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

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On June 15th, the Pakistani state launched operation “Zarb-e-Azb,” a full-fledged military assault on North Waziristan, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that form Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. The stated aims involve a “comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan” according to the military. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced and hundreds killed, the operation is another attack on the people of Pakistan, like those that have come before it.

Since 2001, a global “war on terror” has been waged under a grand narrative of secularism and civilization combating Islamic fundamentalism, and has dovetailed conveniently with wars conducted under that other grand narrative of supporting democracy against dictatorship.1 In fact, as the political economist Adam Hanieh argues, there is a single imperialist war on the people of the region at large, a war that stretches from Libya and Egypt in North Africa, to Somalia in East Africa, to Syria and Iraq in West Asia, to Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia. It is worth noting that most of these countries have Muslim majorities.

Defining a pro-people politics and initiative in this mess is difficult. In Pakistan, an old left, eager not to be on the wrong side of secularism, civilization and democracy, has frequently found itself degenerating into liberalism, siding explicitly or implicitly with imperialism.2 Some younger radicals have also been prone to confusion.3

Accordingly, advancing a new, pro-people politics in Pakistan, where ruling classes have polarized the discourse, first requires revisiting some basic questions around state and society in relation to the Waziristan issue and secondly, analyzing how imperialism operates as a class force in Pakistan. This is where the analyses of progressives, liberals and Marxists alike, often fall short.


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Such analyses argue that politics in Pakistan is dominated by “the establishment,” whose chief component is “the military,” that is, the Pakistan Army and under its command, the main intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The military, we are reminded, has ruled Pakistan for around half of the country’s existence, and is liable to interrupt the democratic process at any time in order to secure its pernicious, institutional interests in maintaining and projecting power inside and outside of Pakistan.4 Indeed, if a military operation was being prevented until now, it was due to the ISI playing a “double game” — on the one hand taking aid from the U.S. that was actually meant for combating militants, while on the other, supporting militants for the military’s interests. Such explanations assume a normative ideal of state and politics, exemplified for progressive leftists in the post-colonial world by Indian liberal democracy. They explain the problems of Pakistan’s state and politics as a result of deviating from this ideal type due to the predominance of the military and its pernicious, institutional rationality.

Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reviews Pakistani troops at an honors ceremony welcoming Mullen to Islamabad, Feb. 9, 2008. - Read: Abuses on the Path to Salvation | Adaner Usmani

Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reviews Pakistani troops at an honors ceremony welcoming Mullen to Islamabad, Feb. 9, 2008. – Read: Abuses on the Path to Salvation | Adaner Usmani

To be sure, the military plays an important role in the politics of Pakistan. Our aim here, however, is to show that one institution cannot be responsible for all events and decisions in Pakistan, and that we need to look at the class forces and formations behind the action or inaction of any institution. Placing the military in contrast to other aspects of ruling class power in Pakistan obscures the ways in which ruling class power actually works. Resistance needs to be structured against the entire ruling nexus, of which the military is a part. The military is not the kind of the solitary player that “establishment”-centric analyses assume.

Through their strategic policymakers and journalists, U.S. imperialists have often presented a similar analysis, one where FATA – and Swat before – have become safe havens for al-Qaeda and other militants primarily because of patronage from a treacherous Pakistani military, which is reluctant to conduct operations because it seeks to maintain the militants for its particular interests. They argue that while the U.S. may have ignored the links between its military ally and the militants, it has now come to its senses, and wants to fix the problem by forcing Pakistan’s armed forces to conduct its assault on FATA and break its reliance on the Taliban and other militants.

If these inquiries consider class at all, they find the landed and capitalist classes more or less helpless (indeed, innocent) and dependent on the military.5 More importantly, because these theories foreground the military, they cannot explain why it is that we repeatedly find that regardless of who is in government – military or civilian – ruling classes are constrained, even subservient to, the ideologies and practices of power and economy of the U.S., its allied Western powers (e.g., the UK), and their vassals, the Gulf monarchs.6 To understand that, we have to get at how it is that Pakistan’s political and economic dynamics are produced and reproduced. We want to advance a class analysis of the post-colonial state in Pakistan. We do so to illustrate why these operations are being conducted and in what kind of a society—a society whose dynamics extend far beyond the institutions at its apex.

The following analysis is necessarily broad because it attempts to observe and chart particular tendencies within progressive analyses that have hindered an accurate and honest interrogation of the current predicament, including the latest military assault on North Waziristan. We argue that it is necessary to understand the concrete, material processes through which ideologies and practices of power are constructed.

We ask: Who is carrying out this operation and why? How have the Taliban become a potent force in Pakistan? In a country caught within imperialism and militancy, is there a primary enemy, and if so, who is it?

An imperialist assault

The Pakistani military is conducting operations in North Waziristan based on the consensus of the class forces that rule Pakistan, namely, the capitalists, the landlords and, perhaps most importantly, imperialism led by the United States of America.

A misunderstanding of the relationship between the state, class forces, and the production of imperialist grand narratives has led us to this. Interrogating the materiality of particular ideologies – the practices, shapes and forms they take in specific contexts – can help lead us out.

There is no shortage of evidence showing how the U.S. and its Western allies have long pressured Pakistan into military operations and have been calling for the same in North Waziristan in particular. They have repeatedly claimed that their war on the people of Afghanistan has been a failure because the Taliban, who lead an anti-NATO resistance there, have found rear bases and safe havens across the border in Pakistan.7 Accordingly, the majority of U.S. drone attacks have been conducted in North Waziristan. As the U.S. begins to withdraw some of its forces from Afghanistan, Western powers seek to maintain their presence and power in the region in other ways—including by shifting the focus of the war to Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, a U.S. congressional resolution proposes to make $300 million of the total aid package given to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Funds, contingent specifically upon an operation being carried out by Pakistan in North Waziristan. The total aid, some $900 million for 2015, is intended as reimbursements and compensation from the U.S. to Pakistan for the latter’s support to coalition forces in the region.

The unequal and deferential relationship between Pakistan on the one hand, and the U.S. and its allies on the other, is not merely a relationship mediated by diplomacy or trade (although those are extremely important), but by the very structure of Pakistan’s political economy. Hassan Gardezi has meticulously documented how Pakistan’s economic policies have closely traced whatever was promoted by imperialist institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — with few exceptions. In the 1950s-60s this was modernization theory and now, it is neo-liberalism. Read on >>

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  1. This narrative sometimes takes the garb of protecting Islam from those who are hijacking it: the Islamist insurgents. These narratives draw on the same conceptual apparatus that reduces politics to civilizational battles for the soul of Islam and makes imperialist violence invisible. This repertoire has been mobilized inside Pakistan as well as the U.S. to differentiate between between “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims and to legitimize imperialist wars. See: Mahmood Mamdani. 2005. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. Harmony. []
  2. A very particular example of this confusion is the position of the Awami Workers Party (AWP). See for instance: Farooq Tariq, Abid Hassan Minto, Fanoos Gujjar. 2014. “AWP joint statement on military operation in Waziristan” Or see here. []
  3. For lack of a better term, we refer to both the old left and new radicals as “progressive leftists.” []
  4. There is plenty of literature available pointing out the manipulative role of the military in political life. For example, Ayesha Siddiqa has pointed out the role of the military through the concept of “Milbus,” or military capital that is different from the defense budget and related to the military’s internal economy. This, she argues, is responsible for the direct and indirect control of governance of the country. The military’s predatory nature becomes cause and effect of the feudal, authoritarian and undemocratic political system in this argument. See Ayesha Siddiqa. 2007. Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. New York: Oxford University Press. See also Husain Haqqani. 2005. Pakistan Between Mosque and Military. Washington D. C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.; Saeed Shafqat. 1997. Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan: from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto. Boulder: Westview Press. []
  5. See for example: Hamza Alavi. 1972. “The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh.” New Left Review. I(74): 59-81. Alavi’s basic argument, and very importantly, his way of conceptualizing the state more broadly, remains highly influential. []
  6. US imperialism permeates Pakistan’s relationships with other states as well, particularly the Gulf States that have funneled money for various Islamist political projects in Pakistan as well as for cultural projects that are religiously-inspired. While political parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have criticized American imperialism, they have failed to mention its Gulf vassals. On the relationship between US imperialism and the Gulf states, see: Adam Hanieh. 2014. “A Petrodollar and a Dream.” Jacobin. January. Hanieh argues that reversing neoliberalism in the Middle East (and one might add, Pakistan) will require challenging powerful Gulf states. See also: Douglas Hill. 2014. “Islam, Terrorism and Hypocrisy: U.S. Imperialism in the Muslim World.” The Red Phoenix, January 7. Timothy Mitchell. 2002. “The Nature of Oil: Reconsidering American Power in the Middle East.” Jadaliyya, January 12.; Timothy Mitchell. 2002. “McJihad: Islam in the US Global Order.” Social Text. 20(4): 1-18. []
  7. Canada’s current immigration minister and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander recently reiterated this position on Canadian national television when he complained that the failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan was a result of not being able to conduct military operations in Pakistan. []

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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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