APP at the Left Forum

March 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

A couple of us from APP participated in a handful of rewarding panels at last weekend’s Left Forum. Comments/questions centered on familiar themes: why the US is in Afghanistan and whether it might withdraw, what has happened to the US anti-war movement and what can be done about it, what is the state of the Left in Pakistan, etc., etc. At times, if I may, it felt as if we Leftists might very well be taking one small step forward, on the road to political recovery (a Jesse Jackson plenary notwithstanding).

Regardless, I thought there might be some interest in the talks APP members gave, since they carry a collection of points that ought to be made and re-made in the context of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am posting an unabridged version of my remarks after the break. They run quite long, as I picked and chose from this material when I spoke at the panels themselves. But I include it all in the hope that some of it is of use.



Before I present my main arguments, I’ve found that it’s very useful to ‘clear-the-ground’ of some general misconceptions regarding the situation in Pakistan, today.

So, first things first–understanding the War in “AF-PAK” in terms of its impact on Pakistan actually demands that we discuss two wars that have been waged hand-in-hand: the ongoing, US-led occupation of Afghanistan, of course, but also the Pakistani State’s own, home-grown “War of Terror” in the Northwestern parts of the country—the North-western Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). (This is the region that borders Afghanistan.) When people here are told that Obama’s war is spilling into Pakistan, they think typically of drone attacks and/or the covert work of American contractors in Pakistan. All this has its place, but I want to stress that the most far-reaching effects of Obama’s expansion have come, actually, in the actions of America’s surrogate—in the US’ push to have the Pakistan Army redouble its War in the Northwest.

This ‘second’ war has consisted of a series of military offensives over the course of the past few years—starting really in 2004—that have escalated noticeably over the past eighteen months—not coincidentally as the Americans have returned their attention to Afghanistan, of course. In addition to ongoing military campaigns in several districts of the region, the Pakistani army has launched three major offensives: the first in Bajaur (August 2008 to February 2009), the second in Swat (April to June 2009), and the third in South Waziristan (October 2009 to present). All told, two to three million citizens were displaced—only two weeks ago, on March 4th, the UNHCR reported that as many as one million refugees remained in need of humanitarian assistance, still trapped in underfunded refugee camps.1

Additionally—and this is perhaps a point which we will want to return to, in the discussion—in contrast to what has been popularized in the media and in policy circles—and here I mean the well-traveled refrain that “Pakistan is a Failed State,” that the “Taliban are at the Gates,” etc.—I want to insist on a simple staring point for our discussion: Pakistan is not on the verge of collapsing to the twenty thousand militants based in different districts of its northwestern most regions.2

To my mind, the sheer ignorance that this claim enlists is staggering (Pakistan is the sixth most populous nation in the world, with—lest we forget—its seventh largest army). This ludicrous notion that a largely rural, basically mountain-based insurgency could seize mazy cities of millions of people had traction only because it was integral to a masterfully-executed propaganda campaign—a series of fear-mongering claims mobilized to justify the expansion of the US and Pakistani military offensives in the region. It was all the rage last spring, in particular, just as Pakistan was readying a massive incursion into Taliban-held Swat. David Killcullen, you’ll remember, was telling us, around this time, that Pakistan was slated to collapse within six months.

I make this point, I promise, not in order to underplay the threat of religious militancy. Rather, I emphasize it because the struggle against fundamentalism in Pakistan—which is a critical obligation for progressives, don’t misunderstand me—can only be responsibly conceived if we appreciate the historical, political, social complexities of the current conjuncture.

Clearly, any lefty worth their salt stands in unconditional opposition to the dogma and values championed by the Taliban. But in and of itself, visceral disgust is hardly a political position. The only way in which one can formulate a progressive strategy around the question of the Taliban is to—again—make sense of the larger context within which the movement has emerged. I cannot stress this enough. The failure to do this, as far as I’m concerned, represents a total abdication of intellectual responsibility.

What I want to emphasize, then, is that when you do do this—when you look at Pakistan and its political scene; at the balance of forces, what have you—you see that the path to the Pakistani Taliban runs squarely through the Pakistani State, in multiple senses. As I will argue, the most salient effect of Obama’s expansion of the War has been to return the Pakistani military to the center of the political stage. This, tragically, is a position which it is quite used to occupying. What’s more, this ‘restoration’ has come only two years after mass democratic struggles in the form of the Lawyers’ Movement, which I’m sure many of you heard about, had led to the much-awaited ouster of our last military government.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***


In the brief time that I left have to speak, then, I want to do three things that will make explicit some of the nuances and consequences of this claim:

  1. first, offer some historical background, by tracing the origins of the enormous influence of the Pakistani State and security apparatus to the early history of the country, and to our relationship to the United States.
  2. second, emphasize the three things that I think are most critical to a progressive understanding of the War on Terror, as it pertains to what is unfolding within Pakistan;
  3. and third, speak a bit to what I see as the burden confronting progressive forces, home and abroad.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***


First, then—the history of the Pakistani State in five minutes or (hopefully) less!

As I alluded to earlier, more than half of Pakistan’s history has been spent under military rule. The obvious question is why.

Of course, there is a lot—almost too much—to say. In part, the nature of the Pakistani State is a legacy of our inheritance—our colonial forbearers, the British, bequeathed us an administrative and security apparatus that was highly centralized, and rooted in the loyalty of a narrow native ruling elite but not at all in the political aspirations of the population. Indeed, Hamza Alavi wrote of an ‘overdeveloped’ State, which would “exercise dominion over all the indigenous social classes in the colony.”

One must also appreciate the bankruptcy of the political formation that led Pakistan to independence, in 1947: this was the Pakistan Muslim League, headed by our founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, which “failed [(until the very eve of the Partition)] to draw any substantial support in the Muslim majority provinces which were later to constitute the State of Pakistan. The solid base of support for the Muslim League for most of its history (i.e. until 1946…) lay in the Muslim minority provinces of India, notably the UP and Bihar.”

The results were unsurprising.

The West Pakistani elite was unable to prevent the liberation of the Eastern wing of the country in 1971 (today’s Bangladesh), despite a ruthless genocide of the population of that province. There is no shortage of work illustrating the depraved, colonial subjugation of the Eastern wing, prior to that point. The broad contours are famous: West Pakistan treated the East as a ‘captive market’ for nascent, State-supported manufacturing, while relying on the East’s raw material exports to generate foreign exchange for capital reinvestment. What little industry there was in East Pakistan was controlled by West Pakistani businessmen, meaning a constant drain of wealth from East to West (Bengali Muslims controlled only 2.9% of private industrial assets). The political consequences were unsurprising: in provincial elections in 1954, the Muslim League was thoroughly trounced, winning only 10 out of 310 seats.3

In the war-ridden half of today’s Pakistan—Balochistan, and the North-West Frontier Province—the Muslim Leaguers had next to no support whatsoever. Balochistan, in fact, had declared its independence a day after Pakistan, only for it to be forced to join the federation in April 1948. The North-West Frontier Province, now home to the Taliban, of course, famously housed a dynamic and non-violent freedom movement (which was allied to the Indian National Congress, and not the Muslim League).

To make a complicated story simple, the onset of military rule in 1958 can be explained by this colossal political failure. A comprehensive lack of legitimacy forced the elite to turn to the coercive apparatus of the State to secure their political and economic power. To quote Tariq Ali–”The bureaucrats, the military officers, and their American advisers considered that a general election [which had been scheduled for February 1959] based on adult franchise was far too risky an enterprise…”4

I want to talk a bit more about this last claim, regarding the American advisers, since it is perhaps most important for us, meeting as we are in the US.

As many of you know—historically—the US government has backed the forces of reaction, in Pakistan to the hilt, against the people of the country. The reasons are well-known–in the post-WWII world, Pakistan quickly became a willing satrap, joining the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954, signing the anti-Nasserite Baghdad Pact a year later; readily recognizing American client regimes in South Korea and South Vietnam; even condoning the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 until the Americans expressed their opposition.

Our ruling-classes, decisively compromised in the eyes of their own population, have prostrated themselves before the US, to their own enrichment and political benefit. Moreover, what’s important for us, here, but should come as no surprise, is the well-known fact that this close relationship has thrived particularly during that half of our existence that we have spent under the thumb of the military. In 1957 the Committee on Foreign Relations described the Pakistani military as the “greatest single stabilizing force in the country…” This came only a year before our first coup, which would be led by Ayub Khan–the same Ayub who would justify his dictatorship on the grounds that, “Democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate as in Britain.”

And we all know, of course, the sordid history of the 1980s, when the US poured billions of dollars into the coffers of the military government in order to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This pattern is unchanged in its basic contours today: as of last summer, some 70% of the $15.4 billion of U.S. aid that Pakistan has received over the past seven years has gone towards security-related expenditure. In turn, of course, between 2005 and 2008 Pakistan bought a whopping $4.5 billion of American military hardware.

This history behind the excessively centralized, bankrupt nature of the State, in sum, is critical to understanding the political situation that prevails in Pakistan, today. You cannot properly make sense of the roots of the War or of the Taliban, I’d argue, without an appreciation of these facts.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***


Second, I want to stress three things that are important to keep in mind, when thinking about the Taliban and the War on Terror in Pakistan. I aim these particularly at those liberals that have rebranded our Army as warriors for secular and feminist liberation.

(1) The Pakistan military has been integral to the networks of patronage that have built the ideological and material infrastructure for militancy in the region. In line with a strategic relationship that was born after the Army’s favored mujahideen commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, failed to take power in the early 90’s, the Army is quite clearly—and rationally, from its perspective—in league with elements of the Afghan Taliban. Certainly, there have been some important developments on this front, with the arrest of 7 of the 15 members of the Quetta Shura a few weeks ago.5 But, to my mind, this is not a sign that they are turning on erstwhile allies. Rather, the worry for the Army was that it was being left out of negotiations that were underway.6 The last thing it can afford, after all, is being excluded from a settlement in Afghanistan. So they played their hand. Beyond this, the basic contours haven’t changed.

Additionally, even in the case of the different groups that make up the Pakistani Taliban, their opposition is inconsistent, over time and place. Some of these ‘inconsistently opposed’ commanders include:

  • in South Waziristan (Mehsud areas in the Eastern half): Abdullah Mehsud (d. July 2006) → Qari Zainuddin Mehsud (d. June 2009) → Toofan Mehsud7 (pro-government commanders, especially the last two, it seems. But quite weak.)

  • in South Waziristan (Wazir tribal areas in the Western half): Maulvi Nazir Ahmad (tenuous, shifting alliance to military—but seems to have stayed neutral during last offensive)

  • in Waziristan: Baba Waziristan, pro-government commander
  • in North Waziristan: Hafiz Gul Bahadur (only last Thursday, renewed a peace deal struck during the S. Waziristan offensive)8

  • in Tank: Turkistan Bhittani (pro-government commander, positioned against what’s left of Baitullah Mehsud’s network 9

  • in Khyber: Mangal Bagh10 (allegations of being pro-government, but not clear, given on-and-off military operations in region. Not allied to TTP. Famous for attacks on NATO tankers taking Khyber Pass)11


  • in North Waziristan: the Haqqani network (part of Afghan Taliban, instrumental to Pak designs in region)

In sum, our establishment has always seen this ideology and these groups as assets. It can afford to dispose of some, no doubt, when they stray from the party program. But to suggest, as Hoodbhoy and friends do, that this means that—finally!–the army can be trusted, demonstrates frightening political and historical myopia.

(2) The Taliban have come to stand in for the “Talibanization” of Pakistani society. But the rise of religious conservatism (Saudi-ization of the education system, intolerance of minorities, the ‘thinning’ out of national culture, etc., etc.), which is certainly a central problem for progressives in Pakistan, is sociologically distinct from the insurgencies in the Northwest. There are pro-war Leftists who have invoked the spectre of religious bigotry, at large, to mobilize support for the State’s offensives in the Northwest. The thrust of Hoodbhoy’s apocalyptic arguments is this ominous connection between his silent, note-taking veiled students and the depredeations of Fazlullah and Swat. This is absurd! At a WAF event in Karachi, I remember hearing a young feminist screech about how Karachi used to have discos, now no longer. And the implication? Hence we must have war!

Outsourcing our struggle to the State, which is anyway in league with some of the most noxious political formations in Pakistan (MQM, for example), will not advance secular, tolerant, or women-friendly politics in the slightest. This is the same Army, lest we forget, that is in the midst of brutally repressing a popular liberation struggle in Baluchistan (the fifth time it has been deployed, since independence: 1948, 1958, 1962, 1973-77). At minimum, some 1,600 Balochis have been disappeared since 2005 alone12 (this is number submitted by the attorney-general to the SC; activists put the number at 8,000),13 part of several thousands of people that have gone missing since 9/11.14

Thus, in sum, the same military that has kept women as sex slaves in torture cells in Karachi15 becomes, for liberals and even some leftists, an agent for the liberation of the Pakistani woman! Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up!

We are learning a similar lesson in Afghanistan, I’d argue: the cause of women’s rights, as we heard both Zoya and Joya tell us in the fall of last year, has not been advanced in the slightest by War and imperial occupation. Rather, if we look beyond Kabul, it has been set back years, if not decades—the war and the warlords it has enthroned in the countryside are no worse than those that came before them. I’ll give you one excellent, powerful example—there was much talk about how the Taliban’s heinous misogyny was exemplified by the “Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and the Prevention of Virtue,” a department of State that issued decrees prohibiting women to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, etc.16 Well, as Anand Gopal puts it, less well-known is the fact that this ministry was actually established in the mid-nineties, prior to the Taliban takeover, by precisely those warlords that have returned to power today.17 Certainly, the path to women’s liberation in Afghanistan is long and uncertain—but few things are more clear than the fact that years of war and foreign occupation have taken the country in the wrong direction.

(3) The vast majority of militants who fight the Pakistani State have a litany of grievances that push them to violence. Aside from the fact that many footsoldiers have surely picked up arms in response to extremely heavy-handed military operations, these insurgencies are conditioned—over-determined, even—by:

  • endemic poverty (some 90% of FATA lives on under $2/day)18

  • food insecurity (“The 10 most food insecure districts according to this report include Dera Bugti, Musa Khel, Upper Dir, North Waziristan, Muhmand, Dalbidin, South Waziristan, Orakzai, and Panjgur. Other worst food insecure districts, according to FIP2009 are Bajur, Laki Marwat, Lower Dir, Shangla and Malakand etc.”)19

  • underemployment (the vast, vast majority of inhabitants are below-subsistence farmers who lack access to irrigation)20

  • infrastructure deprivation (the Taliban has destroyed girls and boys’ schools, certainly; but why not speak also of the State-overseen 3% female literacy in FATA?)

  • a barbaric legal-political regime. (To this day, the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act (1901), one of Lord Curzon’s “civilized” interventions, is in effect in FATA. According to its provisions, supreme judicial authority resides in the autocratic figure of the Political Agent, whose occasional consultations with a jirga of tribal elites more or less constitutes due process.21 The penal code that complements this arrangement is shamefully draconian—among other things, it sanctions the punishment of whole tribes for the crimes of an individual member. Reforms of this governance structure were announced last independence day, yet—as far as I can tell—no progress has been made.)

All this is no different from Afghanistan, where the insurgency is fueled by an incredibly corrupt, venal occupation. After all, the occupation has been unrelenting in its barbarity: one under-publicized fact is that the initial three month-long bombing campaign is estimated to have been responsible, directly and indirectly, for the deaths of up to 20,000 Afghan civilians.22 Or consider these simple figures, reported by Patrick Cockburn in May 2009:23 daily military spending in Afghanistan amounted to $100 million, daily aid spending—large chunks of which are anyway siphoned off by foreign and domestic contractors—a pathetic $7 million. Or this: in 2009, in Badakhshan province, the entire budget of the local agriculture department was $40,000. This covers a population of 830,000, most of whom are farmers. This at the same time as one foreign consultant can command salaries of $250,000 a year, alone (an Afghan civil servant, incidentally, makes $1,000 a year).

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***


Third, and finally, a few points about the situation confronting the Left.

As in many other countries around the world, Pakistan’s economy has hit the skids in the course of the last crisis. At least two decades of privatizations and structural adjustment have compounded a sordid legacy of underdevelopment.24 Some 85% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Additionally, the food crisis hit the peasantry and the working-classes particularly severely:

Food security ranking of 131 districts in Pakistan, according to FIP 2009, indicates that 48.5 percent of the total population in 76 out of 131 districts of Pakistan is food insecure. The population in another 26 districts is on borderline and extremely vulnerable to any external shock.25

The gov’t is going to be paying back a massive IMF bailout package, starting in 2011-2012—all together it represents some eleven billion dollars, at 3-4 percent interest. Already, in anticipation, austerity and retrenchment have arrived. Interest rates have been hiked and social welfare spending cut, as per received economic wisdom (read: interests of bondholders and suited financiers bearing gifts).26 Last month, the Federal Cabinet announced that it was slashing the social sector budget by 30%, and shifting the money towards security expenditure.27 Just this past Thursday, massive riots shut down parts of Rawalpindi, following the announcement that there would be a hike in bus fares (eventually rescinded).28 Electricity prices, too, have spiked.29

Much more awaits us—including, of course, the high likelihood of another agreement with the IMF, to rescue us from the debt that we incurred in the course of the present one.

As is true elsewhere, the task of resisting this, of course, will fall to progressives—the only force that has a substantive, popular politics of opposition to neoliberalism. It is, of course, in the grips of a serious crisis, as elsewhere in the world.

Yet—and this is what I want to leave you with—the weakness of it as an organized force does not mean that there is an absence of struggle in the country. Far from it. In a country as riven with contradictions as Pakistan, it could not but be this way.

This is something that progressives, in this country, are not told frequently enough—to make sense of Pakistan (and crucially, to formulate a political strategy around the expansion of US war into Pakistan), it is imperative that we abandon the imaginary of the Islamphobes, according to whom the country is populated by 180-odd million bearded and burka-wearing fanatics. We, too, have workers and peasants—we have class exploitation and yes, sometimes even we have our fair share of class struggle. (And, lest we forget, bearded men and veiled women are often infinitely more progressive than many a clean-shaven cowboy.)

There is a women’s movement, a human rights movement, a labor movement, a peasants’ movement, a fisherfolk movement, a communist movement. Owing to the highly centralized and militarized character of our State, the national question is alive in every corner of the country—in every case, it is led by overwhelmingly secular forces.

The recent downturn has had, as you would expect, sinister, damaging consequences for the working-classes, as employers turn to union busting, wage cuts, and speed-ups to protect their profits. As a result, though, as we meet here, today, about two hundred hotel workers are celebrating, after a 25-day occupation of their hotel’s basement (that’s 24 hrs  a day) compelled, yesterday, a vile management to restore fired union activists.30 Sixteen hundred workers employed at a tyre company run by an ex-military man, General Ali Quli Khan Khattak (Khattak was leap-frogged by General Musharraf in 1998 when the latter became Chief of Army Staff) are on their fifth day of a strike in Landhi, Karachi.31

Thus, particularly as the US mobilizes the tropes of a 21st-century civilizing mission in “AF-PAK”–that we’re here to liberate their women, that we’re here to save them from themselves, in effect–we—the antiwar movement in the States—must insist on a simple premise: the people of the region have always been capable of, if not engaged in, emancipating themselves.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1“Today, there are more than 1 million internally displaced people in Pakistan. Some 114,000 of them reside in nine camps and the rest are staying with relatives or renting homes across the North West Frontier Province. Almost 1.7 million people have returned home over the past year, mostly to Swat and other districts of Malakand Division. But Ishaq and about 250,000 other people from Bajaur remain displaced and may have to wait for some time before return is possible. Around 74 percent of Jalozai’s population originates from Bajaur.”

2There are more, if we include the Haqqani network, Lashkar-i-Islam, etc.. But this seems a reasonable (and perhaps overgenerous) estimate of the numbers currently arrayed against the Pakistani state.

3See Richard Nations’ “The Economic Structure of Pakistan: Class and Colony” (New Left Review I/68, July/August 1971)

4See Tariq Ali’s Can Pakistan Survive? (1983).

5Anand Gopal notes that, in addition to this top council, which is the nerve center for the Afghan Taliban’s operations, there are a number of other councils (four, in fact): two based in Quetta, responsible for the Southern and Western regions; one based in N. Waziristan, headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, responsible for the Southeast; and a fourth in Peshawar, headed by Maulavi Abdul Kabir, responsible for the East and the North .

6“The arrest of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan stopped a secret channel of communications with the United Nations, the former UN special representative to Afghanistan said Friday in a BBC interview.” <;

12Testimony from one: “’The jail I was in was a mere two square meters with no lights,” Bair explained. “It felt like I was being buried alive. They just took me out to beat me up, blindfolded and hanging upside down. Very often the severe beating made me pass out. My only hope was to find any kind of tool with which I could take my own life. I never thought I was going to get out alive from that place, but eventually I was released. I felt I couldn’t go through all that again. But neither did I want to be arrested and thrown to the desert from a helicopter. So I decided to join the Lashkar-e-Balochistan.’

16“Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home.” <;

17If that’s not enough, there’s the small matter of the Shia-centered law that legalized marital rape, passed in August 2009. <;

20“Agriculture, the primary occupation of nearly 100 percent of the population, is below subsistence level. Landholdings are small and fragmented, the cropping pattern is dominated by cereal cultivation, and the majority of farming families have no access to irrigation.”

24In 2005, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar wrote of “160-odd privatizations that have taken place over the past fifteen years”


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