Pakistan: Chaotic ruling class, determined religious militants and suffering masses

No end to violence in sight

As the killing and maiming of innocent civilians mounted in recent months, so did the rhetoric of negotiation from some parts of the government and the Imran-Khan-led PTI party. The logic, ostensibly, was that the scourge of terrorism cannot be eliminated by force alone so we need to talk. The likes of Ch. Nisar, Federal Interior Minister and PML-N leader and Imran Khan managed to tap into the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq which lingers in the consciousness of the masses, that as long as someone is raising the slogan of Islam, they deserve some respect from our side. So the strategy was constructed: we will negotiate with the Taliban.

Those three words “we will negotiate” represented the entire strategy. There was no thinking beyond this. It was as if a couple confessed their love to each other and assumed, as some do, that declarations of love (rather than actions) will determine the future. Spare a thought for the state of Pakistan and the federal government — the legitimacy of both is being mocked by the armed militants led by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP – Taliban). And there is no respite or answer in sight.

This was done without any thoughts being directed to the question of “what are our limits?”. Now the TTP has turned around and said that the imposition of Sharia law is a condition (preceding) for negotiations to take place. And until negotiations officially start, the TTP will merrily continue to kill and maim Pakistanis, in cinemas houses, markets and hotels.

Do the advocates of negotiations even have an answer now? What does it say about a state that seeks to talk to those who continue to kill? What does it say about the TTP’s allegedly bona fide intentions to negotiate? It is as if the government keeps stomping its feet after a bomb blast and says to the TTP, “okay, but this was the last time.” Until it happens again of course.

The religious extremist groups bought time from their sympathisers and, quite remarkably, a large number of people in the country started assuming that something actually could be achieved through negotiations. But this is a false assumption. The road to negotiations is going to be a long and bumpy one and the ride will be rough and tough. There are many contentious issues that will arise in the negotiations.

In this entire process, crucial questions remain unanswered. The most important is: what will happen to those Pakistani people who will live in the territories controlled by the TTP? Whose law will they live under? If the answer is the TTP’s, then we might as well just invite the TTP to Islamabad and hand over power in a grand ceremony. Maybe we could also squeeze in an under-pass inauguration in a ceremony in the same photo-op. No women should attend.

You also have to feel for the thousands of people rotting in jails for crimes such as murder. They must be cursing their luck; if only they had killed in the name of religion, the state of Pakistan would negotiate with them. Since those engaging in extortion and kidnapping in the name of religion are allowed to sit across the negotiating table in dialogue with the state of Pakistan. Those of you planning heinous offences in the near future had better take note. Pakistan’s history will most likely see this period as revealing of one particular fact: delusion about the benevolence of those who kill in the name of religion. It is quite staggering how so many have been fooled by so few and rendered indecisive. As far as negotiation strategy is concerned, the TTP is giving us a real lesson.

From their fetid hovels of misery the masses search the skies for deliverance. In desperation they look towards their rulers, but these are the men who quiver like maple leaves on a cold and windswept expanse in the face of the terrorist onslaught. From 5 June, 2013, when Nawaz Sharif commenced his third Prime Ministerial term, until 7 February, 2014 there have been 863 incidents of terrorism perpetrated by the Al-Qaeda backed TTP and its affiliates, in which 1,403 people have lost their lives. The government has done nothing to take on these violent groups that kill, maim and destroy in the name of their religion.

Since 2004, more than 46,000 people have lost their lives and thousands have been injured and become disabled. More than 3,000 security personnel have lost their lives. The Pakistani economy has lost more than $68 billion US as the result of this so called war and violence. The human and economic loss in Pakistan is far greater than the loss in Afghanistan since the US and other imperialist powers intervened in 2002. The working masses continue to suffer because of this madness in the name of religion and saving the state.

The real issue in this whole context is whether the Pakistani state wants to abandon its policy of using religion as a political slogan and an instrument to repress the working masses. Whether it ready to stop its support for Jihadist organisations and groups like the Taliban. The answer is that the Pakistani state is not ready to abandon this long time policy, which was started in 1970s. The problem with the Pakistani state at the moment is that it wants to continue its reactionary policy and at the same time wanted to bring peace to the country. This contradiction is the hall mark of the Pakistani state’s policy. The Pakistani army is fighting against some Taliban groups and Al-Qaeda affiliated forces in tribal areas and the same time it continues to support some Taliban groups fighting in Afghanistan but who have safe havens in Pakistan.

It has decided to pursue negotiations with the TTP in the hope that the outlawed group can be persuaded to abandon its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, lay down its weapons and pledge loyalty to the constitution. Since this hair-brained scheme was announced by the Prime Minister on 29 January, when he finally condescended to show up at the National Assembly after an absence of six months, the tempo of violence has not abated.

So this is the Pakistan where the standard response to a crisis seems to be to look at the person next to you and ask, “What do we do now?”. You can imagine each person looking to from one to the next until the last one looks at the wall and then everyone keeps staring at the wall.

When it comes to springing surprises, the federal government is giving everyone a run for their money. The Prime Minister’s recent speech on the way we will tackle (but not really) the threat of terrorism hit a stumbling block. He sounded like a man about to break off a relationship — only to turn around and say, “But I will still try to make it work, even though I have not got a clue how to go about it.”

Military action in North Waziristan may have some support and provoke some indifference amongst the general population. But if it leads to more attacks in urban centres then the opposition will put the government on the mat. The PM, of course, knows this so he played politics by sounding tough but also by not giving the opposition another opportunity to attack his government. On the one hand, the government passes draconian new laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance. On the other, it invites the terrorists to talk so that the “state may be saved”. The sheer lack of consistency will not be lost on the TTP. They can see through the hollowness that the state breathes. The state of Pakistan seems to be threatening to pack a good punch — but recognises that it cannot deliver it right now. A state that continues to exist with an army but is perennially threatened by the threat of violence is no real state. An offer of negotiations that stems from a realisation that you cannot fight is not really an offer — it is a concession. Laws that promise strict punishment for militants but are applied only to ethnic separatists, nationalist armed groups and working class movements are mere instruments of oppression.

Both the military and civilian government are on the same page about not launching a serious operation. The PML-N government is certainly not too eager because it has ideological and political stakes in the religious extremists. The military does not seem too keen either. If it was it would show at least show some seriousness in sharing intelligence with the police and strengthening it to thwart religious militants present in its’ heartlands.

Considering the joint government-Taliban committees’ only real purpose is to delay any serious armed conflict and dampen down terrorist activity until at least the end of the governments’ last year in office. That will give enough time for this group of ‘kleptocrats’ to accumulate much more wealth before they withdraw to their palaces and mansions in London and Dubai leaving ordinary Pakistani people behind to deal with the Talibanisation of Pakistan.

The devil’s advocate

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party bagged an astonishing 7.7 million votes in the 2013 general elections. This was enough to make it the second highest vote-getter nationally after Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, beating Asif Zardari’s PPP into third place, becoming the third largest party in the National Assembly. It formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The party, however, felt cheated, expecting a much better showing. It hoped Imran Khan would become the prime minister to deliver on its singularly resonant promise of “change” that would free the country of inertia on the road to peace and good governance. The PML-N and PPP ended up banding together to deny Imran even the consolation prize of being the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

But Imran is back in contention with a game changer. His persistent narrative insisting on the state talking rather than fighting the Taliban into the path of peace has forced the much-derided and virtually abandoned option of talks with the Taliban from the jaws of imminent military action and into centre stage.

However, the chairman of the PTI has done something he would never have done when he was on the cricket field — gone to the pavilion just when he was handed the bat to deliver on the death "overs". When the Taliban, benefiting from Imran’s support to their dubious argument of being a stakeholder in the state’s fate, named him on their committee to hold talks with the government, he excused himself. In short, he brought everyone to the table but skipped the seat at the proceedings, leaving others to take the blame.

Imran and his party’s convincing argument that he was the head of his own political party and, hence, could not possibly represent the Taliban is acceptable. But it is a bit self-serving that PTI and its chairman failed to extend the same logic to the fact that the Taliban also nominated leaders of Munawar Hassan’s JI, Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F and Samiul Haq’s JUI-S to its team. There was no advice from Imran to either the Taliban or these parties to also not represent the Taliban. By the same yardstick, if he has no objection to them being the Taliban’s representatives, how could he not ‘help’ the talks process by nominating a deputy to the Taliban team, if he was queasy about being on it himself?

It was Imran who forced an APC on talks when a majority in the parliament wanted action against the Taliban. It was Imran who then refused to attend the APC unless it was briefed personally by the army chief. It was Imran who droned on about drones killing the reluctant APC consensus on talks when the Taliban went on an especially vicious killing spree in the last few weeks instead of condemning the Taliban by name for the vicious cycle of violence. He has never asked the Taliban to announce a cease fire — he has only been demanding that the state do so. He and his party have no qualms in embracing contradictions — the PTI core committee that declined Imran being on the Taliban team called for talks to be under the ambit of the constitution. And yet, under the constitution, private armed groups are banned. And the Taliban have been declared a terrorist organisation by the state. The party also said the Taliban did not consult the PTI before naming Imran. So, are we to assume the Taliban consults them before their bloody attacks?

The fact of the matter is that among the non-religious parties, the PTI is the only one that has always opposed the military action against Taliban groups and never condemned these groups for killing innocent civilians. Its policy is underpinned by appeasement and capitulation. This, in Imran’s estimation, is a less messy, more feasible option to taking actual responsibility and paying the inevitable higher price for peace by opting for a long-term solution.

There can be only two explanations for Imran’s politics of bipolarity — running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Either he is too scared to opt for a path that will bring with it a lot of pain and loss for which his party is not ready or that he is what many suspect — a genuine sympathiser of the Taliban who represent for him a better way to sidestep the messiness of politics that does not offer the same certainties as cricket. He thinks that aligning himself with them buys him more influence than the prime minister has. He is the captain who does not lead from the front. He wants the reward but not the responsibility.

Imran Khan is very confused about religion. He suffers from romanticism about religious narrative without understanding what he is saying and means.

The reality is that with negotiations or without the government and ruling elite of Pakistan cannot offer an alternative to the bloodshed and poverty faced by the masses. Only a united mass movement of the workers, peasants and rural poor could take the necessary steps to defend the population from the murderous attacks of the Taliban and the ruling class.

This devastating crisis poses the urgent need to build an independent political party of the working class and masses to offer a real alternative to the current players.

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