Pakistan: Between bureaucracy & theocracy


The modern history of the two extremisms in Pakistan, Islamic and neoliberal, is rooted in the interactions between Pakistan and the United States. It was in 1979 that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan shifted dramatically; prior to that, American support to Pakistan was mostly based around countering Soviet influence in India, and later on, the Sino-Soviet split.

At the time, General Zia-ul-Haq had assumed control of the country after arresting and executing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, supported by the military, right-wing Islamic parties such as Jemaat-e-Islami (JI), and a group of powerful landowning families from Punjab who had been the target of Bhutto’s politically motivated nationalization attempts. In return for their support, he immediately began to roll back Bhutto’s modest reforms, institutionalize Islamic laws, provide massive state sponsorship for religious groups and institutions, and repress secular-left groups.

In 1979, a coup by a group of officers in the Afghan Army assassinated the prime minister of Afghanistan, Daoud Khan, and placed a Stalinist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in power in Kabul. The party had no mass basis, being based primarily in the officer corps of the army, and began forcibly instituting social reforms throughout the country, triggering a massive reaction from the more conservative majority of Afghans outside of Kabul. In addition, the PDPA regime had been plagued with factional infighting since its origins, resulting in a government on the verge of collapse in a matter of months. To prevent this, the Soviet Union reluctantly decided to intervene militarily to prop it up.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser under President Carter, famously conceived of this as a “bear trap;” the idea was to get the Soviet Union bogged down in Afghanistan, in much the same way the United States had become bogged down in Vietnam just four years earlier.

To that end, the U.S. began Operation Cyclone, the CIA program that funneled money and weapons through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Soviet military. As a result, General Zia became the conduit for a massive quantity of arms and dollars flowing in from the United States and Saudi Arabia. This aid was channeled mainly to reactionary Islamic groups with close ties to Zia and the military establishment.

The infrastructure in the areas in which Operation Cyclone was primarily occurring, namely FATA and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), was extremely undeveloped, with little access to schools, hospitals, and adequate nutrition. Flush with American and Saudi cash, Islamist groups like the JI provided education, health care, food, and support, especially in refugee camps flooded with Afghans fleeing the conflict. They built madrassas (religious schools) and mosques, preaching reactionary ideology, and urging their members to participate in jihad in Afghanistan. Of course, with no other alternative, most parents seeking literacy for their children had no choice but to send them to one of these schools.

The wave of reactionary terror unleashed upon South Asia that the current U.S. intervention is supposed to combat was actually deliberately created by U.S. intervention in the first place. The proliferation of guns and money translated into social and political power that propelled political organizations of the clergy, the largest of which are Jemaat-e-Islami and Jemaat-e-Ulema Islami, into significance.

However, the military has remained the most powerful institution in Pakistan, largely because of the support and patronage of the U.S government. Various administrations have consistently seen the restoration of military dictatorship as the best, most “stable” method to advance its goals in the region; thus, the dictator Pervez Musharraf was supported in 2001, because he was willing to play ball with the U.S. “war on terror,” and was only ousted as a result of a genuine popular movement after he had sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The military also maintains close ties with militant groups operating within Pakistan, with whom they worked throughout the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and after the Soviet withdrawal. Many of the militants cultivated during the war were then encouraged by the military establishment to continue waging the jihad against India, ostensibly over Kashmir. As a result, the legitimate independence movement in Indian-controlled Kashmir was subsumed by the semi-official support for (and resulting Indian repression of) groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), responsible for the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, both of which were implicated in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi.

The Zia regime had pushed hard for policies of industrialization and privatization, heavily supported by U.S. investment, with special consideration given to military officers. Currently, the two largest business conglomerates in the country are the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust. Both of these are private trusts that were designed, in principle, to provide a social safety net for veterans and retired officers. In practice, they act as massive corporate enterprises with little public accountability, with the main beneficiaries being Pakistan’s most senior military officers.

The military foundations are the largest holders of both urban and agricultural land, in addition to large parts of nearly every industrial sector, including oil and gas, insurance, banking, schools, universities, radio, TV, cereals, and fertilizer. Although the net worth of each of the four military trusts (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Fauji) is not public, Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military, Inc.,” estimates their 2011 holdings to be around $15 billion to $20 billion, or fully 1% of the country’s 2011 GDP. This is in addition to the 26% of government expenditure that went to defense, the second highest percentage in the national budget after paying interest on IMF and World Bank loans.

The neoliberal reforms forced on Pakistan as conditions of those loans accelerate the process of wage suppression and privatization that benefit large industrialists and landowners at the expense of working people.

This has placed the army, as the largest industrialist and landowner in the country, into direct conflict with workers and peasants, such as the events in Okara from 2001-2003; as a result of the local tenant farmers’ refusal to sign a contract changing them from tenants to lessees on military farms, they were subjected to a campaign of harassment, murder, imprisonment, and torture. The military also uses anti-terror laws to harass and imprison activists: in late 2011, Labor Party Pakistan organizer Baba Jan, along with four others, were imprisoned and tortured for organizing workers and peasants in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The economic structure of Pakistani society is still largely feudal. Some 14% of farms operate 56% of the country’s agricultural area, while 55% of the Pakistani population owns no land at all. Workers in rural Pakistan are either sharecroppers or travel to the city as day laborers; or they participate in cottage industry and simple manufacturing.

Politically, the large landowning families dominate the civilian government; the massive farms are run as personal fiefdoms, with voting blocs organized by the landed village elites, and the power bases of most of the major parties are centered in the landowning class.

This feudal economic structure maintains a corresponding feudal social structure rooted in inequality between powerful landowners and workers with little access to land. It is also grounded in the inequality between men and women—who have still less access, despite providing all of a household’s domestic labor and a portion of the labor outside in the form of domestic labor in other peoples’ homes and agricultural labor in the fields.

It is rural inequality that provides the basis for the oppression of women in Pakistan, not Taliban militancy, which is itself an expression of those same patriarchal feudal relations. Thus, the idea that we advance the causes of Pakistani feminist activists like Malala Yousufzai and Fareeda Afridi by shooting rockets and leveling villages is ludicrous. The position of women in rural Pakistan can only be advanced by the total overturn of the rule of feudal elites in the countryside. Yousufzai knew this—she was fighting for the right to an education, crucial to breaking the stranglehold of feudal relations of production over rural women.

People in the United States have a critical role to play; we must halt the drone war, which only provides a more fertile recruiting ground for reactionary groups. We must end support for the military bureaucracy that serves to preserve the feudal hierarchy and prevent the wealth of the nation from being directed towards education and empowerment.

We must end the neoliberal world order, expressed through the World Bank and the IMF, which keeps the country in perpetual debt slavery, immiserates the lives of ordinary workers, and consolidates the control of an unaccountable military, agricultural, and industrial elite.

Photo: U.S. and Pakistani antiwar activists on Sept. 20 march to Northwest Territories, which have been targeted by U.S. drone attacks. Credit: Al Jazeera.


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