Pakistan: A change of face will not solve social and political crisis

Pakistani has its third Prime Minister in two months.

Many people say that Shaukat Aziz, the new Prime Minister, won the elections not with the power of the vote, but with the vote of power. By this they mean his victory was achieved through the backing of Musharraf’s military regime and with the support of US imperialism who see him as one of their most trusted allies in the attempt to introduce harsh neo-liberal policies to Pakistan.

The selection of Shaukat Aziz is not going to solve any problems that the present military regime faces – and there are many of these. The situation in Wana, South Waziristan, close to the Afghan border, where the military is ostensibly attempting to wipe out supporters of Al Qaeda and the Taleban (local jihadi groups), has gone from bad to worse. A severe crisis is developing in Balochistan, one of the poorest provinces of Pakistan, where there is a semi-uprising against what is seen by the masses as national oppression by the mainly Punjabi ruling elite of the country.

While the military regime may look strong and united, the opposite is the reality. This is shown by the fact that the government has the largest cabinet in Pakistan’s history with 80 MPs as ministers. This means half of the ruling party’s MPs are part of the cabinet! Having a cabinet of this size demonstrates that Musharraf is faced with a constant battle to buy off different influence groups and factions within his own ruling party. It is undoubtedly the case that under the pressure of social, economic and political crisis, the frictions within the ruling party will develop further in future.

But this is not all. An old problem has re-emerged – those layers within the state machine who support reactionary Islamic fundamentalist ideas and who think Musharraf has sold his soul to US imperialism in its battle against the Muslim world. These layers have been weakened in the past but they are attempting to reassert their influence within the Pakistani state and show no signs of giving up easily. These sections of the state machine are pressurising Musharraf to turn away from his pro-US line. But the Pakistani president also faces constant pressure from US imperialism (which still backs him), to carry out more decisive measures against the fundamentalists.

It is against this background that the ever collapsing authority of the state machine and the political elite over the masses will have dangerous consequences for the stability of Pakistan in the near future. Feeling the ground beginning to shift, the state apparatus has become more repressive, violent and anti-working class when faced with any sort of opposition. The Wana operation demonstrates this clearly.

From heroes to villains

The situation in Wana is terrible. The military operation initiated by Musharraf under pressure from US imperialism has turned into a local war. The operation is against Jihadi groups that were developed and trained by the same army that is now trying to wipe them out. For twenty years the Pakistani military praised the Jihadi groups as national heroes fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan – but now these groups are referred to as villains. During the ‘holy war’ the Pakistani military used these areas as base camps for their operation against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. Now they are bombing the camps they helped to build.

And still the military has failed to crush the resistance which is now becoming more generalised amongst local tribes’ people. The military are using jet-fighters, helicopter gun ships, tanks and other heavy artillery. Casualty rates are high and many soldiers have lost their lives. In desperation the military have resorted to pouring bombs onto civilian areas. Two weeks ago this bombardment killed 90 innocent people including women, children and old people.

In order to conceal this onslaught, the Government has implemented a ban against journalists and political activists entering South Waziristan which borders Afghanistan.

The main tactic of the regime is to use the stick of military might to subdue the area but when this fails they resort to very small carrots. For example, soon after taking up his position of Prime Minister, Aziz announced an end to the economic blockade implemented by the government two months ago.

As a result of the fighting, more than 30 000 people have fled the area. The majority of foreign militants are from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya. Many of them have lived in this area for many years and have married local women. The rich Arab jihadis left this area before the start of the military operation.

The situation is getting out of control for the Musharraf regime. Clashes are now beginning to develop between the military and the local tribes’ people. Many tribal leaders are now talking about forming fighting alliances with the Taliban and other Afghan forces. This shows that the Pakistani generals made a big mistake in launching the attack without taking into account the mood of the local population. Now they are paying the price.

Within Pakistan this military operation has been greeted with almost complete silence. No left groups have openly and consistently condemned this military operation – apart from the Socialist Movement that is. While we do not give an iota of political support to the jihadis, failure to oppose this military operation will make it far more likely that the military will carry out similar operations against national minorities and the working class within the country. The Socialist Movement also believes it is completely wrong to assume that all people living in the tribal areas are hard line supporters of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism.

MMA exposed

But other political forces have also been exposed by this operation. The role of Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal, (MMA – an alliance of Islamic fundamentalist parties that did well in the last elections, winning an outright majority in the North West Frontier Provincial government) has been exposed in this crisis. Despite being the governing party in NWFP, they have sat back as the Pakistani military have bombarded people in the tribal areas of South Waziristan which is part of the province they are supposed to govern! The conclusion drawn by the poor peasants and tribes’ people is that the MMA is more interested in saving its position as governing party than defending their rights.

In this situation the MMA is losing its base rapidly. They have failed to give any alternative to the masses, not only the Wana issue but also on all the other social and economic problems that exist. As a result their electoral support has fallen. This has opened up splits within the alliance, with the two main parties (Jamat-e-Islami [JI] and Jamiat Ulma-i-Islam [JUI]) trading insults publicly. The main friction revolves around General Musharraf reneging on a promise to abandon his post of Chief of Army Staff at the end of this year. Musharraf had agreed to do this in return for a vote of confidence from Parliament and the passing into law of all his decrees since taking power (which the MMA supported). The JUI leadership have made it clear that they are prepared to live with Musharraf continuing as head of the armed forces. However, the JI leadership want the MMA to take a much harder stance so that they can save their skins from their supporters.

On top of this crisis, a group of MMA NWFP Assembly MPs have formed a breakaway ‘group of sixteen’, and are accusing the main party of betraying the principles on which the alliance was founded.

NWFP is not the only area where military operations are being undertaken. The situation in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, is also very critical. The sentiments of the masses are running very high against the Punjabi establishment which dominates the ruling elite in Pakistan.

The levels of unemployment, poverty, hunger, underdevelopments, political, social and economic conditions are amongst the worst in Pakistan. The majority of the working masses are living in complete misery. The economic crisis has made life even more miserable.

The economic and social situation has some similarities with that which existed in the province in the early 1970’s, where there was an uprising against Punjabi domination. This represented a dire threat to the stability of Pakistan with the possibility of Balochistan breaking away. As a result the military were deployed and used brutal force to crush this uprising.

New barracks for Balochistan

This phase of discontent developed after the announcement by the present military regime to establish three new military cantonments (barracks) in the three areas of Balochistan. Nationalist parties announced a protest movement against these plans. The construction of the Gawadar port (on Pakistan’s South coast and planned to be the deepest port in the Gulf) is another hot issue. Nationalist parties are correct in claiming that this project will not benefit the Balouch people and that the military elite are involved in a massive land-grab of property that will spiral in value even more than it has up to now.

The Government has used attacks on Chinese engineers working on Gawadar port and on the Chief Minister of Balochistan as an excuse to launch a much more offensive approach in the region, blaming these actions on different nationalist forces.

The situation become even worse when some unidentified gunmen killed six military personnel near Khuzdar (the second largest city of Balochistan). After this attack the military started an operation in some areas of Balochistan, mainly Makran, Gawadar and Khuzdar. They arrested more than 500 political activists of different nationalist parties.

There was very strong reaction against these arrests. At this stage the military was planning to step their intervention but realising the dangers involved in such a step, Musharraf sent his right hand-man Tariq Aziz to negotiate with tribal and nationalist chiefs of Balochistan.

In these negotiations the two largest tribal chiefs Nawab Akbar Bhugti and Sardar Atta-u-allah Mangel put forward their demands to get bigger share from the Punjabi dominated elite. In all probability this has led to a secret agreement between Bhugti, Mangel and the Musharraf regime where in return for a toning down of the military operations the tribal chiefs will have agreed to hold the protest movement back within certain limits. The Pakistani military want to split the tribal chiefs. By making a deal with these two leaders, the generals hope to strengthen their hand against the forces of Nawab Khair Bux Marri (the veteran guerrilla leader of the 1970’s movement) and his Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

There is a precedent for this. Akbar Bhugti betrayed the movement in 1973 in Balochistan and was made Governor of the province in return by the Federal government of the day. He and Mangel are capable of the same sort of betrayal today.

Despite their radical rhetoric, these tribal and nationalist chiefs, part of the Balochi elite, want to contain this movement to narrow nationalist demands within the present capitalist and feudal set-up. The main resistance movement is in Balochi areas (Balochistan has two main nationally oppressed groupings: the Balochi and Pashtoons). The Pashtoon nationalist leaders are just watching the developments as spectators. There is danger of split in the movement on ethnic and national basis. The Balochi leadership of this movement has, in reality, refused to unite the movement on the basis of working class struggle. Having this approach and making an appeal to the workers and poor peasants of the rest of the provinces in Pakistan would enormously improve the possibilities of steps forward in the struggle against national oppression.

In the movement in the 1970’s the nationalist leadership made the same mistake, and failed to appeal for support from the working class and poor peasantry in Punjab, Sindh and NWFP. At that time many left groups also made a similar mistake of failing to call for a united Pakistani-wide struggle against the military operation in Balochistan.

The basis for an appeal on the basis of working class unity is there already. There are many workers’ struggles taking place in Balochistan. The daily wage workers (workers employed on a day-to-day basis) of the Pakistan Telecommunication Ltd have been on strike for the last two weeks. Women teachers are also on hunger strike for the last week. Other sections of workers also want to take action against the anti-working class polices of the Federal and provincial government.

Political alternative needed

The masses in NWFP and Balochistan are looking for an alternative political platform. Both the Mullahs and nationalist leadership have in the past betrayed the interests of the masses. To different extents they both have been exposed. But at the moment there is no mass alternative political platform available to the masses of NWFP and Balochistan, and, indeed, the rest of Pakistan. This is why the Socialist Movement has stepped up its campaigning work in defence of the national, social and economic rights of the masses in Balochistan and NWFP.

The situation in NWFP and Balochistan shows the burning need for a new workers party that can fight for the interests of the working class across the whole of Pakistan. A revolutionary party with clear program, ideas, strategy and leadership is necessary to overthrow the capitalism. Socialism is the only way forward for the working class and poor peasantry in Pakistan. They are sick tired of this rotten capitalist system. The workers and peasantry in Pakistan have a rich revolutionary tradition, and with the correct ideas and strategy, they will rise to change their destiny.

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October 2004