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Pakistan: Swat Valley nightmare — Government and military fail Pakistani workers and poor

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On 22 June 2009, the Pakistani government announced that it would carry out military action against Pakistani Taliban militants in the Swat district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), primarily aimed at defeating the Maulana Fazlullah’s TNSM (Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi) who are in coalition with Baitullah Mehsud’s TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan).

This announcement came only one month after the government’s peace agreement with leaders of these forces. The government’s acceptance of Sharia law in this region, under the terms of the agreement, was very unpopular among the local population and also among western imperialist governments, who feared that the Swat district could become fertile ground for the Taliban to grow. However, the Pakistani government’s present military campaign, funded by those same western governments, has shown total disregard for the people who were already suffering at the hands of the militants. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were forced to flee the area and within a month, over two million people had fled in the biggest displacement of people since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The military ordered civilians to leave the area. However, they did not allow any time or make any provision for the evacuation. Thousands of people were trapped between the militants and the military. Over 13,000 people are believed to have been killed, by one side or the other. Those trapped in the militant-controlled areas were indiscriminately bombed. Over 30,000 houses have been destroyed. The Red Cross (IRC) compared the conditions to those during the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The only assistance for those who fled to the neighbouring district of Mardan and Swabi came from the ordinary people of that region. The tent camps that were set up by the military and the NGOs could not even provide for 20% of the displaced people. A large number of refugees were crammed into small areas with no facilities. The very limited food and water supplies and the lack of proper sanitation resulted in a children dying in the camps. The majority of the internally displaced people (IDPs) relied on the hospitality of the locals for food. Neither the Pakistani military nor the government has paid attention to the major humanitarian crisis that they have created. Instead, they have set up a small number of select camps, named ‘VIP camps’ by the locals, with reasonable facilities, which can be exhibited to the international visitors from humanitarian agencies in order to secure aid.

With no medical facilities nearby and with the ever-present threat of death by starvation and disease, the IDPs have now been forced to return to the unimaginably dangerous and worsening conditions in the Swat Valley.

In June this year, the Pakistan government claimed it had full control of the Swat Valley. However, the horror is far from over. People are worried that the majority of militant fighters who fled the area will return once the civil authorities resume control from the military. The US and Pakistani governments’ claim that Baitullah Mehsud has been killed, along with other leading TTP members, has made little or no difference to the people.

The Pakistani military has never been able to fully control the region. Since its merger with Pakistan in 1969, confusion and chaos have spread, creating instability. The introduction of Pakistani civil laws, with complete disregard for existing Islamic traditions, coupled with a lack of investment in education and infrastructure, has created long-standing anti-government sentiments among the poor population. Instead of government institutions, it is the tribal leaders and land-owners who have exerted huge control over how life is run in the area. The introduction of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) Regulations in 1975 caused more confusion for people, as they came under a number of different systems of rule and each claimed authority over them.

The corruption and political instability of Pakistan’s ruling elite actually strengthened the hold of right wing reactionary clerics who wanted to establish Sharia law. With their help, militancy has grown and spread through the region. In 1992, TNSM, a militant group founded by Sufi Mohammad after he left the right-wing militant group, Jamaat-e-Islami, emerged out of the discontent with the corrupted Pakistani ruling regime. He renounced the electoral system and demanded that Sharia law be implemented in response to public anger at the ruling government. He capitalised on opposition to the corrupt political system to enhance his support among traders and some tribal leaders. In 1994, when the Supreme Court declared that the PATA regulations were unconstitutional, the TNSM’s hold on the rural poor grew stronger. It was the lack of mass support for the corrupt regime throughout Pakistan that lay behind the military coup in 1999, which led to General Pervez Musharraf becoming president in 2001.

The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 paved the way for an increase in support for Islamic militants. They declared a Jihad and many militants were sent to Afghanistan to fight against the US forces. Under massive pressure from the US, and desperate to win the support of the west for his military control of Pakistan, Musharraf introduced a new local government system. But it failed to address the concerns of the poor masses about corruption and the lack of resources.

While anti-US feeling was at an all time high in Swat, Musharraf was busy bending over backwards to make deals with the US. Out of this chaos emerged Muttahiddah Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), a group that helped to found the Afghanistan Taliban regime and won the 2002 election in North West Frontier Province (and in Baluchistan). The years that followed were years of poverty, of lack of investment and of attacks on democratic rights. Pakistan Taliban groups emerged under the MMA control. By 2003, the Swat Valley had already seen a major increase in attacks and the killings of civilians. By 2006, the majority of the region had fallen into the hands of the militants, despite the large presence of the military protecting the so-called ‘parallel government’ of Musharraf. The Musharraf regime’s attempt to regain control with a major military campaign using paramilitary forces had disastrous consequences. What amounted to tribal warfare broke out and new armed groups emerged, assisted by the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Extremist militants gained control of the majority of the territory in 2008 and began to implement strict Sharia law.

Military operations
The recent military operation may have pushed the militants back and did reduce terrorist attacks around the country, but extremists still enjoy support among a significant layer. The Pakistani government’s portrayal of the Taliban who fight in Afghanistan as the ‘good Taliban’ who fight for liberation, and the Taliban who fight inside Pakistan as ‘bad Taliban’, has not had any effect on the masses, the majority of whom oppose the US presence. The area has come under constant CIA missile attack in recent months.

Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced that: “Pakistan is at the centre of our strategic concerns”, when outlining the Obama administration’s strategy for military operations in Afghanistan. In his column in the Washington Post, he described Pakistan as the most dangerous nation in the world. The Obama administration sees Pakistan as key to their operation in Afghanistan. ‘Situation Afpak’, as they call it, is reported to be the most urgent foreign policy issue facing Obama. They are openly funding the military operation in Swat and Malakand alongside their own missile attacks. Despite the heavy presence of the CIA in the region, they do not have control over the situation and they are struggling to control the current government, which they do not trust completely.

The Wall Street Journal reports that: “Many observers, including in American intelligence, think the Pakistani military and the ISI play a double game. They make the necessary pledges to secure billions in American aid while keeping ties to Islamists. The calculation, a Pakistani analyst notes, is that America will leave sooner or later and that the military needs to hedge its strategic bets”. That the same suspicion is echoed in the Pakistani press reveals the degree of mistrust felt by both the local and the international bourgeoisie, for the current corrupt Pakistani government. The People’s Party (PPP) president, Asif Ali Zadari, is notorious for his corruption during the time his wife, Banazir Bhutto, ran the government (before she was assassinated). He was called ‘Mr Ten Percent’ then as he took a ten percent cut from all government deals. He is now called ‘Mr Fifty Percent’!

None of the foreign aid passing through the current government will reach the people in full. Zadari is undoubtedly extracting aid from the west with promises of ‘protecting the nuclear weapons’ and ‘fighting terrorism’. The same Wall Street Journal quoted Zadari as saying: “If I can’t pay my own oil bill, how am I going to increase my police?…The oil companies are asking me to pay $135 [per barrel] of oil and at the same time they want me to keep the world peaceful and Pakistan peaceful”.

The US and other imperialist governments, however, do not care about the rotten, corrupt nature of the ruling elite or the suffering of the masses as long as their own interests are protected. They did not have a problem establishing a friendly relationship with Musharraf during his military dictatorship that continued to ruin the country. Bush Jnr. praised Musharraf’s ‘great courage and vision’ and called him a great friend. Some American scholars came to describe their intimate relationship as the ‘Bush-Mush relationship’. It shows the limits of the US regime and their false concern for human rights and genuine democracy.

The US policy of war and terror has left no doubt in the minds of the Pakistani masses that they will not gain anything through cooperation with these forces. Any government which is seen as a ‘great friend’ of western imperialism will never win the support of the workers and poor in Pakistan. But time and time again we see that all the military and civilian regimes in Pakistan have taken the side of US and western imperialism and implemented neo-liberal policies in order to loot the aid money made available for them. Corrupt regimes have always sold out to the highest bidder.

Because of its location and divided identity, Pakistan provides fertile ground for imperialist powers to establish a base for acting in their national interests. During the cold war Pakistan was seen by the US as strategically important in challenging the USSR. Now the target is the Chinese regime.

Recently Pakistan has seen a massive increase in Chinese investment. Over three dozen Chinese companies operate in Pakistan in the oil and gas sector. The importance of the ‘Iran-India-Pakistan’ gas pipeline underlies the external pressure. The Chinese ruling elite is very keen on creating the ‘Pakistan-China Friendly Highway’. China also fears that western imperialist interests may leak through Pakistan to the predominantly Muslim border regions of China.

China’s fears
A paper produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) of China, a think-tank of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), recently warned India and Pakistan of the consequences if they decided to do the US’s dirty work. The IISS is an official policy feeder to the Chinese government, and this particular paper (6 July 2008) has been submitted as ’Reference Material’ to the government and military policy makers.

The IISS paper appears to view the US as dangerously poised in Pakistan using terrorism to threaten China’s security through destroying the territorial integrity of Pakistan and India. It presents several scenarios. One is of differences being engineered between different ethnic groups in Pakistan, fragmenting the country with Punjab, Sindhis, Pashtoons and the Baloch drawing their own national borders. The US could also use transnational ethnic groups, exploit their differences, weaken the outlying areas and control the Arabian Sea. If Kashmir was added to the US’s ethnic population strategy, the situation would be much more complex, the report says.

Pakistan’s economic policy-making recently ‘fell’ into the hands of the IMF when it bailed out Pakistan from bankruptcy last year to the tune of a promised $7.6 billion a year. The Pakistani economy has been hit hard by the global recession. The Pakistani rupee has lost more than 21% of its value so far this year and inflation now runs at 25%. The rise in world prices drove up Pakistan’s food and oil bill which increased by one third since 2007. With high defence expenditure, of over 25% of GDP, and ever-growing corruption there is very little money available for investment in the service sector or in education.

Despite the economic difficulties defence expenses are expected to increase by over 15%. The US is also said to be spending half a billion dollars per year on counterinsurgency through the Pakistani military. The Obama administration has repeated again and again that they will make large sums of money available for the Pakistani government to fight terrorism. On a national level, only the ruling class’s interests have been safeguarded from the new foreign policy makers. But there is no emergency funding for humanitarian crises. In fact, the existing fund has been reduced!

The poor masses and workers have already began to pay for the IMF bailout of the ruling elite. The Pakistani government has increased fuel charges on the instruction of the IMF. Food prices are expected to go up, as a series of cuts in public services is also implemented. The ruling PPP-led coalition has done nothing so far to address the problems faced by the poor and workers.

The big wave of sympathy that was created after the murder of Benazir Bhutto is now gone. Her husband is in power with her 21 year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zadari, as chairman of the People’s Party. He lives up to his reputation as the most corrupt politician in the country. There is a daily report of corruption scandals in the newspapers.

‘Elected’ government fails working people
The transition from the military dictatorship of Musharraf to the ‘elected’ Zadari regime has made no difference to the lives of ordinary people. All the Musharraf policies are still in place. Not only has Zadari continued with the privatisation policies, but he has also stepped up attacks on working people’s living conditions.

One of the major crises in the country is the energy crisis. Fuel prices are going out of control and there is no constant electricity supply in the majority of the rural parts of Pakistan. Across Pakistan, including in the cities, electricity cuts have caused massive anger against the government. All sections of the masses, including the bosses, have expressed anger on this issue. Workers in manufacturing and in the service sector are all protesting against the energy crisis. No section of society supports the government policy on this.

It is very clear to people that the current PPP is not the same PPP that saw through some partial reforms in the 1970s. It has now been transformed into a real bourgeois party. Because of its unpopularity, the party itself is in disarray with confusion and rivalries among the leaders. Many believe that this is the last stand of the PPP as a leading political force in the country. Its one advantage is that it is faced with no real opposition in terms of genuine representation of the poor and the working masses.

Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)) is playing a wait-and-see game, with one eye on the next election in three year’s time. The PML(N) has provided no real opposition to the PPP. A recent feud between Sharif and Zadari over the reinstatement of a Supreme Court judge was described even by Richard Holbrooke as having the potential to result in “civil war on the one hand or assassinations on the other”. This is just one example of the instability of the ruling elite and the political vacuum that exists.

Islamic extremism cannot fill this political vacuum at this moment. The Taliban is increasingly loosing support with over 78% of the population against them. This is due to the increase in terrorist attacks in recent years by 50-60% throughout Pakistan, including in the Pakistani side of Kashmir – the first of its kind.

The horrific killings carried out by the militants during the Sharia rule in the Swat Valley are enormously unpopular. Systematic murders were carried out in the villages and several schools were burned down for allowing women to study. One place where they carried out many brutal murders is referred to by the locals as the ‘bloody square’.

All this led to significant support for the military operation against the Taliban in that region. However support for the PPP government is also lower than ever.

It is quite unlikely that this huge political vacuum will give way to the establishment of military rule, as the army is already seen as part of the current government. However, the imminent threat of a military takeover is ever present; Pakistan’s history boasts four military coups since independence.

Such enormous and widespread discontent has, however, created major illusions in the judiciary. An overwhelming majority of people look towards the Supreme Court with new hopes as it has taken popular anti-establishment decisions. In July of this year the Pakistan Supreme Court passed a decision that Musharraf’s emergency martial law, passed in November 2007, was unconstitutional.

It was the courageous lawyers’ movement that got rid of Musharraf’s military rule. In March of this year the call by the lawyers’ movement for a ‘long march’ and a sit-in in Islamabad forced the current government’s unconditional restoration of the judiciary. The desire of workers and poor people to establish genuine democracy, in the absence of a truly democratic party of their own, is what creates the illusions in the judiciary.

Workers show incredible courage
Despite these difficult conditions, the workers and poor are leading a heroic fightback against the rotten ruling class in Pakistan. Workers, particularly in the telecom sector, have shown incredible courage and have taken formidable strike actions. The on-going strike of the textile workers has intensified recently, spreading across the country. The government has been forced to appoint a committee to negotiate a settlement.

However, there is a widespread fear that there will be a large number of closures of textile factories due to the decline in the economic conditions. Obama is to put a bill before Congress enabling Pakistani clothing manufacturers in the north-west of the country to export their products duty-free to the US. This is fiercely opposed by US manufacturers. American retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Levi Strauss, and other brand owners, together with other Pakistani manufacturers, are said to be in a furious row with US manufacturers who claim to protect ‘American workers’ jobs’. As these companies compete the losers will be the workers in both countries, faced with attacks on their wages.

The struggle against non-payment of wages, particularly in the textile sector but also among teachers and other sectors, is spreading. But these actions are taking place in isolation. The lack of an alternative political force or a mass workers’ party to defend the rights of the poor masses is holding back the struggle to change society into one that can benefit everyone. Trade union rights are under huge attack. The lack of proper trade union leadership means that there is still no class struggle organised on a national level. But a new wave of unionisation is sweeping the country. Unorganised workers, particularly in the private sector, are taking the initiative to organise themselves against the government’s neoliberal policies.

Building a strong and independent trade union that will stand up for workers’ rights, and that will take their fight forward, is crucial. Pakistan has a tremendous history of workers’ struggle. That tradition must be rebuilt. For that reason workers, who have led successful struggles, including in the telecom strike, and others who have been fighting for trade union and workers’ rights, have created a Trade Union Rights Campaign-Pakistan (TURC-P). Members of the Socialist Movement Pakistan (the CWI section in Pakistan) are instrumental in creating and building this campaign and organising a fightback of workers and poor against the parasitic forces of the ruling elites in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a good example of why capitalism is totally incapable of establishing genuine democracy, solving the national question or seeing through land reform. The grave problems in Kashmir or in Swat and Malakand will remain unsolved unless the mass workers’ movement changes the system once and for all to act in the interests of workers, farmers and the poor masses. It is crucial that the Socialist Movement and the TURCP is built among the workers and poor to provide a genuine alternative to the suffering masses.

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