Is Pakistan “on the brink”?

UNDER INTENSE pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani military has engaged in a major offensive in the Swat Valley of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). While the stated objective is to root out the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TeT), the Pakistani variant of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the bombings and gunfights have killed thousands and produced a massive outpouring of refugees from the NWFP into other parts of Pakistan. The indiscriminate violence is also paving the way for the Taliban and other Islamist outfits to grow.

In fact, the reason that the state deals with Islamist organizations through military means is because it is unwilling to address the underlying reasons that political Islam has grown in the NWFP—massive inequality and corruption, the genuine grievances of the Pashtun minority, and the collaboration of the Pakistani state with the American imperial project.

Soon after bombings of TeT installations began on May 8, major cities in Pakistan were flooded with refugees. The country’s internal refugee population was already quite large, estimated at about a million before April 2009, since the NWFP is not new to militancy or to Pakistani military operations. The UN now estimates that the refugee crisis is larger than the one in Darfur, Sudan, as three million internally displaced Pakistanis crowd into under-resourced camps. The economy of Swat has been devastated and entire villages have been depopulated.

As it became harder to ignore the refugee crisis produced by military operations, international aid agencies began requesting serious aid for relief efforts. On May 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even pleaded with Americans to send aid to Swat through a text message program organized by the United Nations. Her interest in Swati refugees would be admirable if it weren’t dripping with hypocrisy. Of the $1.9 billion in American aid that has been pledged for “humanitarian relief” to Pakistan, $900 million will be spent on building the American embassy in Islamabad.

What’s more, it was the current American administration that pressured the Pakistani government to take “decisive” action to “eliminate and expel” the Pakistani TeT. American drones bear responsibility for some of the refugee crisis as it is. More than 700 people have been killed since 2006, with 164 killed in 14 attacks since the beginning of the Obama administration. But things will only get worse. As American impatience to pacify Afghanistan builds, more and more people in the border region will feel the pain of the pincer action of Americans in the west and Pakistani military from the east, not to mention the violence against non-Pashtun minorities by members of the Taliban.

Between two allies—the U.S. and the Islamists
The Pakistani ruling class is not innocent either. It has a long-established pattern of hitching its wagon to the United States. It is the worst kind of irony, perhaps, that the Taliban grew into a significant force in the 1990s with the help of the Pakistani Interservice Intelligence agency (ISI) as part of a project that began in the 1980s to develop a proxy army to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto’s government was the first to normalize relations between Pakistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, a decision that proved very costly for her.

Today, two decades after the Soviets left, the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan are now awash with guns, training camps, and militant organizations. The current crisis in Pakistan is the making of the cynical policies of its ruling clique, who have used militant Islam to attack their secular opponents in places like the NWFP and Balochistan, where nationalist parties have attempted to organize secessionist movements.

Some speculate that the army may have intentionally allowed the TeT to grow to levels that would necessitate a heavy intervention. It was only a short while ago when the armed forces were forced out of politics and back into the barracks; the growth of the Taliban allows the Pakistani military to pose itself as the nation’s savior.

But the military’s policy is two-sided, since it relies on militant Islam to unbalance both its regional competition, such as India and the USSR, and its domestic political opponents. This is why their efforts against the Taliban have always been half-hearted. As Farooq Tariq of the Labor Party Pakistan (LPP) explained:

The military operation in Swat covers up the reality that the Pakistan military considers the Taliban an asset and is not willing to sacrifice that asset to please the USA. While [the] army is flushing the Taliban out of Swat, the Jihadi-infrastructure (training camps, seminaries, newspapers, charities; the fronts for the Taliban) remain intact in other parts of the country.1

In fact, Pakistan’s military has used the threat from these militant groups to retain its power, to repeatedly undermine civilian governments and to keep the spigot of aid flowing from the United States. In the process, it funds, trains, and arms these groups to make sure that it has a regional foothold in Afghanistan and Kashmir, where the growth of Indian influence has cut into Pakistani ambitions. While this is the fourth anti-militant military campaign in three years—and the most heavy-handed—the Pakistani army has no interest in fully dismantling the Taliban. The army also hesitates to press a decisive campaign against homegrown militants because a sizeable section of the rank and file is recruited from the NWFP.

Every past operation to root out the various Islamist organizations from the region has ended with the military making concessions. In February, it gave a green light to the Awami National Party (the ruling party in the NWFP) to negotiate with the Taliban and arrived at a cease-fire in exchange for agreeing to the controversial Nizam-e-Adl legislation, which would have allowed the Taliban to establish a variant of sharia law in the NWFP. The terms of the deal have been public for at least a year, since they were part of the election platform of the ANP when it ran for office in partnership with the Pakistan People’s Party, the party of Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan.

Alarm about the Taliban
Despite the hesitance to break with Islamist militants in general, the army and the civilian government have successfully been painting the TeT as a particularly virulent strain of Islam bent on wrecking national institutions and challenging the rule of law in order to explain why this time things will be different. Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the most vocal holder of this view, recently wrote in the New York Review of Books:

Pakistan is close to the brink, perhaps not to a meltdown of the government, but to a permanent state of anarchy, as the Islamist revolutionaries led by the Taliban and their many allies take more territory, and state power shrinks. There will be no mass revolutionary uprising like in Iran in 1979 or storming of the citadels of power as in Vietnam and Cambodia; rather we can expect a slow, insidious, long-burning fuse of fear, terror, and paralysis that the Taliban have lit.2

The particular fear of the TeT, though, is taken from the American playbook about Islam in general. Rashid continues:

The accord followed the defeat in Swat last year of 12,000 government troops at the hands of some three thousand Taliban after bloody fighting, the blowing up of over one hundred girls’ schools, heavy civilian casualties, and the mass exodus of one-third of Swat’s 1.5 million people. The Taliban swiftly imposed their brutal interpretation of sharia, which allowed for executions, floggings, and destruction of people’s homes and girls’ schools, as well as preventing women from leaving their homes and wiping out the families that had earlier resisted them.3

This is, of course, not an incorrect picture of the Taliban, but the problem is what Rashid advocates as a solution, namely calling on the Pakistani state and its military to resolve the crisis that they clearly have no interest in resolving. As Saadia Toor has argued,

The principled position is always to be anti-army—not just on an abstract level, but drawing on the actual history of the relation of the army to groups like the Taliban and the Pakistani people. To anyone following these developments, it boggles the mind that someone would call on and expect the army to protect the people.4

It is also important to note, against Rashid, that most of the refugees interviewed in the media have explained that they are fleeing American and Pakistani bombs rather than the Taliban. Focusing on Islam instead of the social dynamics of the region helps Rashid make the entirely implausible case that the military can succeed in routing the militants, even though, just next door in Afghanistan, nearly eight years of NATO and U.S. bombing have not been able to point the way to such an end.

Most Pakistanis up until this point had been opposed to American bombs being dropped on Pakistani soil. The alarms about the TeT that have been repeated in the Pakistani news media, however, have won some popular support for a renewed campaign. It was, incidentally, only after Pakistani public sentiment shifted against the Taliban and it became clear that American aid would require more serious restrictions on the Taliban that the civilian government and the military went on the offensive.

This change in public opinion is a feat in itself, given that just a few months ago Zardari’s government was on the verge of collapse as a powerful lawyers’ movement and a stubborn opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), made serious challenges to the credibility of the regime. Now, however, the media, most civil society organizations, all major parties, and leading members of the Muslim clergy have lined up behind the military incursions into Swat. It’s likely that this support will continue as Zardari pursues his intentions to spread the zone of engagement to Buner and then Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Why is there a Pakistani Taliban?
There are several reasons for the growth of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, but they are sociological and political, rather than the result of some virulent strain of Islamic thought. 

First of all, when the Pakistani elite used Islam throughout the 1980s to recruit Pashtuns to the cause of Afghanistan, they also aimed to undermine secular nationalism in an ethnic region that had growing secessionist demands. The state cultivated religious leaders, funded madrassahs (religious schools) in the region, and organized training camps to help carry arms and information across the border into Afghanistan.

These efforts weakened the credibility and vitality of secular and progressive forces to the point that, in 2002, a coalition of Islamist parties—the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)—won a majority of seats in the provincial assembly of NWFP. In Balochistan, the other province bordering Afghanistan, the MMA won enough seats to rule in coalition with the party of dictator General Pervez Musharraf.

Secondly, the American war in Afghanistan has devastated the country and ruined the lives of countless Pashtuns, the ethnic group on both sides of the border from which the Taliban recruits. Thousands of Pakistanis have joined the Taliban to repel the Americans since the war began in 2001. When American drone attacks began in the NWFP, Pashtuns joined with the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border. And as the Pakistani state sidled up to the Americans, the TeT had new bones to pick with the domestic policies of the government. The Islamists have been consistent in their opposition to the American operation in Afghanistan and the Pakistani collaboration with it, a position that brought it into conflict with the government of General Musharraf and now of President Zardari.

Third, there is a class dimension to the growth of the Taliban. As Kamran Asdar Ali, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas wrote:

The Taliban have plainly appealed to smoldering anti-feudal resentments in the Swat valley in recruiting their cadre. A handful of families own the fruit orchards and cow pastures that are the main sources of livelihood in the valley, and their agreements with tenant farmers are often honored in the breach. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords (khans) are also likely to hold the concessions for the timber forests and the contracts to operate the gemstone mines that also employ the working class of Swat. “Paradise on earth” or not, the Swat valley has seen a large percentage of its able-bodied men out-migrate since the 1950s.5

This is not to argue that the Taliban are waging a class war, but that part of the reason that they are growing has to do with the long-term systemic inequality in the region. A small class of landlords controls the lion’s share of the economy and runs the main political party, the ANP, which has led to rampant corruption in the police and judiciary. At least in part, the Nizam-e-Adl legislation was designed to turn the courts over to local control and allow for a more swift dispensation of justice.

Moreover, the Taliban took over the emerald mines in Swat in March of this year, displacing the owners and entering into a profit-sharing agreement with the laborers. It is also not surprising, therefore, that a large proportion of the assassinations carried out by the Taliban are directed at large landlords and officials accused of corruption. The economic and social grievances of the landless poor in Swat are aimed at the state and the rich, and as long as the Taliban appears to be fighting those forces, they continue to earn the support of at least a section of the valley’s residents.

Neither the Taliban nor the Pakistani state, however, has any real interest in systemic overhaul of the economic situation in the valley. The Taliban would happily welcome back the khans and the maliks (tribal chiefs who have benefited from state patronage) if they were to agree to their rate of taxation. This was the policy adopted by the TeT’s Afghan counterparts, after all.

It is clear that the expansion of U.S. military intervention will embolden a resistance, and as long as the Pakistani elite continues to rely on Islamist outfits at the expense of secular parties, the Islamists will be the beneficiaries of the anger against the American-Pakistani war on terror. Even if the Pakistani state is successful in routing the Taliban, the underlying social grievances which gave rise to them will not go away without a real reorganization of the economy, mass improvements in education, substantive land reform, and genuine social mobility for women. Regrettably, the record of the Pakistani government on all of these fronts has been abysmal.

There are important efforts underway to help the war’s refugees, like the Labor Relief Campaign initiative of the LPP, which couples political demands (reduction in the military budget, increased spending on education, land reform) with real relief efforts (establishing camps, collecting donations and food). Systemic change, though, remains a long way off as the left in Pakistan continues to be quite small. But still, it remains the only viable option for meaningful change. As the last month has shown, President Barack Obama’s “comprehensive strategy” for the region—revealed now as a major expansion of the anti-Taliban war into Pakistan—is no less deadly or devastating than his predecessor’s.

  1. Tariq Ali and Farooq Tariq, "Help fight against Taliban and military operations,"International Viewpoint online, May 2009,
  2. Ahmed Rashid, "Pakistan on the brink," New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Saadia Toor (interview), "Behind the nightmare in Swat,", May 22, 2009,
  5. Kamran Asdar Ali, "Pakistan¹s troubled 'paradise on earth,'" April 29, 2009, Middle East Report online,


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John