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Destabilizing Pakistan: Bombs, Mumbai, and Dangerous Alliances

Date Published: 

<I>A version of this article appeared in the <A HREF="">Jan/Feb issue of Left Turn magazine</A></I>

Pakistan, a country whose population is now approaching 200 million and which has ignominiously achieved center stage in international politics, is in the midst of major internal and external crises. The external problems are primarily related to the regional geopolitics with neighbors Afghanistan and India, along with severe tensions with US foreign policy positions. These issues are feeding into internal crises, largely social and economic troubles, particularly hyper-inflation, food shortages, disappeared persons, and uninspiring political leadership. The combination is creating a dangerously high level of political and economic turmoil, which in turn, is a major source of regional (and potentially global) insecurity. In this time of great difficulty, Pakistan has been subject to frequent unilateral military strikes by its supposed ally, the United States. This has only made it more difficult for the Pakistani government to govern the populace. If Lashkar-e-Taiba, or another militant group based in Pakistan, was indeed behind the recent Mumbai attacks, there is little doubt the country’s increased instability made these types of attacks more feasible to carry out, both logistically and politically. If India continues to adopt a harsh policy in response to the attacks, as many in the West have seemed to support, the situation could easily become even more dangerous.

The US has launched more than twenty air strikes in Pakistan since August. These attacks seem to take place now practically on a weekly basis, in spite of the Pakistan government’s pleas,at least in public, for them to stop. While these strikes supposedly have killed some militant leaders, they have also heightened Pakistani perceptions of the US threat, leading to increased anti-Americanism – which was already quite palpable in the public at large. This has seriously complicated the Pakistani government’s job of trying to get villagers and tribes in the border regions to support the government over the Taliban. The latest US military actions threaten to turn the population completely against the federal and provincial governments, feeding internal discontent, which could be fomented via regional nationalism – with perhaps an Islamic flavor – into domestic acts of terrorism against the government and civilians. In a country facing increased economic and political turmoil, continuing this policy seems to be a losing cause.

When the US stepped up its unilateral strikes, Pakistanis were coming off a summer in which they dealt with severe electricity and water shortages, on top of a tanking stock market, monthly inflation rates over 20%, and major food shortages. These problems were not adequately addressed by the government largely due to corrupt and incompetent leadership – the three major national political parties, the PPP, the PML-N, and the PML-Q, were all dueling for power and unwilling to seriously address these problems. None of the major domestic crises have been adequately resolved as of yet. This has led to widespread disillusionment with the new “democratic” government. The lack of progress is not unexpected, since while the PPP and PML-N both espouse rhetoric of standing for the people, they are parties of the Pakistani elite. Both parties have shown their commitment to restraining popular participation in political life, maintaining the military’s role as the elite’s praetorian guards, and the US agenda. An unintended consequence, however, has been that the government itself has become a perceived threat to the people. It has aligned itself with the US to assault its own citizens, has failed to alleviate the domestic crises, and now cannot halt the US from launching unilateral strikes within its own borders. This is why opinion polls in the country routinely show the US as a bigger threat to Pakistanis than terrorism or the Taliban.

The enormous bomb blast that rocked the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Sept 20th represented the flashpoint of domestic crisis. There is little doubt the attack was in response to increased attacks by the US and Pakistani military in Pakistan’s bordering areas with Afghanistan.. The bomb blast was clearly meant to send a message to the Pakistani government- The Marriot is in close proximity to the parliament building, the prime minister’s residence, presidential offices and foreign embassies. It is also one of Islamabad’s symbols of wealth and prestige, and a favorite spot for foreigners. The attack very nearly crippled the state, as many government leaders were supposed to be dining at the Marriott that evening. It is no coincidence that the bombing occurred just hours after the new Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari made his inaugural address to the country.

<B>Unfolding crises</B>

The unfolding crises in Pakistan certainly put increasing pressure on the new government led by President Zardari, who assumed power after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf on August 18. Zardari’s PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) won a large majority in national elections in February, trouncing Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League – Quad (PML-Q) in the process. Zardari himself is viewed quite unfavorably in Pakistan. He derives his political power from his marriage to recently assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and comes from an influential landlord family. He served more than eleven years in jail on charges of corruption and murder, and was labeled “Mr. Ten Percent” during Bhutto’s time in power for acquiring kickbacks on government contracts. He and Bhutto returned to Pakistan last year only due to a Washington-brokered deal that granted him immunity from criminal charges, in an effort to keep Musharraf in power while allowing Bhutto to run for prime minister. After her assassination last December, Zardari and Bilawal, his son, became party co-chairmen.

Zardari has played a careful balancing act since assuming power. He has defended Pakistani sovereignty in public, while facilitating an intensified US-led war in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – the region where the Taliban and its supporters supposedly take refuge. Leading up to Musharraf being pressured out of the presidency, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was in frequent communication with Zardari and there is little doubt he made it clear that there would be a continuity in policies if the US-backed Musharraf was forced out of office.

Since September, the US has launched major ground operations, along with missile strikes, in Pakistan, resulting in a substantial number of deal local villagers. The US has continued these attacks despite Pakistani military and government officials telling US officials, including the US ambassador, that these had to cease immediately. The Pakistan Army General threatened to repel further incursions with force, and in late-September, Pakistani troops fired at NATO aircraft near the Afghanistan border.

The intensification of American attacks in Pakistan represents a clear shift in US policy in the region. It is a stance that also disregards much of recent history. Starting almost thirty years ago, the CIA and Saudi Arabia funneled in vast amounts of money into Pakistan to train guerrilla fighters – the (in)famous religiously-motivated mujahideen – in  a covert operation to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the war ended, America promptly left, doing little to help secure any semblance of peace. The US left behind a generation of radicalized guerrilla fighters with no direction, many of whom settled in the northwest region of Pakistan. The area was historically secular and independent; as a consequence of America’s lack of interest in long-term strategy, as well as the Pakistani state’s policy of depriving the region from any fruits of development, it now has a significant share of religious extremists. At the same time, it is important to note that while the Islamist groups are very politically active, they do not represent the entire region, evidenced by the secular Awami National Party easily winning elections last year. Still, due to the post-Afghan War migration to the northwest region of Pakistan, a significant share of the population in the region has ties to Afghanistan, and specifically, the Pashtun-based Taliban. Add to this the “foreign” remnants from the 80s jihad against the Soviets – including Arabs, Uzbeks, etc. – and you get quite a dangerous mix of fighters.

Back in July, President Bush issued an executive order permitting US Special Forces to engage in ground attacks in Pakistan without prior consent of the Pakistani government. The reason was that the US felt the Pakistani government and military had not been active enough in responding to growing Islamist power in support of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. This completely disregarded the role the Karzai regime bears for the rising popular support for the Taliban. That US-backed regime is widely recognized as weak and corrupt; instead of using foreign aid to increase security and undertake meaningful reconstruction and development policies, they have pocketed much of the money themselves. As a result, a relatively more “moderate” Taliban have gained popular support by providing Afghans more security than, and (in some cases) security from, the government- as well as from a trigger-happy NATO high command that consistently disregards the heavy civilian casualty toll from its continued bombing raids across the country.

<B>Challenging task
Given all this, it should be obvious that eliminating the Taliban-friendly groups in Pakistan will be a challenging task. It will require, among other things, effective governance in Afghanistan which would potentially decrease popular support for the Taliban. It will also require negotiations between the Pakistani government and tribes in the northwest region. This will take time, and will require the Pakistani government to be in a strong national position. The government’s inability to stop unilateral US strikes within its own territory makes it look even weaker, which will make negotiations with villagers who are being bombed even more difficult. Yet, the US expects immediate results, and the rising number of military casualties in Afghanistan has made Pakistan a convenient scapegoat.
With the election of Barack Obama, this policy seems set to continue, and possibly even intensify. While Obama has indicated an interest in getting troops out of Iraq relatively quickly, he wants to shift them to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rather than changing US policy in the region towards better and saner options, such as demanding good governance from Karzai and Zardari, providing adequate economic and humanitarian aid, and investing in the area’s often non-existent infrastructure, Obama has indicated continued interest in the ‘military solution’.

Of course, the Pakistani military has been a willing participant in this policy, and indeed has been Washington’s preferred partner in the region for decades. On behalf of the US, it had engaged in massive operations in the region over the past few years. This policy emphasized colonial-style collective punishments on villages and tribes, heavy civilian casualties, and disappearances, all of which further enflamed the population and destabilized the region. At the US’s insistence, the Pakistani military sent 120,000 troops to the border areas, where severe fighting has displaced 300,000 people. The military has routinely employed warplanes and helicopter gunships in these forays, and has provided the CIA with torture-friendly interrogation sites, in turn receiving billions of US dollars for supporting the Afghan occupation.

The joint US-Pakistan effort since October 2001 has caused the deaths, injuries, and detention of thousands of civilians. This has engendered greater militant opposition, especially among the Pashtun tribes that span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, the unilateral US strikes in Pakistan have belied the military’s claim to be the guarantor of the sovereignty of the country – a claim that has historically been necessary for it to appropriate a vast amount of the country’s scarce revenues and to legitimize its preponderant role in Pakistani politics. The US strikes have effectively emasculated the military and the government, both of which are confronting record-low support amongst the population as it stands. This has made it even more difficult for them to attempt negotiations with villagers.

In addition, the unilateral strikes have exacerbated divisions in the Pakistani military, which supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before Islamabad was compelled to break its ties after Sept. 11. A significant percentage of the officers posted in the FATA region are Pashtun – the same ethnicity as the local tribes and those across the border in Afghanistan. In previous entanglements, Pashtun officers have often refused to fight or have engaged in outright mutiny. Again, this points to the complexity of the situation, precisely why a rapid clampdown of the region is simply not feasible, short of bombing it into the ground, which is the more or less the policy that has been pursued in recent years.

With the launch of these unilateral missile strikes, the US is pursuing a peculiar strategy with Pakistan, one that seems certain to fail. It is seemingly now at war with the country, while concomitantly claiming a strong alliance with it. Its actions are only creating a greater sense of fear and hatred amongst Pakistanis, both of the US and of the Pakistani government. Zardari seems to be the least likely person to maintain any semblance of good governance, and this is what is making the situation worse; indeed, he is still holding on to some of the illegitimate presidential powers added on by Musharraf, and given his low approval ratings, it seems certain he will utilize some authoritarian measures to quell the opposition which is rapidly emerging to his rule. It is thus reasonable to expect increased popular Pakistani opposition to both the US and their government in the near future. Indeed, this combination of internal and external threats is a very dangerous mix that could have catastrophic consequences, as seen in the Marriot Hotel bombing.

<b>Mumbai attacks</b>

The Mumbai terrorist attacks in late November further complicate matters. If they did indeed originate with militant groups in Pakistan, the weakened Pakistani state would have been in little position to stop them. The government is particularly weak at this moment, and the populace, neglected by those in power, has been siding less and less with Islamabad. The constant bombing strikes have weakened the Pakistani government’s ability to negotiate with tribal leaders, making it more likely that militant groups planning such attacks would not be turned in to the authorities. And the military itself, no matter how unified the high command may be, is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a check on its lower level officers and intelligence operatives whose sense of betrayal heightens with every new US attack in Pakistani territory, or every new Indian crackdown in Kashmir – without any Pakistani response.

Additionally, the attacks seem to be keyed in on regional, not global, issues. The Western media has made every effort to frame them as a “fundamentalist attack” on a democratic country, feeding into the popular “clash of the civilizations” narrative that has been used during the “War on Terror.” The attacks were clearly tied to the conflict in Kashmir, and also served as a political statement about India’s increased ties to the West. In particular, the Indian Right has made recent efforts to align themselves closely with Israel and the United States. This effort has produced a nuclear deal between India and the US, and frequent Israeli consultation on military matters. India has also become Israel’s top weapons buyer.

These moves are undoubtedly seen as threatening for Pakistan. Indeed, even though Pakistan is the most critical ally in the “War on Terror,” it has been treated with contempt by Washington. No foreign effort has been made to address the many social and economic crises the country is facing. Instead, the US has made policy demands that would be unrealistic even if it were assisting Pakistan with its domestic issues. The West clearly wants India in their fold, as a “democracy” – as well as a geostrategic and economic powerhouse – against “terrorism”, and, it might be noted, rising China. This seems to be a clear effort to create a rift in South Asia, to encircle and force so-called failed states to make concessions that directly benefit the other countries in a neo-imperial fashion. This could easily spill over into a regional alliance against Pakistan, which is incredibly dangerous considering how weak and unstable the state currently is.

The way the Indian elite and its backers in the West have responded to the Mumbai bombings reflects the deeply flawed approach to such acts of terrorism. First, even if Lashkar-e-Taiba, or another Pakistani militant group, was behind the attack, it seems highly unlikely that they could perpetrate the act without significant support in India. There is clearly a connection between the attacks and the stalemate in Kashmir, as well as general domestic policies of the Indian state vis-à-vis Muslims. Mumbai itself has hardly been a friendly place for Muslims, who have often been unable to buy or rent places in the city solely because of their religion. Shiv Sena, the militant nativist group led by the Hindu fundamentalist Bal Thackeray, is a powerful political party in the country, and wields significant amount of power in Mumbai. They use inflammatory racist rhetoric, and have long been accused of organizing violence against Muslims, including the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 that resulted in close to 2,000 Indian Muslims being killed, many burned alive. Many of the police officers and officials involved with those acts have been promoted. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, is widely suspected of being complicit in the violence, has close ties to Hindu fundamentalists, and is very popular with India’s main financial companies, primarily based in Mumbai. Indeed, Indian Muslims throughout the country have been subject to systematic discrimination and violence by the Hindu Right. That Delhi has only given Islamabad limited data from the attack, and has kept Interpol out of the loop, raises suspicion as to what India has actually discovered about the attack. Given the many tensions within India, it seems fairly likely that, even if militant groups in Pakistan were involved, homegrown elements played a significant, if not major, role. Would India not share the intelligence because they found that their own state policies had more to do with the act than Pakistan? There seem to be few other reasons why they have kept the data to themselves.

This is in addition to the continued stalemate in Kashmir. The international community has continued to not push for a resolution to this conflict. India claimed the territory due to the Hindu Maharaja aligning himself with India over Pakistan in 1948, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population was Muslim – and the partition of the Subcontinent was based on Muslim-majority states becoming apart of Pakistan. The UN demanded that Kashmiris be allowed to decide their own fate, but this never happened. A resolution of the conflict could lead to greatly increased stability in the region, but it requires compromise and a political solution in sight. Pakistan needs to clamp down on militants, but this will be impossible unless India agrees to give meaningful voice to the Kashmiris themselves and their genuine demands of self-determination and/or autonomy within the Indian federation.

<B>US and Israel</B>

Nevertheless, the question remains: is there a real effort by the US, Israel, and the Indian Right to form an alliance to assert power over other states in the Middle East and South Asia? Between the recent history of all parties working hard to create strong ties to each other, and the way the Mumbai attacks have been framed, it certainly appears to be the case. Not coincidentally, India has seemingly lost interest in the IPI pipeline deal, a venture to bring Iranian natural gas to both India and Pakistan. There is little doubt that the US has put pressure on Delhi to pull out of the deal, given the former’s hostility to Tehran. In addition to the nuclear agreement between the US and India increasing India’s potential energy resources, the Mumbai attacks are also being used as another reason for India to abandon the IPI project, which would complicate matters for energy-strapped Pakistan.

Will such an alliance succeed? Given all the domestic issues involved, it seems highly unlikely. The Indian Right will be unable to quell the anger of Indian Muslims – as well as the sizeable coalition of progressive and activist groups opposed to Indian state policy – unless it opts for real policy changes or ethnic cleansing, an option that is both morally reprehensible and completely illogical given the sizable Muslim population in India. Pakistan. Taking lessons from Israel and the US seems to be a terrible idea as well, given the propensity of both countries to pursue militaristic policies that are morally and legally questionable (at best), and that only further inflame and strengthen their opposition. In Pakistan, anti-US and anti-government feeling amongst the populace shows no sign of abating. The state has been weakened by a complete failure of the US to help its supposed ally on issues that would help create a more serene political, social, and economic environment. Instead, the continual bombardments, along with the efforts to solidify a relationship with the dangerous Indian Right, have done nothing but create more security concerns in Pakistan.

Mumbai presents an opportunity to abandon the military solution. Indians, by and large, have little desire for conflict. The Indian Right, and their policies of oppression of Indian Muslims and intolerance of any and all dissent, represents a minority view of the situation. However, many of these forces have been able to ideologically influence the Indian establishment, and are drawing Western support. If the Mumbai attacks are viewed as an impetus to address the grievances of Muslims in India, political issues between Indian and Pakistan, and reevaluate US policy towards Pakistan (and Afghanistan) overall, policy that has wreaked havoc on that state and society, there may be a real opportunity to use the tragedy to take steps to increase regional stability. However, this could also be a very dangerous moment. If the strategy of belligerence and militarism continues to be pursued, a scenario that seems far more probable given the rhetoric from the main players, we are unleashing a powder keg. Already saddled by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, unless President Bush and President-elect Obama use their power to change course in South Asia and alter the US agenda in Pakistan, we may see the beginning of a third.

<B>Fouad Pervez</B> is a writer, actor, and policy analyst. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, and has been provided commentary on US domestic and foreign policy on radio stations across the US, including NPR and Pacifica Radio. He is a PhD student at Georgetown University, where he studies international politics.

<B>Junaid S. Ahmad</B> is a PhD student at the University of Cape Town. He is a member of the Social Justice Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Group in Cape Town, and his areas of interest include political Islam and globalization.</I>