"We are caught between the government and the Taliban..." The situation for the population in Pakistan was put very clearly by a South Waziristan resident fleeing to Dera Ismail Khan.
The death toll from the car bomb at a busy market in Peshawar is 118 and rising, only the most recent of a wave of terrorist attacks which has killed hundreds. Civilians are also suffering from US drones in border areas and by the Pakistani army's campaign against the Taliban in South Waziristan. There the population has already suffered a four month siege in which they were encouraged to flee, seen their homes bombarded and been deprived of aid. The 100,000 or so internally displaced are staying with relatives, if they can, as no tents or provisions have been made available for them, despite having been forced to leave the area in preparation for the current military campaign. The population is terrorised by all sides.
All this follows Pakistan's campaign in the Swat region earlier this year, under intense pressure from the US to take action against the Taliban strongholds - bases for attacks on Afghanistan - on the Af-Pak border. It follows an increase in US drone attacks, including one that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader. But the government has chosen to attack the Mehsud area and Tehrik-i-Taliban, which carries out its terror within Pakistan, while the army made peace agreements with others, such as the Haqqani network, which attack over the border; and it has also told the US that Quetta is off-limits to their drones, although they believe the commander of the Shura Taliban, Mullah Omar, is hiding there. The situation begins to resemble a chaos of competing interests, rather than a war with two clear sides.
Three decades of imperialist conflicts
It is impossible to understand the present fighting on the Afghan-Pakistan border region without the framework of the development of confrontations in the region since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then Pakistan and particularly its intelligence service (ISI) and army played a central part in training and supplying the Mujahadin forces against the Russians - on behalf of both the US western bloc and its own imperialist interests which then coincided. When the Taliban took power in the mid 1990s - after years of growing instability and gangsterism following the defeat of the Russians - this was particularly favourable for Pakistan which had a close ally cum client in power in its strategically important neighbour. The rewards for Pakistan's loyalty were short-lived. The US needed to impose its control over Afghanistan and when the 9/11 attacks gave them the pretext the Taliban regime was quickly overturned. Pakistan co-operated with this war after overt threats from the US.
Pakistan was constrained by the might of the world's only super-power and pushed into supporting a costly conflict with its former allies. However, the US has become mired in first Iraq and now Afghanistan, and is currently debating its strategy. General McChrystal wants up to 100,000 more foreign troops in Aghanistan for a full blooded counter-insurgency strategy (Gordon Brown's conditional offer of another 500 troops indicates at least token support for this). Meanwhile Vice President Joe Biden wants to limit the mission. The view that McChrystal's strategy is impossible, and the aims should be limited to a small counter-terrorism force with drones, put forward by Rory Stewart, former British soldier and diplomat, also has some influence in Washington. Such difficulties leave a small margin for other powers to become more open in their opposition to American interests. Iran, for instance, has become more daring in pursuing its local and nuclear aims. Similarly, when Pakistan feels a let up in US pressure it makes use of this opportunity to pursue its own imperialist interests more directly even if it is unable to openly oppose the USA.
As things stand at the moment, however, Pakistan is in a difficult position in relation to Afghanistan, with their allies out of power and under attack, and even their longstanding enemy, India, allowed to invest there. As we have seen, Pakistan has good reason to be reluctant in attacking the Taliban. They would, according to the Economist (17/10/9) like to mediate talks between the Afghan government and the Pashtuns, closely related to their own frontier population, including the Taliban, with a view to forming a government that is much more favourable to their interests. Whether or not this is realistic, even if it is reckless in the face of the much more powerful USA, this is what Pakistan's imperialist interest forces it to aim at.
US pressure on Pakistan
With the US putting pressure on Pakistan to deny any haven to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, it is no accident that its two military campaigns against them should occur at the time of meetings with US politicians: Zardari's visit to Obama in May, and Clinton's visit to Pakistan in late October. Clinton, standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Pakistan against "brutal extremist groups", congratulated their army on its fight against the Taliban, and made clear the real message behind this diplomatic language when "she said she found it hard to believe that nobody in the Pakistani government knew where al-Qaeda was hiding in the country and ‘couldn't get them' if they wanted" (BBC news online, 30/10/9).
US imperialism is using aid as a way of imposing its will on Pakistan. When the US Congress voted for a $7.5bn increase in non-military aid over 5 years it caused great bitterness in Pakistan, given the conditions imposed. It has to provide frequent evidence that it is cracking down on terrorists, including those attacking India; no nuclear proliferation; and the army has to keep out of politics. The army is whipping up anti-American feeling. President Zardari has been weakened as generals brief his rivals: "Pakistan's generals consider foreign policy too important to be left to the politicians" (Economist 17/10/9).
The perspective: more barbarity, more chaos
Pakistan's hesitation to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda reflect not only its external ambitions, but also internal difficulties that threaten its disintegrating into all out conflict.
It is not for nothing that the Af-Pak border, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas such as South Waziristan, have been called the most dangerous place in the world. Going back to the days of British rule they were difficult - or impossible - to control, having to be granted a degree of independence, and those regions remain incompletely integrated into the Pakistani state. The region is the perfect terrain for Al Qaeda and the Taliban to hide out and holding the border regions would put impossible strain on the army. The fighting is more likely to spread the conflict than contain it, while the Taliban and their Uzbek fighters largely slip out into other areas such as neighbouring Baluchistan. And they won't just stay in the border regions but spread out to fuel more terrorist incidents, as we have seen throughout October with a wave of attacks, including the suicide bombing at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, which killed 8 and wounded 18, and the siege of the army headquarters at Rawalpindi which killed 22, to name but two of the incidents. The devastating car bomb in the market in Peshawar, with all the claims and denials about who set it, is the sort of thing we are seeing more of as the conflict spreads.
Nor is the spread of this conflict limited to Pakistan, which is known to be central to many terrorist networks. Iran has recently accused Pakistan of harbouring the Jundallah Sunni group (among those they blame for a bomb that killed 42) - and the recent arrest of 11 Revolutionary Guards who strayed across the border is an indication of increasing tensions throughout the region.
The greatest danger in the situation lies in Pakistan's difficulty holding together as a coherent, and nuclear armed, state. Internally it has many ethnic groups, with many historical enmities, particularly between the Pashtuns, living in the border regions such as South Waziristan, and the Punjabis who make up most of the army sent against them. Its politicians tend to be divided on ethnic lines, and its civilian politicians have been regularly overthrown by the military which has the greatest capacity to cohere the country. The whole situation is extremely dangerous.
There is nothing to choose between the Pakistani government and army on the one hand and the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the other. The first is a regional imperialist power entirely reckless of the lives and misery of its population as it tries desperately to defend its interests despite pressure from within and without; the second desperately trying to get back into power and willing to kill and maim civilians in its effort to do so. The USA differs from the first two only in its greater military and economic power, and has been willing to spread chaos and death on a much larger scale from the Middle East to South Asia in order to defend its super-power status. Only when the whole working class sweeps all these murderous forces away will the area no longer pose a threat to humanity.