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Vol. 75/No. 3      January 24, 2011

Washington intends to be
‘intrusive’ in Pakistan
(feature article)
U.S. vice president Joseph Biden made a sudden trip to Pakistan January 12 to try to shore up a fragile government buffeted by war, mounting economic crisis, and sharp divisions among the capitalist rulers. He is to meet separately with President Asif ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani, and Army general Ashfaq Kayani.

Among recent developments heightening insecurity was the January 4 assassination of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab Province and a leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, by one of his security guards. The killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, told police he did it to protest Taseer’s call for reform of the blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

At the same time, Gilani’s coalition government almost unraveled, when the prime minister cut energy subsidies, raising fuel prices 9 percent. After coalition partner Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) joined the opposition, Gilani quickly retreated, restoring the subsidy. The MQM agreed to return to the ruling coalition. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned restoring subsidies was “a mistake” and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called the subsidy “inefficient and untargeted.” The IMF has demanded an end to the fuel subsidy, steeper taxes, and privatization of state-owned enterprises as a condition for loans.

U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter was more direct about Washington’s intention to impose its will in Pakistan. “We appear to be intrusive because we care. We are the largest donor,” he said in a talk January 7 in Islamabad, the capital. “Yes we are demanding,” he added. “We’ll continue to be this way.”

Nine years of a U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan, as well as battles with Islamist groups inside Pakistan, has taken a toll on Pakistani working people. Hundreds of villagers have been killed in CIA drone attacks aimed at Afghan Taliban forces based in Pakistan. Millions were forced to leave their homes by Pakistani army offensives against antigovernment Islamist fighters inside Pakistan. On top of this a major flood last year displaced millions more and destroyed much of the cotton crop.

Three-quarters of Pakistani working people subsist on less than $2 a day. Inflation is about 15 percent and unemployment is rampant. Forty percent of industrial workers are in the textile industry, which is plagued by frequent power outrages due to an inadequate electric grid and effects of the flood.

In January women blocked traffic in Faisalabad to protest low gas pressure that affects home cooking.

In 2008, with the Pakistani government on the brink of bankruptcy, the IMF agreed to a $11.3 billion loan bailout. While $7.6 billion of that has been delivered, the IMF has postponed further payments, demanding more progress on collecting taxes and other measures targeting workers and peasants. Less than 2 percent of Pakistanis pay income tax. The IMF has also insisted on a stiffer sales tax, which would fall disproportionately on working people. Gilani has said he would not enact this until there was consensus in the government.

Privatization has sparked many strikes and protests by workers. When Pakistan Telecommunication (PTCL) was privatized in 2005, workers walked out. Troops broke the strike, occupying all the telephone exchanges in the country. Since then the communications workforce has been cut in half. A general wage increase announced for all Pakistani workers in June 2010 was ignored by PTCL’s management, prompting another strike in August. Since then 280 workers have been fired and 35 arrested on terrorism charges.

Washington’s year-end military review concluded that it cannot win the war in Afghanistan without routing the Taliban forces based in northern Pakistan, something the Pakistani government has been reluctant to do. Islamabad has rejected U.S. requests to expand its use of drones to Baluchistan, where some Taliban leaders are based.

Washington faces the dilemma of needing to escalate the war in Pakistan while being forced to rely on the unstable government in Islamabad. U.S. arrogance toward the Pakistani people and the desperate living conditions, especially in the countryside, have been exploited by Islamist forces to win some support. Thousands demonstrated January 9 in Karachi to support Taseer’s assassin and pledge that more such killings would take place against those seeking to change the blasphemy law. Secular capitalist parties and trade unions organized timid vigils for Taseer.

The governor’s killing came amid a discussion in parliament over whether to amend the blasphemy law. A woman farm worker who is Christian, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in November on charges of insulting Islam. Taseer had favored her pardon.
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