Support for military action from Pakistan’s General Musharraf has been duly rewarded by George Bush. Sanctions imposed on both Pakistan and India following their 1999 nuclear weapons tests have been lifted. However, in siding with the US, Musharraf has unleashed opposition from the country’s pro-Taliban religious right.
Why is Pakistan at the centre of US war plans?
The Bush administration and Western allies are set on major military conflict with the Islamic groups linked to Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban regime. But geography is a big problem. Afghanistan is a land-locked country and cannot be attacked without the co-operation of a third country. Pakistan, with its 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, is strategically very important.The US wants the right to fly over Pakistan to attack Afghanistan and to site aircraft and logistical support on Pakistani bases. Any ‘special operations’ strikes launched from Pakistan into Afghanistan will require regular troops to protect air bases from counter-attacks. Pakistani port and transportation facilities are needed to support a US military build-up. Bush is also demanding intelligence co-operation from Pakistan, including details about bin Laden and his global network links.How has the Musharraf regime responded to US demands?AFTER MUCH US bullying and some carrots (eg, agreeing to reschedule $600 million of Pakistan’s vast $36 billion debt), President Pervez Musharraf agreed that Pakistan should give the US “intelligence and information” as well as use of Pakistan’s airspace and “logistical support”. The general told Pakistan television the country was threatened with “destruction and must save itself”. Musharraf did all he could to persuade the Taliban to deliver over bin Laden.The ruling military Junta faces an impossible situation. Pakistan has close links to the reactionary Taliban – the military backed it during five years of civil war – and is one of only three countries that recognises the regime. Tribal and religious affiliations are strong and transcend international borders.When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, three million people fled to Pakistan. Today there are still over two million Afghans in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s north-west frontier, near the Afghan border. Attacks on Afghanistan will lead to probably millions of new refugees, which will be enormously destabilising and detrimental to the economy.Musharraf hopes that ‘limited’ attacks on Afghanistan and a ‘light’ US presence in Pakistan will contain the anger of Islamists. But by accommodating to US demands, he will antagonise the Taliban and will provoke a backlash from Islamic groups and many millions of Pakistani Muslims.
How strong are the Islamic forces?
During the 1980s Pakistan received huge amounts of mainly US ‘aid’ to help train and arm the reactionary Mujahidin fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. But, since the Soviet retreat and the end of the Cold War foreign aid has vastly diminished. The country has experienced prolonged economic crisis. The average annual income is only US$470. Deepening poverty, the discrediting of capitalist politicians, and the lack of a mass socialist alternative to show a way out, have all helped give rise to support for Islamic groups.Mounting protests by Islamic students and religious leaders against the US, and increasing military repression in response, are leading to huge instability and ultimately threaten civil war. A widespread nationwide strike protest was organised by 35 Islamic groups on 21 September.Musharraf has attempted to contain the opposition, claiming “only 1%” of the Pakistan’s 142 million population are “Islamic militants”. This is a vast underestimation. Millions are affected by Islamist extremism. A Gallup poll on 20 September showed that 62% of Pakistanis are opposed to Musharraf’s pro-US stance, and the number of ‘militants’ is likely to grow rapidly once the US attacks start.There are an estimated 700,000 armed Islamic groups in Pakistan and tens of millions of privately owned arms. Many of the armed groups are ‘Jehadi’, which fight forces from the Indian-held part of Kashmir. Other groups mainly espouse fundamentalist Islamic goals. Many of these include fighters supplied by the Taliban regime.The Pashtun tribal areas, whose kin across the border in Afghanistan dominate the Taliban regime, are well armed and pose a particular threat to potential US bases.Many in the Pakistani military establishment and intelligence services have close links to the Taliban regime and are sympathetic to Islamic groups – some could even collaborate in counter attacks.Since Pakistan was born out of a bloody partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, the country has faced domestic upheaval and regional confrontation. Politics is blighted by endemic corruption and the country has suffered periods of brutal military rule.Musharraf came to power in 1999 after a coup ousted a discredited civilian government. The military pledged to revive the country but economic underdevelopment, cronyism and national and religious oppression continues.Sections of the Pakistani ruling class, that see themselves as pro-Western and ‘modernising’, would like to use the opportunity of the present crisis to crack down on the influence of Islamic groups and to win direct economic and financial aid from the US. But the ruling elite is weak and divided, and incapable of lifting the mass of people out of poverty. A US war will only open up political, social and economic turmoil in nuclear capable Pakistan. “If the government is seen as a willing puppet of the US, it could be torn apart in internecine violence”, (STRATFOR, 16/09/01). As a result a reactionary, unstable Islamic regime could come to power, raising the nightmare prospect of a regional nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India.
What does the crisis mean for Pakistani/Indian relations?
Beating the nationalist drums, Musharraf has said that failure to back the US would allow India to gain strategic advantage.Both countries occupy Kashmir, an area of vital territorial importance. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in a conflict dating back to the carving of Islamic Pakistan from majority Hindu India. With India and Pakistan both now with nuclear capabilities, the US has characterised Kashmir as one of the world’s “hot spots”. In 1999, the two countries nearly went to war. Paradoxically, President Bush’s military policy is now dangerously ratcheting up tensions and rivalry between the two states, with, in the long run, quite horrendous possibilities.The Hindu nationalist BJP government in India has given full backing to the US in order to boost its own position. Three air bases and port facilities have been offered, as well as logistical support. In return, the BJP calls for co-operation and aid against Pakistani-sponsored guerrilla groups in Kashmir.The regime has developed new ties with the US in recent years, partly against the ‘common foes’ of China and Islamic fundamentalism. But it now fears the Bush administration will tilt too far towards Pakistan at a time when the US is demanding unprecedented co-operation from Masharraf. Indeed, the US looks set to lift nuclear-related sanctions on both countries, and to end its policy of blocking international financial assistance for Pakistan through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.The BJP government’s strategy means taking big risks. With its vast population, India is home to more Muslims than Pakistan. American air strikes from India will make US aircraft and personnel targets for Islamic armed groups. The entire country can face huge religious and political polarisation. This will exacerbate separatist movements, and threatens the eventual break-up of the sub-continent.
What can the working people of the region do?
The masses of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India will pay the price of Bush’s war, just as they have suffered the most under the rule of the generals and reactionary religious and nationalist regimes. Only united mass movements of the working class and poor can overthrow the despots throughout the Middle East and Indian sub-continent. A mass socialist movement would struggle to end capitalism, feudalism and the domination of the Western powers in the region, replacing them with a socialist confederation of states.