Mass demonstrations in Pakistan have forced President Asif Ali Zardari to back down and fulfil an election promise to reinstate judges sacked by the government of Pervez Musharraf.
As US President Barack Obama prepares to send an extra 17,000 troops into neighbouring Afghanistan, President Zardari’s central problem remains his government’s participation in the “war on terror”.
Zardari beat former military leder Pervez Musharraf in the 2008 election on the back of a promise to end Pakistan’s poisonous alliance with the US. In the early days of his rule both Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif refused to cooperate fully with US attacks on the border with Afghanistan.
But these promises of change have come to naught, even as US attacks inside Pakistan (on supposed “Taliban” targets) increase.
The US is putting the Zardari government under extreme pressure to deal with what is commonly called the “Pakistani Taliban” along the border with Afghanistan, particularly in the Swat valley.
However, Zardari faces ever-growing domestic opposition to his handling of the conflict on the border. This anger is not just about US-led attacks along the border region, but also the heavy-handed operations of the Pakistani army in the region. It is this pressure that led the Zardari government to a truce with the opposition forces in the region.
The ‘Pakistani Taliban’
Over the last month, the Zardari government has sought to mark out a new course in its approach to the conflict in the Swat valley. Zardari has negotiated a ceasefire requiring “moderate” Islamist leader Sufi Muhammad to end attacks on Pakistani soldiers—in exchange for implementing a version of Sharia law in the region.
The introduction of Sharia law is not in and of itself particularly radical—it has been operating on the ground in many areas of Pakistan for some time.
The real problem for Zardari is that he has exposed a central contradiction that his government faces.
His efforts to rally domestic support for the crackdowns on the Afghanistan border have been justified by demonising the Islamic movement inside Pakistan as a Taliban movement that poses a huge threat to the country.
Now the government has negotiated with the movement it has claimed poses such a threat—creating renewed tensions between those inside the government and army with ties to the Taliban and those who want to tie the country more closely to the US’s “war on terror”.
This move has lead to a debate in the US ruling class about how to deal with Pakistan. Some in the Obama administration want to accelerate attacks on the border region, whilst others are worried that Pakistan is a tinderbox waiting to fall to either the Taliban or civil unrest.
“We’re troubled and confused about what happened in Swat,” said US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. “It is not an encouraging trend. The people who took over in Swat are very bad people.”
The trouble for the Zardari government is that these “very bad people” are harnessing the growing discontent of poor and working class Pakistanis.
Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of people marched 20 kilometres through the Swat valley chanting anti-government and pro-Taliban slogans. This demonstration drew support from the estimated 500,000 people who have been displaced by military operations in the region.
Despite the ongoing military operations in the region, opposition to NATO occupation in Afghanistan and the Pakistani government’s alliances has not been defeated—if anything the strength of the forces and their popular support is growing.
The US is eager to calm the situation in Pakistan. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been in contact with both Zardari and Sharif, pleading for calm and negotiation. Unfortunately for the US and the Zardari government, their positions looks more fragile by the day.
The International Monetary Fund has recently lent Pakistan US$7.6 billion to deal with their budget crisis. The global economic crisis has caused poverty to skyrocket, hitting 35 per cent of the population.
The Zardari government is under immense pressure, from an Obama administration bent on escalating the war in Afghanistan, from the conflict within its northern borders and now from a promising and resurgent civil movement headed once again by the lawyers. These pressures are only going to increase with the worsening economic crisis and a population looking to inspiring movements in the streets.
By Ernest Price