Revolution #115, January 13, 2008

In the Wake of the Bhutto Assassination

Pakistan: A Dangerous Cauldron Heats Up

On December 27, the Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. In the days immediately following, people rose up in protest across the country. The government, led by Pervez Musharraf, answered the protests with bloody suppression and a state of emergency. It postponed previously scheduled elections. Masses of people in Pakistan are fed up with their situation and extremely concerned about “what comes next.”

Within the U.S., the ruling class has reacted in different ways. Some are clearly putting their chips on the current leader Musharraf; others are looking for a different alternative. All are alarmed at the possibility of the situation spinning even more out of U.S. control. Pakistan is key to American imperial aims to dominate the region of south and central Asia, and to combat the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. It stands at a strategic crossroads, it contains 165 million people, and it has nuclear arms. Meanwhile, according to the January 6 New York Times, plans are on the table at the top levels of the Bush regime for further U.S. CIA and military penetration of Pakistan.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is being spun by the U.S. as a setback for U.S. attempts to bring enlightened democracy to Pakistan. But an examination of the real political, economic, and military forces that set the stage for her death reveals a far different reality, and a very different picture of the problems the people of Pakistan face and the solution.

Pakistan: A Bloodsoaked Geopolitical Outpost for U.S. Imperialism

“What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.”—Bob Avakian

Nowhere is this truer than in Pakistan. Pakistan is an oppressed nation. At the most basic and fundamental level, the economic life and development of Pakistan is dominated by capital that is rooted in the imperialist nations of the U.S., Europe, and Japan. There are sweatshops in the cities which produce low-cost goods for the markets dominated by imperialism. There is feudal and semi-feudal agriculture, which has also been integrated into circuits of global capital, where landlords still dominate peasants in ways that are both centuries old and as modern as an AK-47. On cotton plantations, hundreds of thousands of women and young girls pick cotton for less than a dollar a day. Over half of the country’s 165 million people are without access to safe drinking water. The army—which itself has been built up by the U.S.—controls many key industries. (One major grievance of the middle class and bigger bourgeois forces inside Pakistan has been the way in which the army has enriched itself and further dominated the economy during the last ten years.)

There are extreme gulfs between urban centers like Lahore (near the Indian border), with a large, educated middle class, and the countryside where landless peasants live in abject poverty. Pakistan is also split apart by nationality, with oppressor/oppressed relations among them. There are extreme differences between the conditions of Urdu-speaking people driven from India; Pashtuns, who are the same nationality as the dominant nationality in Afghanistan; the Baloch people, who are involved in an armed insurgency for autonomy in their gas-rich region against the central government; and the populous Punjab province. The Bhutto clan is based in the Sindh region where the clan patriarch rules over peasants and servants. There is also a simmering conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims which occasionally comes to a boil.

In short, different sections of the country are not well-integrated into a single, relatively coherent economy, as they are in imperialist powers like the U.S.—and there are very sharp conflicts among these different sectors. At the same time, all these conflicts take place in a context of overall imperialist political-military domination. As a consequence, assassinations, hangings, and coups—as well as the bloody civil war that gave rise to the nation of Bangladesh—have marked the brief history of Pakistan. And none of these have signaled any break whatsoever with the basic imperialist domination of the economic, political, and social life of the country.

The great and overriding importance of Pakistan to the U.S. is not so much economic but as a military outpost and agent in a very critical and volatile region of global contention. Pakistan borders Afghanistan, where the U.S. still has many occupying troops and faces a growing insurgency; Iran, which the U.S. continues to threaten militarily; and India, home to a billion people and one of the most rapidly growing, and important, economies in the world. U.S. military aid accounts for about a quarter of Pakistan’s entire military budget. The Pakistani army is today the seventh largest in the world. The Pakistani military has served as U.S. imperialism’s most reliable agency in Pakistan, sometimes ruling overtly through military dictatorship, sometimes allowing one or another political party to have a turn, but in every case serving as a major conduit and guarantor of U.S. influence and power—even if this has been, and is right now, contradictory at times.

The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and the “War on Terror”

This U.S. domination took a leap with the seizure of power by a pro-Soviet government in neighboring Afghanistan in 1977 and the outright Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan two years later. This invasion set in motion what would become pivotal events in the global contention between the two clashing imperialist blocs—U.S. imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism (imperialism in the name of socialism). When pro-Soviet forces seized power in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father) made moves towards accommodation with the Soviets. He was overthrown in 1977 by General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, and later hung.

The U.S. moved in with major support for Zia. This included massive aid to Pakistan and to its army, and included the use of Pakistan’s intelligence agency to finance and train the jihadist, or Islamic fundamentalist, guerrilla forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s vast border with Afghanistan served as the rear area for military operations. The U.S./Pakistani-sponsored Islamic fundamentalist forces not only fought the Soviets, they ruthlessly slaughtered progressive and revolutionary Maoist forces fighting the Soviet invasion.

The Zia forces not only saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the army, but also to strengthen Pakistan’s position against India, its rival within the region. (India tilted toward the Soviet camp during this period.) As for the Islamic fundamentalists who were trained and financed by Pakistani intelligence, they saw this as a step toward actually getting some countries under Islamic rule. In the end, the forces built up by the U.S. were able to drive out the Soviets. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. became the unchallenged dominant power in the world.

After the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the armies of jihadists in Afghanistan and their powerful infrastructure, including Islamic schools along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, were no longer needed or useful to the U.S. The Pakistan government—by then led by none other than the “enlightened” Benazir Bhutto!—still saw these forces as useful in their rivalry with India and for other reasons as well. Bhutto’s government supported the rise of the Taliban, the brutal religious fanatics who swept into Afghanistan in the early 1990s from the Pakistan refugee camps and instituted strict Islamic rule.

With the Soviets out of the way, the U.S. now saw the opportunity to directly project its military force in the Middle East. They invaded Iraq in 1991 for the first time, and then implanted military bases in Saudi Arabia. The non-Afghani jihadist forces built up by Pakistan—now grouped around Osama bin Laden—reacted with outrage. The former allies—the U.S. and the fundamentalists—now came into conflict. Frankenstein’s monster turned on its creator with a vengeance on September 11, 2001.

Pakistan again became a focal point of U.S. imperialist military aims. For a while the Pakistan rulers had tried to ride two horses—keeping alive its support of the Taliban without disrupting its client status with U.S. imperialism. In the wake of September 11, 2001, a U.S. diplomat presented Musharraf with an offer he couldn’t refuse: cut all ties with the Taliban and enlist in the “War on Terror,” or “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.”

Today, the very Pakistani military the U.S. used to set up the Taliban is being ordered to wipe out the Taliban. These Taliban forces are dug into the Waziristans, a large impoverished Pakistani region of 3 million people bordering Afghanistan. U.S. military operations—both direct attacks on Pakistan and through the Pakistani army—generate support for Islamic fundamentalist forces. Missiles fired from U.S. CIA “predator drone” (pilotless) aircraft on villages in the Waziristans have killed many civilians, and led to massive Islamist-led protests against the U.S. and Musharraf. And meanwhile, many within the army still see the Taliban as important potential allies; many share their ideology; and some might even see letting them stay around as a way to keep the U.S. aid flowing.

In 2004 and 2005, under U.S. pressure, Musharraf sent tens of thousands of Pakistani troops into the Waziristans. That operation was a disaster for Musharraf and the U.S.—hundreds of Pakistani troops surrendered or deserted to the Taliban. The agreements that resulted from this fiasco ended up further institutionalizing Taliban control over these regions.

Musharraf has carried out the campaigns against Muslim fundamentalists, as well as the regionally based opposition movements, through death squads, torture, secret detentions, and massacres. These have flouted any pretense of legal process. This was one of the factors behind the opposition to Musharraf from high court judges, and the rebellion of lawyers—a movement that in turn was hit with widespread and vicious suppression. Turning the fist of the regime against the lawyers further angered the urban middle classes, students, and other sections of society that the U.S. sees as potential allies in the “War on Terror.”

In these conditions, sharp debate emerged in the U.S. ruling class, framed by a consensus that Musharraf lacked sufficient desire and ability to mobilize the army against the Pakistani Taliban while maintaining some semblance of legitimacy for his rule.

(Re)Enter Bhutto: Another Creature and Servant of Imperialism

The U.S. directly brokered and imposed a partnership between Musharraf and Bhutto, and she returned to Pakistan in October 2007. The exact terms of the power-sharing between Musharraf and Bhutto were a matter of conflict. But everyone, especially the U.S. godfather, agreed that Bhutto’s participation in elections would legitimate Musharraf’s continued rule through some form of power-sharing between the two. Musharraf would represent the army and Bhutto would bring in the alienated middle classes and the sections of the national bourgeoisie who felt cut out of the action thereby stabilizing the political situation. The payoff would be that the new alliance would strengthen the moves to go after the Taliban.

Bhutto is far from the “heroic, if flawed, saint” portrayed by the U.S. media. When she was in power as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, she was a brutal servant of imperialism and shamelessly corrupt. During her two terms as Prime Minister, the Pakistani intelligence agency worked closely with Al Qaeda and installed the Taliban in Afghanistan. She worked with and facilitated the growth of Islamic fundamentalist influence within Pakistan, and played a key role in wiping out radical, secular influence in the struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir. Her rule was characterized by death squads, murders in police custody, “disappearances” of dissidents, and torture. When her brother Murtaza Bhutto, a rival in her Pakistan People’s Party, charged her with corruption, he was shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances during a police ambush outside the Bhutto family home. 

Bhutto stayed largely silent during the uprising of lawyers against Musharraf and his draconian “state of emergency.” Under pressure from her supporters, she issued late, pro-forma statements opposing emergency rule crackdowns. She was widely condemned by protesters for standing aside from the struggle, and for collusion with Musharraf.

Bhutto’s supporters blame Musharraf for her assassination. He, along with other forces in the volatile mix of contradictions in Pakistan, might have seen benefit in her assassination. But other forces in Pakistan also opposed her insertion into the equation. In the violent and complex swirl of events in Pakistan, it is impossible to know who was actually behind her death.

New Dangers & New Openings

The new situation is one of tremendous uncertainty. Every force is scrambling to advance their interests within the “new reality.” In regards to the U.S. rulers, they must now weigh how the actions that they feel compelled to take in both Afghanistan and Iran—including the possible military attack against Iran, which is still “on the table”—would be affected by the current volatile and explosive situation in Pakistan; and how actions in those countries might make Pakistan even more explosive. The U.S. can’t just “walk away” from this situation. Pakistan’s size, strategic location and nuclear weapons—as well as the strength of the Islamic fundamentalist trend in the army—make it an extremely important country from the calculus of U.S. control. If this country, or any part of it, falls under the control of the Islamic fundamentalists, this would mark a huge strategic setback for the U.S.

The Islamic fundamentalists, for their part, would see controlling Pakistan—or parts of it—as a critical base area for further operations and to enforce their own forms of oppression. This would be a big advance for their interests—one which the U.S. could not long tolerate. Again, the conflict between what Bob Avakian has pinpointed as the two main contending forces in the world representing outmoded and reactionary social relations poses explosive and high-stakes challenges, both for the reactionaries…and for the people.

Back in the U.S., presidential candidates debate and posture over how to “defend our interests”—masking how the preservation of “our interests” through successive Pakistani regimes has sentenced 165 million people to lives stunted and cut short by imperialist domination. And while this goes on, the Bush regime (as noted earlier) is reported to be figuring out how to take advantage of the situation to insert an even more aggressive CIA and U.S. military presence in Pakistan, especially the Waziristans.

The current upheaval in Pakistan poses dangers of even more severe repression against the people. Many rightly fear and oppose the ascendancy of reactionary Muslim fundamentalists who could move to “fill the vacuum” if things further disintegrate. And there is a real sense of “no good options” for the future.

But the recent past has seen courageous struggle by the Pakistani people, like the courageous movement of lawyers protesting illegal detentions, disappearances, torture, and murder. It has also seen the uprising and anger—much of it directed against the U.S.—following Bhutto’s assassination. The real interests of the vast majority of the people of Pakistan—from the urban middle strata chafing at the repressive, corrupt regime, to the impoverished peasants and agricultural workers, to the sweatshop workers in the city—lie in breaking free of the so-called “choices” of Islamic fundamentalism or Western imperialist “democracy.” And the real interests of the people in the U.S. lie in opposing this whole horrible imperialist system and its ugly deeds and brutal aims around the world, and in making common cause with those whom it oppresses.

In countries like Pakistan (and most of the rest of the world), the task of national liberation from imperialism is the pressing task. New-democratic revolution—pioneered by Mao Tsetung in China—is the path to that liberation. New-democratic revolution unites and represents the interests of all who can be united to overthrow feudalism and semi-feudalism, the bureaucrat-capitalist class and state system dependent on and serving imperialism. But the goal is not to repackage imperialist domination in a democratic form. Instead, new-democratic revolution overthrows imperialism, as the first stage of a socialist revolution aimed ultimately at the worldwide overthrow of capitalism-imperialism.

Today, as in most of the world, the people of Pakistan are urgently up against the need to solve the problems of making this new-democratic revolution, in theory and practice, in the challenging conditions of our times. If forces step forward in this current upheaval with that aim, something good for the people of Pakistan—and for humanity—can come out of all this.


The original version of the article above, which appeared in issue #115, contained an incorrect formulation that has been corrected here online. That error is explained in "Editors' Correction: On the New-Democratic Revolution" (issue #116).

“What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other.  If you side with either of these ‘outmodeds,’ you end up strengthening both.”

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
From the talk, “Why We’re in the Situation We’re in Today… And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly Rotten System  and the Need for Revolution”


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