Washington escalates Pakistan's civil war

By Linda Waldron

On October 25, Major-General Tariq Khan, commander of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), announced that his officers had captured Loi Sam, a key Taliban stronghold in the Bajaur region, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Eleven days earlier, US officials had released a public version of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), compiled by the CIA and 15 other US spy agencies, complaining that “the Pakistani military is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the Islamists”. The 80,000-strong FC is commanded by regular Pakistani army officers, who serve for a period of two to three years.

The FC’s offensive into Bajaur began in early August. By October the FC claimed control over 70% of the region. Pakistani officials announced that “1500 militants” had been killed but only 73 Pakistani FC soldiers had died. No official figures regarding civilian casualties have been released but eyewitnesses report high civilian casualties from Pakistani airstrikes.

Since mid-August the US military has attacked Bajaur 12 times. On September 3, Afghanistan-based US special forces troops invaded a village in the FATA’s South Waziristan region to kill “suspected terrorists”. This was the first officially acknowledged use of US ground forces in Pakistan. Local police reported that at least 15 villagers, including women and children, were killed in the US raid.

On September 10 Pakistani chief of staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani described the US operation as “reckless” and said that Pakistan’s territorial integrity “will be defended at all cost and no external force is allowed to conduct operations … inside Pakistan”. Kayani’s comments were applauded by the Pakistani public and his comments were echoed by government officials who had previously been reluctant to speak on the issue.

In the weeks following the September 3 attack, the US military stepped up air strikes into the FATA by pilotless drones. Pakistan’s border area was invaded four times by US ground troops. On September 25, Admiral Michael Mullen, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that Pakistani troops had fired on two US helicopters that were supporting US ground troops. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied this, instead claiming that the Pakistani troops fired warning flares.

The US incursions into Pakistan prompted many media analysts to query whether Washington was planning to declare war on its longtime ally. The public release in mid-September of a presidential order made in July authorising US strikes inside Pakistan without seeking authorisation from the Pakistani government, spurred the media speculation. It is, however, nothing new for the US military to operate unilaterally inside Pakistan’s borders. Since 2002, Washington has routinely sent pilotless drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas to collect intelligence and fire missiles at suspected “terrorist” targets.

On a number of occasions the Pakistani government covered for these operations by claiming responsibility for the attacks. Pakistani authorities only denounced US military operations inside Pakistan when they resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, such as occurred in the abortive attempt to assassinate al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006.

Raids by US ground troops do imply a more aggressive US military policy in the border regions, but do not suggest Washington regards the Pakistani government as a new enemy in its so called “Global War on Terror”. Zardari has repeatedly shown himself to be as close an ally of Washington as his predecessor, Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. On October 4 Zardari, who became president in early September after his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won a landslide win in country’s February parliamentary elections, told the Wall Street Journal: “I am not going to fall for this position that it’s an unpopular thing to be an American friend. I am an American friend.”

Zardari demonstrated his support for US political interests by inviting the US-imposed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to attend his inauguration on September 10. At a joint media conference afterwards, Zardari and Karzai vowed to co-operate in fighting “terrorism”, code for endorsing the US-led war against the Taliban-led Afghan resistance to the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan. Replying to a question about the the withdrawal of some of 145,000 US troops occupying Iraq and their redeployment in Afghanistan, Zardari said: “Asking the US to leave Afghanistan is a luxury that we cannot afford.”

Zardari’s domestic policies also reflect his eagerness to defend US imperialist interests. Although the PPP came into government on the back of the judges and lawyer-led pro-democracy movement against Musharraf, Zardari has failed to reinstate the Supreme Court judges illegally ousted by Musharraf. Zardari has vowed to restore them but remains silent on the fate of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose sacking by Musharraf sparked the pro-democracy movement. Chaudhry proved a block to US corporate interests by opposing the planned privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation.

The global financial crisis has driven Zardari’s new civilian government into seeking closer financial ties with the US government. By the end of October, Pakistan had US$3 billion in foreign currency reserves, only enough for one month’s supply of imported food and oil. The government’s top economic adviser, banker Shaukat Tareen, warned on October 20 that Pakistan urgently needed $4 billion in foreign loans, and up to $8 billion would be needed by the government to repay sovereign debts due to mature in 2009.

A US official who participated in drafting the NIE told reporters in Washington on October 14 that it portrayed the situation in Pakistan as being “on the edge” of economic and political collapse. Another US official summarised the NIE’s conclusions about the state of Pakistan as “No money, no energy, no government”.

The US Treasury-dominated International Monetary Fund has promised assistance of up to $6 billion to help Pakistan meet its immediate balance of payments needs. Reuters reported on October 29 that an IMF aid “package is usually contractionary and often involves cutting spending, raising taxes, accelerating privatisation, increasing interest rates, and exchange rate flexibility to correct fiscal and external imbalances and control inflation”. Mushtaq Khan, a London-based economist for CitiBank, told Reuters that Islamabad had already moved to eliminate fuel subsidies. “As subsidies have been cut”, Reuters reported, “Pakistan has raised retail fuel prices seven times since February and electricity rates have almost doubled.”

The October 29 International Herald Tribune reported that as a result, Pakistan is facing “the worst energy crisis in its 61-year history, with electricity cuts in the past year routinely averaging up to six hours a day during peak hours, contributing to widespread unrest and protests by angry residents and businesses.

“Demonstrations are a monthly occurrence in the business hub, Karachi, which suddenly goes black for a third of the day. The power cuts have added further strain to a country already coping with high food and fuel prices, crimping the economy. They have also led to water shortages, since most of the country’s water pumps run on electricity …

“A decade ago, Pakistan had a power surplus and was exporting energy to India. But a near-total neglect of investment in the industry under former President Pervez Musharaff, combined with economic growth of near 7 percent a year from 2003 until last year, and the emergence of a prosperous middle class snapping up electrical appliances, from refrigerators to DVD players, reversed the situation.”

While Islamabad and Washington are in political accord, the overriding influence of the Pakistani military has complicated US military objectives in Afghanistan. Washington has long been pressuring Islamabad to destroy Taliban bases inside Pakistan and has been frustrated by the Pakistan military’s seeming reluctance to wage all-out war on Islamist militias.

The military’s apparent reluctance derives from its ambiguous relationship with the Isalamists. The Pakistani military, which has ruled the country for 33 of Pakistan’s 61-year history, sees itself as the protector of the Pakistani Islamic state, so its interests have often coincided with those of the Islamists. Furthermore, the Pakistani military recruited and armed Islamic militias to help fight the war with India over Kashmir. The army also encouraged the spread of Islamism in the Afghan border regions in order to suppress Pashtu nationalism. The military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency helped secure the Taliban’s 1996 victory in Kabul, with the assistance of CIA-supplied funds.

After 9/11, when Musharraf publicly supported Washington’s “Global War on Terror”, some Islamists in the Pakistan army and the ISI resigned, others were demoted or executed, but many remained. Musharraf used Islamists inside and outside the military as political buffers against the civilian parties, enabling unprecedented electoral victories for Islamist parties in the border areas in 2002. A September 2006 accord between Musharraf and Islamists in North Waziristan effectively handed control of the region to pro-Taliban groups.

The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in July 2007 signalled a turning point in the relations between Islamists and the military government. The Rangers military police lay siege to a state-sponsored mosque attached to an Islamabad madrassa. During the week-long siege, women and children were held hostage by Islamists inside the mosque and over 100 students and clerics were killed. Eleven soldiers died and 40 were wounded. Previously the Pakistani state had condoned the Wahabi version of Islam preached at the mosque and ignored a series of increasingly provocative actions taken by the mosque leadership.

Embarrassed when the mosque’s morality militia abducted six Chinese workers from a massage parlour, Musharraf’s government decided to make an example of the sect. The military’s assault on the mosque incensed Pakistani Islamists and Taliban supporters issued fatwas against Musharraf while suicide bombers attacked military targets.

In July 2007 over 2000 Pakistani soldiers were deployed into the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province to fight pro-Taliban militias. At first the army remained inactive, allegedly intimidated by the militias’ ability to capture soldiers. But in November 2007 the army began a major offensive into the region.

The army’s contradictory orientation to Islamism underscores Washington’s suspicions about its willingness to fight the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters. Washington also lacks confidence in the Pakistan military’s ability to conduct counter-insurgency warfare. It is these twin concerns that explain the recent escalation of US military activity inside Pakistani territory.

Despite the Pakistan army’s public opposition to these US operations, military co-operation between the two states continues to advance. In early September Washington announced a plan to supply Pakistan with 18 new F16 fighter planes. In mid-October the US sent 25 military personnel to train Pakistan’s Frontier Corps in counter-insurgency techniques. On October 16 the US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, and the Afghan and Pakistani chiefs of staff, General Bismullah Khan and General Kayani, held a tri-national strategic planning meeting.

On October 14 US officials informed McClatchy Newspapers that Kayani sought political cover from Zardari’s civilian government for a major anti-insurgency crackdown. This political cover was duly delivered on October 22 when all 16 parliamentary parties endorsed a new resolution for a national offensive against “terrorism”. Kayani welcomed the resolution saying Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror “is indicative of an emerging consensus in Pakistan that terrorism has to be squarely addressed with the help of the people”. The resolution gives the green light for military occupation of the semi-autonomous tribal regions.

The US raids into Pakistan’s territory have therefore advanced the military objectives of both Washington and Islamabad. It is the oppressed tribal peoples in the border regions who will continue to pay the price for the US-Pakistan alliance.