-ul-Ansar were closed. They regrouped. The Jaish-e-Mohammed and the very violent Lashkar-e-toib were banned. From time to time round-ups and detentions also take place.
But Musharraf remains ambivalent about action against the Kashmiri groups. Many of the smaller groups (of which there are dozens) as well as one of the most longstanding, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, have been left (largely) untouched.
The Army and Security Services (ISI) nurtured many of these groups. It is claimed that elements continue to support them. After an attack on Musharraf’s life in December 2003 the government said that army and air force officers were involved in the conspiracy alongside a terror group.
In the last period the Pakistani military have made incursions (including ariel bombings) into south Waziristan part of the Afghan border areas of the North West Frontier Province, to flush out Taliban and al-Qaeda people in hiding. Local people have been caught in the crossfire. Despite the action in Waziristan former Talibani and Afghan and foreign al-Qaeda people have dispersed into Pakistan, to Karachi in the south and elsewhere.
The mainstream Islamist opposition is grouped in an alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA). It is a potent threat not only to Musharraf but to secular, democratic and labour movement forces in Pakistan.
In the MMA electoral alliance the two main parties are the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami and the Jamaat-e-Islami. JUI is an ultra religious (Deobandi) party. In the North West Frontier Province it has control over a number of large madrassas. It backed the Taliban.
JI is one of the longest establish Islamist parties in the world. Founded by Abul A’la Maududi in 1941, it is a middle class ideological party, within limits more pragmatic. It advocates Islamic revolution, yet it has participated in many elections and political deals which undermine its “revolutionary” credentials.
In repudiating the Taliban and entering the US-sponsored “war on terror” Musharraf was more than anything, explicitly pitting himself against the mainstream Islamist politics.
In 2002 the MMA took over the regional government in the North West Frontier Province. They have instituted sharia law there, and recently the Hasba bill, which will set up a Taliban or Saudi-style moral police force to implement Shariat in the province.
The Pakistani labour movement is weak. The majority of the Pakistani working class lives hand to mouth. With very low wages many people have two or three jobs. They work long hours. Such conditions, even in normal times, are a bar to organising.
The government has banned all trade union activity in public places. In 13 sectors all trade union activity is banned.
In June 2005 Pakistani workers at the state-owed telecoms company came out on strike against privatisation. They forced the government to postpone their plans. But mass arrests of the workers were followed by a failure of nerve on the part of some of the unions involved in the struggle. They settled the dispute and the privatisation went ahead.
All this underlines the point that Pakistan needs democratic and working class answers to its chronic divisions and inequalities.