Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

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They expected that the U.S. and the military would wipe out the militancy, opening the way for a secular, liberal approach in Pakistani society. Quite the opposite began to happen. The expectations of the progressive left evaporated when the U.S. failed to destroy the insurgents, but having pushed them into Pakistan, began to demand that military operations be carried out in Pakistan, particularly in FATA but also in Swat, in order to complete the U.S. mission and seal its control of Afghanistan.22

Both the U.S. and Pakistani liberals began to accuse the Musharraf regime of playing a “double game” and for being the principal force that was obstructing success. Liberals argued that Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, did not want to conduct the operation in order to protect its strategic assets, ignoring the fact that opposition to the U.S. and support for the Taliban’s resistance to the U.S. were initially predominant sentiments in the region and also permeated the military and other state institutions. The military and ISI are not unified and univocal institutions with a straightforward institutional rationality — quite the contrary. The crisis of the state institutions in fact reflected the crisis in the broader class formation, particularly a crisis among the dominant classes. This crisis continues even today, and it cycles between enthusiasm for military operations and reluctance to pursue them.23

A Pakistani woman at a rally for Malala carries a sign in support of America's drone campaign. - Hawking Women's Rights | Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

A Pakistani woman at a rally for Malala carries a sign in support of America’s drone campaign. – Hawking Women’s Rights | Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

Understanding the broader social opposition to military assaults24 led to the second phase of liberal and progressive discussions on imperialism, revolving particularly around military attacks on Swat in 2008. Liberals incited fears about the insurgents being only 60 miles (200 km) away from Islamabad. They lamented that Pakistani society was undergoing “Talibanization,” an incoherent term that seems to mean anything from religiosity to religious conservatism to support for the insurgency. Having obscured various, complex and contradictory processes that are underway in Pakistani society, civil society liberals thus stood behind the PPP as it formed its alliance with a military dictator and then, as it came to power to implement the objectives of that pact. Even though the Dubai pact was brokered by the U.S. between different sections of the ruling class, liberals, driven by their own interests and fears, preferred the military-democratic party alliance rather than engaging with the complexities of the masses of Pakistanis.

A fraction of the progressive left, however, was reluctant to support the Swat operation because leftists were coming to realize that as U.S. aggression increased in the region, so did religiously-inspired militancy. The ensuing humanitarian crisis of over two million internally displaced persons from Swat was disastrous. Some radical progressives began to think through how religiously-inspired militancy combined with local contradictions and grievances to produce explosive mixes. In the wake of the Swat operation, then, the lines between liberals and radical progressives started to become clearer. Liberals strongly condemned progressives who opposed U.S. imperialism and narratives of how the anti-modern Islamists would push Pakistan back to the dark ages. Meanwhile, some radical progressives sought to concretely analyze the societies of Swat and FATA in their struggles. For the first time, leftists exposed projects of modernity and liberalism masquerading as left politics as elements of a Western, imperialist agenda.25 These bitter polemics enabled progressives to begin to distance themselves from liberal and civil society elements. They also led to the next set of problematic positions.

Some progressives argued that imperialism and the Islamists are both equal enemies.26 But, others critiqued this position as obscuring the role of imperialism and emphasizing that of the insurgents. To be sure, the victims of the militants’ violence will see them as the primary problem. Others, whose families have been destroyed by drones or military operations, will have different opinions. Yet, as we have argued above, imperialism plays an integral role in Pakistan’s political economy and cultural politics.


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Even on a purely military level, we cannot equate the most advanced war machine of imperialism to the activities of dispersed, undefined groups often working at cross-purposes. Holding both forces equal not only masks the magnitudes of difference in power and force between the one side and the other, it also illustrates ignorance and indifference towards engaging with our own society and the forms that the struggles of various people may take. Such analyses overlooked imperialism and the urgent need of anti-imperialist struggle.

With drone operations ramping up in 2008, the next phase of imperialist war inside the borders of Pakistan did more to clarify the analysis and highlight the extent to which imperialists have disrespected the autonomy and sovereignty of the Pakistani people. The hunt for Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan further exposed the weakness of the ruling classes of Pakistan (and military) due to their reliance and subservience upon U.S. imperialism.

Finally, now with the latest military assault on North Waziristan, the third and decisive phase of analysis is ongoing. Here, it should be clear that, insofar as important sections of the ISI and military initially sought to hold back the military operations, it has to do with fear amongst ruling classes about unleashing even more violence in Pakistan and especially direct violence upon the military, such as attacks upon the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009, the Mehran Naval Base attack in 2011, or the attack on the Airport Security Force in Karachi this year. Nevertheless, this time it is not the “liberal” PPP but the “conservative” PML-N that is carrying out the assault—meaning that the consensus of the main parties of the ruling classes has been achieved, with few exceptions, in support of military attack. It is clear from the history of the issue around Waziristan that the U.S. wants this operation. This clearly means that this war is an imperialist war, which the ruling classes of Pakistan have imposed on the people of Pakistan through the military.

Animating Pakistan | Nadia Hasan and Saad Sayeed

Animating Pakistan |Nadia Hasan and Saad Sayeed

This war is the latest phase of a broader imperialist war in the region, and it has been waged on the Pakistani people since the inception of the state. It is only by recognizing this history and placing the issue in a broader context that we can think about a clear direction for the practice of working class politics.

The current phase of the imperialist and liberal project has exposed the “progressive left” in Pakistan. Emerging independent leftist critiques have have sought to sharply condemn liberalism and the defense of imperialism outside of the internal problems and limitations of the “progressive left.” The liberal project has been forced to exit the cloak of progressive left politics in order to articulate its criticism in direct contrast to the new radicals. With leftist politics increasingly disavowing the liberal project, the latter’s latest ploy has been to invoke an elitist, nativist dichotomy to deride radicals by claiming that liberals are “in” Pakistan, and so must face the militants, whereas critics of imperialism and liberalism are “diasporic” Pakistanis who face no existential threat.

Many radical elements among progressives are now picking up on this critique of liberalism, but they are vulnerable to the fundamental pitfalls of liberal analysis as articulated above. They focus on the military or the establishment as the singular and special institution in Pakistani politics that pushes around other reluctant elements of the ruling classes who, presumably, if they were left alone would bring about a proper democracy. They are given to narratives of the epic contest between civilization and barbarism, or at least seeing religious extremism in the abstract as a fundamental contradiction without grounding ideology in materiality. They insist upon the unitary nature of all militancy (and its necessary link with the military), preventing nuanced analysis of the kinds of formations that exist and how they relate to state or society. Accordingly, they see imperialism and Islamists as both being equal enemies. Their analysis, seemingly robust, is fundamentally incoherent, and they are vulnerable to slip over to the liberal side, acquiescing to the necessity of strategic operations, if the militants win even a small fight. Read on >>

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  1. This position was reiterated by Canada’s current immigration minister and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, on national television. He complained that the failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan was a result of not being able to conduct military operations in Pakistan. See Kathleen Harris. 2014. “Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, Chris Alexander says.” CBC News, April 01. The interview followed on the article by Carlotta Gall that asserted that Pakistan, and the ISI in particular, was responsible for just about everything. Here, the “real enemy” is Pakistan. See Gall. 2014. “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden.” New York Times, March 19. The article was based on her book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. []
  2. Former Major General Athar Abbas has been very clear about this: “Abbas revealed that earlier, opinion over the operation was divided. One group was in favor of the operation, while the [other] wanted to delay it.” See 2014. “Kayani was reluctant to launch N Waziristan operation three years ago.” Express Tribune, June 30. []
  3. Most Pakistanis continue to be ambivalent to US-led “counter-terrorism” efforts. Surveys of Pakistanis consistently show that the US is viewed as an enemy and a military threat, and that Pakistanis oppose US-led “anti-terrorism” efforts. See, for example, Pew Global Attitudes Project. 2011. “U.S. Image in Pakistan Falls No Further Following bin Laden Killing.” Pew Research. []
  4. See Sartaj Khan. 2008. “On the Nature of the War in Swat.” The News, Dec 18.; Sartaj Khan. 2009. “Imperialism, Religion and Class in Swat.” International Socialism. Issue 123.; and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. 2010. “Islam as Ideology of Tradition and Change: The ‘New Jihad’ in Swat, Northern Pakistan.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 30(3): 595-609. []
  5. In fact, Rousset articulates the position of the former Labor Party Pakistan, now absorbed into the Awami Workers Party. []

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46 Responses to Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

  1. TQ Chāt | # 17 | Tanqeed on Aug 2014 at 5:33 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality [x] […]

  2. Storage on Sep 2014 at 5:31 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality […]

  3. Cornell Daily Sun on Sep 2014 at 12:02 AM

    […] values, placing Islam itself as the root cause of terrorism (relatedly, one could argue that  a cycle of American military and cultural dominance feeds fundamentalist, anti-American sentiment), the oppression of women, and irreconcilable cultural differences. Kairey’s column relies on […]

  4. […] Syed Azeem and Noaman G. Ali: Accordingly, the responsibility of anti-imperialist struggle falls on the shoulders of the working classes of Pakistan. There should be no doubt about this point. Finding any solution to problems like militancy or economic development as suggested by the petty bourgeois “civil society,” reliant as they are upon imperialism, will lead Pakistan towards a situation like that of Libya, Syria and Iraq. That is where half of the population is fighting against the other half. Let us stop right here. There should be no more wars on the people of Pakistan, not least of all because that is what imperialism wants. Being anti-imperialist is being in favor of those vast masses who find themselves squeezed by the daily grind of an underdeveloped economy and a repressive politics and especially those who find themselves the victims of the violence that has exploded as a result of imperialist misadventures. In terms of practice, the first step in this regard is to embrace the people of Pakistan – that is, the working classes, the poorer peasants, the unemployed and underemployed, the oppressed women, the minorities – whether they are of North Waziristan or Balochistan, regardless of whether these people are “conservative” or “progressive.” They are suffering, and no one can tell us better than them why they are suffering and what problems require what kinds of solutions. If they say imperialism is the enemy, we should not try to convince them that it is necessary to first evacuate oneself of Islamic sentiment and fight “religious extremism” in the abstract in order to be progressive. We should critically examine the history of leftist struggle in Pakistan and advance our own understanding in a way that provides lessons for our current practice. How did the left degenerate so much that it started standing with imperialism and the ruling classes against the people of Pakistan? A comprehensive and self-critical assessment will be a sign of the ideological strength of the left, not its weakness. More here. […]

  5. […] this sense of justice also implants in us a responsibility to be critical of power holders who have capitalized on horrific ordeals — such as last week’s tragedy —  for their own interests. It is this […]

  6. jaffer on Sep 2015 at 12:01 AM

    very very strange analysis, dont put any blame on mil alone , u may nat be knowing actual sit ion ground in NWA it is easy to make dramatic analysis in ur drawing room rather be upfront against those elms. poor analysis

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