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Pakistan and the occupation of Afghanistan

On 20 January Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan blew up five schools in Mingora, once one of the safest areas in Swat, in North-West Pakistan, in an attempt to enforce their growing rule over the northern part of the country. Not long before they had labelled education of girls un-Islamic and forbid it. According to reports, nearly 200 government schools have been destroyed. A similar Islamic grouping, the Pakistani Taleban, also recently banned education for girls, forcing the government to close hundreds more schools in the area for days.

This kind of thing is becoming increasingly common in Pakistan, especially the north. "Elected representatives have fled Swat and many police officers, the target of suicide bomb attacks, have deserted, with the force down in strength from 1,725 to 295." (Guardian, 20 January 2009) Much of the tribal area in Waziristan north of Peshawar is under the rule of Baitullah Mehssud, a tribal leader said to be close to Al-Qaeda. Most of the Swat Valley once a tourist area is increasingly under the control of an Islamic fundamentalist group led by the cleric Maulana Fazlullah.

"Across much of the North-West Frontier Province – around a fifth of Pakistan – women have now been forced to wear the burqa, music has been silenced, barbershops are forbidden to shave beards, and over 140 girls' schools have been blown up or burned down. In the provincial capital of Peshawar, a significant proportion of the city's elite, along with its musicians, have now decamped to the relatively safe and tolerant confines of Lahore and Karachi. Meanwhile tens of thousands of ordinary people from the surrounding hills of the semiautonomous tribal belt – the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that run along the Afghan border – have fled from the conflict zones blasted by missiles from unmanned American Predator drones and strafed by Pakistani helicopter gunships to the tent camps now ringing Peshawar."  ("Pakistan in Peril", William Dalrymple, New York Review of Books, 12 February 2009)

In fact, even Lahore is now gripped with fear. The hope that this city, the home of many of Pakistan's secular intellectuals and the heart of the county's culture and poetry, could keep out of the war has evaporated. The city has now been shaken by a series of bombings and threats. This is a sign of how far deeply the impact of the war once confined to the border areas has already penetrated.

In recent years Pakistan has seen an increasing number of terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and sectarian killings between Sunni and Shia. But now a full-scale war is going on in Northern Pakistan. The Pakistani army has many tens of thousands of soldiers operating in the area. Every day each side claims to have killed tens of its enemies. According to a BBC report (2 November 2008), it took the Pakistani army six weeks to seize back control of only 13 kilometres of a highway in north Pakistan. When the army took a town in this campaign, it was made possible only after weeks of heavy air bombardment and tank and artillery shelling. When the soldiers finally moved in, the town was completely demolished, adding many thousands more to the hundreds of thousands of people who have become homeless and/or refugees in this war. 

As the dimensions of the battlefield have expanded war, as many as a quarter of a million people caught in the crossfire have fled their villages or towns. Ironically, many Pakistanis have sought safety in war-torn Afghanistan.

In November and December, the main road connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan through the strategic Khyber Pass was temporarily closed after fighters attacked a shipping depot and burned cargo trucks meant to supply U.S.-led troops fighting Al-Qaeda. They destroyed a large number of Humvees waiting to be shipped. On 3 February, an iron bridge of this road was blown up – only 23 kilometres west of Peshawar, and the road again shut down. Two days later, a checkpoint was assaulted and destroyed. About 80 percent of the supplies needed by the U.S. and its allies travel along this route from the port of Karachi to American bases in Afghanistan.

Another side of the spiralling violence in the region is the U.S. intervention in northern Pakistan, where the CIA is using remote-control missile-equipped pilotless airplanes to attack villages in the name of fighting Al-Qaeda. Each airstrike kills dozens of people. Last August, the U.S. conducted a ground force attack that killed 18 people. Even according to the mainstream press the great majority of those killed are ordinary villagers. Between that time and the end of January U.S. forces based in southern Afghanistan have used these Predator drones to carry out approximately 40 airstrikes in northern Pakistan, and the pace is accelerating. It took Barack Obama only three days after assuming office to demonstrate what he intends to bring the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan – he approved the continuations of these air attacks.

This brief but painful picture of Pakistan looks far different than it did before the 2001 occupation of Afghanistan. The U.S. 's long and cruel Afghanistan campaign in the “war against terrorism” that was supposed bring “stability” and “democracy” to the region has only poured fuel on the fire and spread the flames of war in a rapidly expanding radius. Hell for the people of in Afghanistan and now hell for those in Pakistan – that is the fruit of the occupation.

The Afghanistan connection

The connection between what is going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan is becoming increasingly obvious, but different forces see it very differently.

It is only recently that the occupiers' military and government officials have openly admitted that connection. General David Petraeus, recently appointed head of the U.S. Central Command encompassing the Iraq and Afghan war fronts, told a Washington audience last month, "Afghanistan and Pakistan have, in many ways, merged into a single problem set, and the way forward in Afghanistan is incomplete without a strategy that includes and assists Pakistan." He continued that such a strategy would also have to take into account Pakistan's "troubled relationship with rival India." (Associated Press, 8 January) Obama confirmed this "single problem set" orientation appointing a single diplomatic envoy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrook. In an unusual move, he also named the top military commander in Afghanistan as Washington's new ambassador to Kabul.

For many years Western officials and media have mentioned Pakistan and Afghanistan in the same breath only when complaining about the Taleban crossing the border seeking sanctuary in the so called “ungoverned” tribal areas of northern Pakistan, which they used as a rear area to reorganise their forces. They criticised the Pakistani army's reluctance to chase down the Taleban in their territory, which they never did as much as the West and Afghan officials wanted them to. However all through these years, the Bush administration continued to support the government of General Parvez Musharraf, the president and head of the Pakistani army at the time. Neither the Bush government nor any other in the West took the developing crisis in Pakistan seriously.

Even a series of major political upheavals that culminated in the assassination of Musharraf's rival Benazir Bhutto during the parliamentary elections campaign, and his increasingly naked repression against his opponents of all stripes that stirred the country against him, did not provoke Washington and other Western capitals to question their approach in the region. It was not until the growing strength of the Islamic fundamentalists led them to openly bid for power open war finally broke out that the rulers of the West began to get seriously worried about the situation in Pakistan and connect the dots leading to Afghanistan. It was not until the end of Bush’s administration that his advisors issued  "calls for a new and broadly regional approach to insurgencies that move freely across the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan" in a report they prepared for the incoming Obama administration. (International Herald Tribune, 7 December 2008)

But publicly, at least, this recognition comes coupled with an upside-down view of the causes of the problem – that Pakistan is at fault for the U.S.’s lack of success in Afghanistan, and that the solution is to attack Afghanistan’s neighbour. The above-cited article continues: "In the short term, [the report] calls for continued covert strikes into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan." (Obama checked off that one by complying immediately). But it ends with a warning:  "A senior military official said ‘the message of the report is that you can't win in Afghanistan without first fixing Pakistan… But even if you fix Pakistan...  that won't be enough. '"

In opposition to this view, the truth is that what's happening in Pakistan is a product of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan and not vice versa. Once the U.S. invaded, that war could not remain within Afghanistan's boundaries. The American military official implies that while attacking Pakistan might not be enough to solve all of the U.S.'s problems in occupying Afghanistan, it would be a good start. But what if instead of "fixing" Pakistan, American attacks there break it? What if it further fans the flames of a conflict framed as one between Islam and its enemies? What if this attempt spreads the war, even threatening to involve other countries in the region?

Some background on the connections between Pakistan and Afghanistan

It is true that the connection between Pakistan and Afghanistan did not emerge out of the blue. There is a whole history behind that, especially in the last three decades. Certain trends have been developing for a long time.

In 1980, in the middle of the Cold War between two rival two imperialist blocs, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a strategically important country. The Western imperialists saw the opportunity to convert this area into a battleground against the East bloc. In fact, given the importance of this region to their geopolitical designs, the West could not do otherwise. They turned Pakistan into a rear area for the Afghan Islamic fundamentalist mujahiddin fighting the Russians across the border. In general, Pakistan became a new and vital front in the Cold War between the West and the East. The Western imperialist powers poured money and arms and most importantly provided political support for the mujahiddin, and, with American encouragement, Saudi Arabia also sent money and ideological backing for their coreligionists. All of this was funnelled through the Pakistani government and especially the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence).

There are various distinct but convergent reasons for the rise of this kind of religious fundamentalism in the region, but this support, at a certain point, played a decisive role. Without the ISI's direct role in organizing and training the mujaheddin in camps in Pakistan and without all that came through its pipeline, these particular fundamentalists probably not have been able to wage a successful war against the Soviet invasion.

Pakistan was eager to play such a role to boost its position in the region and cut off the possible Indian influence in Afghanistan, (the USSR and India were allies at that time). Moreover, increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan would be a bonus in its contention with India.

The other reason for Pakistan's eager involvement was the particular importance of Islamic fundamentalism for its ruling classes.

For the U.S. and the other Western powers, Islamic fundamentalism was a weapon to be used against the "godless" Soviet communists. (The USSR had long ceased to be socialist and its ruling class was no more aiming to build communism than the Western rulers, but they kept the name "communists" as a weapon in their arsenal.) Since this was the main ideological weapon the Mujaheddin used to mobilise the people, the West did its best to promote that ideology. At the same time, it suited both the CIA and the fundamentalists to paint the war not as a struggle against national oppression but as a religious conflict. They preferred not to awaken the consciousness of the masses, but instead to rely on ignorance and backwardness. This also made it possible to mobilise Muslims from all over the world, especially the Arab countries, to be trained in Pakistan and then sent to fight in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, however, the religious issue was not just a good idea. It was an existential question. General Zia ul-Haq who had taken power through a coup and already launched the country's Islamisation, had every reason to welcome the opportunity to promote this ideology. For one thing, it would project Pakistan as a world centre of Islam, in this way challenging Iran, where the Islamic clergy had hijacked a revolution and instituted a theocratic regime. More importantly, it was advantageous to Pakistan, in its confrontation with India, to consolidate the internal forces around a more rigid Islam. Since what brought Pakistan into existence was the British decision to carve up their colony of India on religious lines to thwart the impact of independence, religion has always bee the main glue holding it together and its rulers have always been sensitive to this fact, but this was another leap in that direction and an opportunity that Pakistan's rulers and their imperialist sponsors could not afford to miss.

The result was that Pakistan did become a centre for Islamic fundamentalism and has been enjoying the particular influence over Afghanistan's affairs it gained through the anti-Soviet war. When in the early 1990s, following the Soviet retreat and the subsequent civil war, it became apparent that the mujaheddin warlords could not rule Afghanistan in the way that Pakistan's rulers and the U.S. needed, the ISI switched its backing to a different Islamic fundamentalist movement, the Taleban. It is no secret that the ISI training, military and logistical backing and money played a key role in bringing the Taleban to power. It is also no secret that the U.S. put up no objections at that time.

A new situation

Pakistan's ruling classes always thought that Islamic fundamentalism would develop in the direction they wanted it to and would benefit them greatly. They also thought they could remain in control. However, things did not unfold as smoothly as they expected, either in the region or in Pakistan itself.

This is not to say what is going on in Pakistan is completely independent of and in frontal opposition to the Pakistani government and ISI. There has been much evidence indicating the involvement of the Pakistani army and ISI in the conflict on the Afghan/Pakistan border. For a long time American and other Western governments seldom if ever mentioned that fact. Now that they have unceremoniously dumped Musharraf – not for being a brutal despot but for being an unsuccessful one – there have been many reports from the U.S. and other Western intelligence services confirming what everyone knew all along. This could be understood as another way of putting pressures on Pakistan. But there is no doubt that there are many elements out of that government's control. Furthermore, the Pakistani government is completely incapable of winning or even limiting this war.

The fact that there are numerous factors and elements influencing this conflict has made it impossible for anyone to control it. And everyone, including the U.S. imperialists, the Pakistani government and the Taleban – all those who have made a mess in the region – has resorted to military means as a way to resolve the situation in their interests. But as the occupation of Afghanistan gave rise to a war in Pakistan, resorting to war by these reactionary forces is not necessarily going to solve their problem as they might hope but might well provoke other conflicts especially due to the sensitivity of South Asian overall. There are many potential conflicts in the region waiting to be inflamed. For instance, the Bombay attacks last November are very likely related in some way to the Afghanistan war as well as the occupation of Kashmir, and the bitterness of the dispute between the two countries following these events revealed potential faultlines. There is also the smouldering Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan are connected, of course, but the links go as far as India and China in one direction Iran and Russia in the other

The irony is that long-term imperialist meddling and intervention has been a major factor in making this region so volatile. What can more imperialist intervention produce but more misery, and more volatility?
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