Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s April 17 speech to the Council of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute was widely reported in the global media as announcing an early withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan.
But the April 20 Australian Financial Review said government ministers had reassured Australia’s allies in the US-led multinational occupation of Afghanistan that the speech did no such thing.
What the speech did was bring Australian government spin into line with that of the US. The US is hoping by the end of 2014 to have reduced its military presence in Afghanistan to military advisors, secretive special forces deployments and a network of permanent military bases and pass this off as a troop withdrawal.
Previous statements by Gillard had been more honest, positing open-ended Australian military involvement.
Part of the spin in the prime minister’s speech was a narrative on Pakistan’s relationship to the war in Afghanistan, which has become part of the standard Western analysis of the conflict.
“We will also continue to work for a secure external environment for Afghanistan … And Pakistan is critical to Afghanistan’s stability,” she said.
The narrative paints Pakistan as alternating between being an ally in the “war on terror” ― itself victimised by terrorists ― and being a hostile entity sponsoring and providing safe haven for the terrorists.
So, on the one hand, according to Gillard: “We well know that Pakistan has been at the frontline of the threat of violent extremism in its region.
“Terrorist groups have attacked its people and government. Pakistan has launched numerous operations against these groups including in areas near the border with Afghanistan. And in this fight the people and the military of Pakistan have suffered losses in the thousands, indeed the tens of thousands, over the last decade.”
While on the other: “Nevertheless, there is also no doubt that parts of Pakistan are being used by terrorist groups. Particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. I am realistic about the threat that poses ― realistic too about what can be done to limit that threat … The government of Pakistan is in no doubt about Australia’s determination ― or our concerns.”
There are several threads of truth running through this fundamentally misleading narrative. But it ignores that it has been the changing priorities of Western imperialism, not Pakistan’s ruling elites, that has created the increasingly ambiguous relationship.
During the Cold War, Pakistan was the West’s main regional proxy. Its rival, India, was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and generally lined up with the Soviet Union.
Pakistan’s role as Western proxy reached its height in the 1980s during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, when Pakistan-based Afghan and foreign religious fundamentalist groups were fighting a proxy war on behalf of the West against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s main intelligence outfit, the ISI, managed the frontline aspects of this CIA-directed operation.
Zia also used religious fundamentalist gangs, and the incorporation of reactionary interpretations of Islam into the legal system, against domestic opposition. This was in the context of the introduction of the first wave of neoliberal policies against state intervention in the economy and social infrastructure provision.
Violent religious fundamentalism has been a feature of Pakistani politics since this period. Landlords and capitalists using armed thugs has a long history in Pakistan, but it was the CIA-sponsored religious war in Afghanistan that created Pakistan’s ubiquitous gun culture.
When the Western imperialist powers invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan, which after a decade of corrupt and dysfunctional civilian governments had again come under military rule, allied itself with the invaders and received billions of dollars in military aid.
However, the Pakistani military retained its links with the Afghan and foreign Islamists in Afghanistan, as well as those fighting India, mainly in Kashmir.
Gillard’s narrative echoes a common Western complaint that since 2001, Pakistan has been playing a double game in Afghanistan. This is superficially true, but it is the West’s double game that the Pakistani military has been playing.
The superficial aims of the West’s war in Afghanistan disguised the global geopolitical factors that were the real motivation.
As the neoconservative cabal who came to power with George W Bush in the US in 2000 had previously outlined in their “Project for a New American Century” document, a “new Pearl Harbor” (a reference to the Japanese attack on Hawaii that triggered US entry into World War II) would allow the US and its allies to use demonstrative military force to assert dominance in the strategically important and resource-rich regions of Central Asia and the Middle East.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Afghanistan-based rogue CIA asset Osama bin Laden provided the “new Pearl Harbor”. Afghanistan, already devastated by two decades of war, became the location for the West’s demonstration of its military might.
The invaders allowed the Pakistani military to withdraw their key assets in the Taliban leadership before the invasion because it was immaterial to them.
For Pakistan’s elites, both terrorists and the fight against them are weapons that can be used against the people. The rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the Pukhtun areas of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is a real phenomenon.
At meetings in the villages of Serokali and Komarkhani in Hashtnagar district, Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa on April 13, Pukhtun peasants told Green Left Weekly they believed that Pakistani and US intelligence were responsible for the infiltration into regions traditionally outside government control.
These regions had been governed by Pukhtunwali, the unwritten Pukhtun constitution, with authority exercised by tribal elders, meeting in jirgas (councils) when the need arose.
GLW was told the Taliban targeted elders for assassination as well as peace activists and anyone trying to establish new jirgas, destroying traditional authority. Kidnapping gangs and other criminal elements flocked to the banner of the Taliban as this breakdown in authority facilitated their activities.
Previously, the peasants said, the areas outside government control experienced less violence and crime than areas under direct government rule. The rise of the Taliban reversed this, causing refugees to flee to the government-controlled areas.
Adding to the influx of refugees has been the US response to the Pakistani Taliban: drones. A July 14, 2009, report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank not known as a source of anti-imperialist propaganda, said that for every targeted terrorist killed, 10 civilians were also killed. Furthermore, it is the CIA who decides who is a terrorist to be targeted, making them judge, jury and executioner by remote control.
Pakistani governments, military and civilian, have condemned the drone attacks, which have killed more than 3000 people, but they have also cooperated with them ― until at least April last year the drones took off from Shamsi Airfield in Pakistan.
After a November 26 cross-border attack by NATO forces that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani government suspended the supply of occupation forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan and ordered the evacuation of US military personnel from Shamsi Airfield. As a goodwill gesture, the US suspended drone attacks but unilaterally resumed them on January 12.
On April 20, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that negotiations between the US and Pakistani governments to resume the supply of the Western forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan were also discussing resuming cooperation in the drone strikes.
Western leaders applaud Pakistani prosecutions through its Anti-Terror courts. But those targeted by these courts are primarily not religious extremists. On November 1, an Anti-Terror court sentenced six leaders of the Labour Qaumi Movement to a total of 490 years in jail for leading a strike of 100,000 power loom workers in Faisalabad in July 2010. They are members of the staunchly secular leftist Labour Party Pakistan.
Also facing the Anti-Terror courts are 12 power loom workers in Karachi who were trying to register a trade union. Six of the 12 have been in custody since March 22 and severely tortured.
Western business has a big stake in Pakistan’s textile and garments industry, through direct investment in mills and through these mills producing clothes under contract for Western companies, including well-known brands. Workers in the industry have been struggling to get paid Pakistan’s minimum wage: a meagre 7000 rupees a month (about A$74).