Confused Westerners’ Guide to the Conflicts in Pakistan

by Bryan Hill

It can be hard to understand the news from Pakistan, of suicide bombings, drone strikes, and kidnappings. We hear these clips in the news every day, but they’re presented without context or history, giving us a skewed idea of what is really happening and why.

Through my organizing in this city’s high rise buildings, I’ve been confronted with my own ignorance about many of the conflicts that force people to move around the globe and wind up as renters in Hamilton, of all places. Without a direct link to these international communities and their struggles abroad, it can be hard to talk about, let alone have opinions on these conflicts.

The fact that we aren’t talking about these issues makes them feel far away, creating more barriers when trying to connect with new immigrants. Our ignorance also leaves political elites in rich countries like Canada without any accountability when they profit off war or contribute to conflicts abroad. Creating the Confused Westerners’ Guide is an attempt to overcome my own ignorance and to look into the international conflicts that we might have heard a bit about, but that we don’t really understand.

Quick Facts on Pakistan

The Founding of an Islamic Republic

map-of-pakistanLocated adjacent to Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of the world’s most populous countries — the second largest in the Muslim world, and the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons.

Following the British partition of their former South Asian colony in 1947, the creation of Pakistan was a victory for Muslim nationalists who wanted an Islamic state in the Muslim-majority areas of British India (modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh). As India and Pakistan were born, unrest erupted as millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were forcibly displaced by each of these two young states, and ethnic riots caused the deaths of over half a million people in provinces suddenly divided by religious and national borders. The partition of British India was part of the larger “divide and rule” strategy implemented by the British at the time. By establishing new and divisive borders in their former colonies, they created the conditions for ethnic and inter-communal conflicts that gave them the upper hand in maintaining their influence and beneficial trade relations.

To this day, these conflicts persist. Pakistan has suffered military rule for most of its seventy year history, during which there have been three coups. Pakistan currently commands the 6th largest active military in the world, making it a strong regional power. It has declared war with India three times over the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir, which, in large part, is a struggle over scarce water resources. Pakistan also declared war against India during Bangladesh’s succession from Pakistan. Each of these situations led to military offensives, ground invasions, and the threat of nuclear retaliation.

Unstable Neighbour, Unstable Region

Since 2003, north-western Pakistan has seen an ongoing war waged by the Pakistan and US governments against dozens of insurgent groups, most notably Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. This war is fought in the mountainous regions bordering Afghanistan on one side, and the conflict-ridden provinces of Jammu and Kashmir on the other. These areas are usually called “tribal areas”, where traditional forms of government still coexist along side the Pakistani state.

This war and its fighters spilled over into Pakistan from the American “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. The US coalition pushed the insurgents from the cities into eastern Afghanistan, starting a guerrilla war in the mountainous region that it has been unable to win. Many of these groups shifted their activity into Pakistan. The Pakistani government has taken an aggressive military approach against the northern peripheries of their country; this has lead to an intensification of conflict such that now urban car bombs, drone attacks, and a prosperous arms trade are normal features on the national news.

Pakistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan, has been involved in various wars since the late 70’s. In 1978, the Afghan Communist Party seized power, leading to a civil war with Muslim guerrillas. With the Communist Party backed by Soviet troops and Muslim opposition trained and funded in Pakistan by the US and Saudi Arabia, the country entered into decades of civil war that was, in many ways, a part of the larger Cold War. Many of the fighters in this war who were trained by the US and Pakistan would later become leaders and fighters in Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, opium production has increased 35-fold, from 185 tons in 2001, to 6400 tons in 2014; this increase in production coincides with the transition from a US “War on Drugs” to a “War on Terror”. The surge in production follows an all-time low in 2001, when the United Nations and then-ruling Taliban sought to eradicate opium production by declaring it “un-Islamic”, and by using force to destroy production in the country. The recent increase in production has resulted in opium flooding world markets and Pakistan’s borders in particular, creating a drug crisis in Pakinstani cities that effects displaced people most of all.

Refugee Crisis

All these conflicts have lead to a refugee crisis both internally and abroad. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Cold War until the War on Terror, Afghans have been forced to flee from war, with the majority being displaced into Pakistani cities and north-western tribal territories. There are currently 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Pakistani’s themselves have been internally displaced to camps or urban centers with estimates that 1.9 million Pakistani’s are internally displaced as a result of 1947 partition, the current war in the northwest, and the three wars with India. Pakistanis account for almost half of South Asia’s internally displaced refugees.

Many other Pakistanis have fled the country, especially since the escalation of war with insurgents in 2013. Roughly a quarter million people leave each year and account for 3% of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe to gain asylum. Canada has the worlds 5th largest Pakistani diaspora, largely centered around the GTA, Montreal and Calgary, and Pakistanis represent the 4th largest landed refugee claims in Canada in the past 10 years.

When I hear about another bombing or military operation in Pakistan, I think about it in the context of 200 years of British and western colonialism, which has created or aggravated a series of conflicts. These have mostly benefited foreign interests or those of a local elite tied to the military, while forcing millions of people from their homes in South Asia’s largest refugee crisis.