New Internationalist

The street-smart poor

Issue 340

Pakistan’s military ruler is playing ball with the Americans. But he may well live to regret his decision, as Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and Ali Qadir explain.

The decision made by General Musharraf and his close aides to give the US the green light for its forthcoming military operation in Afghanistan is front-page news across the world. Now the General is meeting so-called ‘representative’ Pakistani groups to incorporate their views. This is odd, as there are very few decisions left to make. The die is already cast.

The key issue here is who is being invited to these consultations. General Musharraf seems to have met with everyone but the common Pakistani. The appallingly poor home-based worker that is the backbone of Pakistan’s textile industry, the katchi abadi [slum] dweller who is fighting to retain the mud roof over her head, the farmer who owns three kanals [1,500 square metres] of land that cannot feed his own family - why does he not consult these folk?

Actually the reason is simple: the General is using this opportunity to gain political credibility. And meeting these ‘groups’ will give him that. Pakistani politics have made sure that subsistence farmers, small fisherfolk and informal-sector labourers do not have the political weight to give any such credibility. Nor have they been allowed the political space to be recognized as equal citizens.

But times are changing. Not because these disadvantaged groups are as well organized as they need to be to have their voices heard, or because civil society has finally woken up to its responsibility to raise the political consciousness of the Pakistani population. Times are changing because ordinary people are street-smart, because they know the ropes, because they will always be able to use their God-given instinct to know when they are about to be used. And they learn from their history.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, setting the stage for a chain of events which has finally led to the carnage that is New York. General Zia ul-Haq could not have asked for a better curtain-raiser on his decade-long dictatorship. The subsequent American involvement in the conflict was milked by the Pakistani military for all it was worth. Our intelligence agencies as we know them today were essentially built from scratch through the 1980s. This period also saw the systematic deconstruction of Pakistani society and the birth of sectarian violence. The extremist threat in Pakistan today is a direct result of policies enacted by General Zia ul-Haq and funded by the United States.

It is quite likely that the current military regime views the recent turn of events as an opportunity to get America back on our side. It is not unknown to the world that America is likely to reward Pakistan for co-operating with its all-out revenge effort. The situation for the Pakistani establishment this time around however is not as straightforward as it was in 1979. The military will now be going up against an enemy that knows them inside out - not least because they created this enemy themselves.

In 1979 it was not difficult to convince the average Pakistani of the need to wage war against the threat of the Soviet Union. Today, Pakistanis are being expected to forget the state-sponsored extremism that they have been fed for over a decade and accept that Americans will use Pakistan as a means to wage war on Afghanistan. And as before, America will forget the common Pakistani as soon as the so-called war against terror is over. We can be sure that katchi abadi residents and landless labourers will not be the beneficiaries of this adventure. The winners will be those who have been winning for the past 54 years - including the military, which will use this event to strengthen its stranglehold on the politics of this unfortunate nation.

The pragmatist might say that we do not have a choice. We live in a harsh world where power politics determine right and wrong. However, ordinary Pakistanis may just have had enough of these shenanigans. They are sick of arbitrary decisions that stand only to make their lives miserable. They do not like the idea that America is being allowed to destroy the only overt resistance to its own ‘terrorist’ activities across the Muslim world (read: Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon etc) where again it is the poor who suffer at their hands. They are frustrated that there is such a public outpouring of grief for America when America itself is involved in violence across the world that goes completely unnoticed. Most of all they do not like the fact that Pakistani generals have suddenly woken up to the fact that deadly terrorists live next door to them when it is the Pakistan military machine itself that has been involved in their activities for many years.

The extremists in this country and elsewhere will not take Pakistani support for American retaliation lying down. Neither will frustrated elements of the Pakistani population who see this impending disaster as it is: another decision which they have no control over but which is certain to change their lives.

The lack of space for democratic expression and the role of the US-sponsored intelligence has ensured that the Islam that is propagated in this country is reactionary and potentially violent. General Musharraf would do well to listen to the views of katchi abadi dwellers, farmers, workers and other groups traditionally excluded from the decision-making process in Pakistan. They might be able to offer him insights into the real consequences of his decision that he hasn’t thought about, including the fact that the army is likely to become more of a targeted institution rather than the darling of the nation it claims to be.

Pakistan has a great deal to lose. Do we have the gall to reject America’s ‘requests’ for assistance? Maybe not. But have we ever been able to resist the imperatives imposed upon us by the West? No. Do we have to establish some sovereign identity before we are able to really focus on nation-building? Yes. Even if this means refusing to offer America explicit support for its planned massacre in Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment would do well to think over the pros and cons and finally take a decision in the larger public interest. The general population is already suffering from rising prices, unemployment and other increasing difficulties. The least the Government should do is to ask them whether they want to add American occupation to the list.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and Ali Qadir are social activists and writers based in Islamabad.

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