Afghanistan and the left, 2021

Submitted by martin on 22 August, 2021 - 5:25 Author: Martin Thomas
GDP per capita, Afghanistan

The disaster in Afghanistan makes it even more urgent for the left to recognise that in conflicts between big powers like the USA, and reactionary forces which conflict with those big powers without to any degree fighting for national-liberation or democracy, it is possible and indeed mandatory for socialists to support neither side. We instead fight for the "third camp" of the working class and the oppressed, against both the big powers and forces like the Taliban, even if that "third camp" is at present weak and undeveloped.

When I wrote an earlier comment, I thought that most people on the left had tacitly accepted that argument to some degree. I was wrong.

No-one hailed Daesh taking Mosul in 2014 as a "blow against imperialism", and few have celebrated Assad's victory in Syria against forces backed (erratically) by the USA in that way.

But now Socialist Worker has hailed the Taliban victory as "a colossal defeat for British and US imperialism", and The Socialist similarly as "a devastating blow to the US and Western imperialism".

Socialist Worker has the front-page headline "Twenty years of horror", indicating that the PDPA-Islamist civil war in Afghanistan 1978-9; the Russia-Islamist war there 1979-89; the Islamist war to overthrow the rump Stalinist regime followed by intra-Islamist war 1989-96; the Taliban regime 1996-2001; and the coming years of renewed Taliban rule were or will be less horrible.

It offers no argument for that assessment, and even contradicts it with a front-page strapline, "Open the borders to all the refugees". (Why is that strapline relevant? Because things are now getting so horrible in Afghanistan that many people want to become refugees, just as many people fled in recent weeks within Afghanistan from the Taliban advance to Kabul, hoping the city would hold out longer.)

The period of the American military presence in Afghanistan, 2001-2021, for all its misdeeds and miseries, was one when the population of Kabul grew from half a million to four million (or, some say, up to six million). Some people did flee as refugees, especially from areas of intense war between the US or the Afghan government and the Taliban, but nowhere near as many as fled in the period of Russia's war (1979-89) or even in the first Taliban period (1996-2001).

Malalai Joya, an Afghan feminist who has long denounced the US military, told the German newspaper SĂĽddeutsche Zeitung (13 August): "The Taliban are advancing. For ordinary people and especially for women, this means even more suffering. Progressive people like me are more in danger than ever".

Socialist Worker and The Socialist add that the Taliban will impose a "brutal, suffocating, and reactionary regime" (SW) or will bring "nothing remotely progressive" (The Socialist). Why then are their exclamations of joy about the "defeat of imperialism" headlined, and the reservations about the Taliban relegated to their "small print"?

Socialist Worker tries to square its circle by describing the Taliban as "terror that the US made".

This is a reference to the aid that the USA gave to Islamist groups in Afghanistan during Russia's war in 1979-89, in order to sap the USSR. But the USA did not "make" any of the Islamist groups, let alone the Taliban. Islamists formed politically in Afghanistan's cities, or (for the Taliban) Pakistan, were "made" able to win support by Russia's attempt at colonial conquest. The US aided groups which were burgeoning without that aid.

A "blow against imperialism" is good if it is also a blow for something better.

The 1988-9 Russian withdrawal - in effect, the defeat of Russia by scrappy Islamist militias - was a "blow against imperialism" in the sense that it closed the door on a drive by Russia to establish more-or-less colonial control in Afghanistan, and broke the will of the USSR military to try to suppress the democracy movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

In 2001 an argument could be made that if the Taliban had defeated the operation mounted against it by the Northern Alliance with US help, then that would have forestalled the later US invasion of Iraq. In 2003 the US still saw the 2001 Afghanistan operation as a great success (a more-or-less functioning president, Hamid Karzai, had been elected by a broad though ad hoc assembly in June 2002, and the Taliban had not yet really started its military comeback). It saw the first Gulf War of 1991, its Bosnia intervention of 1996, and its Kosova intervention, also as successes, won with few US casualties. That emboldened the "neo-conservatives" in the Bush administration to push the idea of invading Iraq which even in the late 1990s most US ruling-class figures saw as off the wall.

Even then, the "blow against imperialism" was only one element, alongside the element (in a hypothetical Taliban victory) of a blow against the life and rights of the peoples of Afghanistan. While opposing the US invasion of Afghanistan, Workers' Liberty also opposed the Taliban with equal vigour.

The Taliban is just as bad now, and there is much less of a "blow against imperialism" element now. Trump's and Biden's calculation has been that they were extricating the USA from a war which hadn't bargained for, and making it better able to act elsewhere, and in the medium term they may even be right. The USA's rulers dropped the "neo-conservatives'" triumphalism long ago.

Socialist Worker says that the war was about the USA seeking "control and influence" in the region. But it wasn't really. The USA's chief ally in the region was and is Pakistan, and even in 2001 the USA was not able to "control" Pakistan enough to stop it offering a safe haven for the Taliban to regroup as they retreated from the Northern Alliance conquest.

Pakistan's government has explicitly welcomed the Taliban victory (partly as a blow against Indian influence in Afghanistan), but this is a continuation of a long-established pattern.

The USA has turned out even less able to foster local social and political forces in Afghanistan which it could, if not control, at least do business with, than the Russians were. Radically less able to do that than the USA was in South Korea after the Korean war, for example. The South Korean president then, Syngman Rhee, was notoriously repressive and corrupt, and Korea was one of the world's poorest countries, and yet even Rhee developed a state which had enough elasticity to sustain itself and allow for Rhee himself to be overthrown in 1960 by a student revolt, then, over a long series of struggles, for South Korea to become a functioning bourgeois democracy by the 1990s.

But then in South Korea the US had pushed through a radical land reform, making most peasants owners of their own land without compensation to the landlords.

There were no measures of similar stripe in Afghanistan. (The Stalinists had attempted a land reform in 1978-9, and found that the farmers who would have benefited from it rallied to the Islamists and the landlords to oppose it.)

US arrogance - Guantanamo, "renditions", mini-Guantanamos inside Afghanistan at Bagram and elsewhere, large civilian casualties from the US "surge" after 2009 - made the US military presence unpopular and sapped the political base of Afghan leaders allied to the USA. (In 2014 Afghan president Hamid Karzai felt impelled to oppose, or at least to make a show of opposing, an agreement to allow the US forces to stay longer.)

US economic aid was large in the scale of Afghanistan's feeble economy, but very small compared to US military spending in Afghanistan, tiny also compared to US economic aid to South Korea in the 1950s - and most of the aid fed corruption rather than reconstruction.

The country recovered economically between 2001 and the big US troop "surge" which started in 2009, but not to much better a level than before 1978. There has been improvement in infrastructure - the proportion of children who die before the age of five has halved; literacy has increased from 8% to 43%; 89% have access to safe drinking water in the cities (only 16% before) - but not enough to create a functioning political economy.

And then since 2012-4 (in some part, paradoxically, because of the drawdown of foreign troops, and consequent loss of economic life generated by servicing them) GDP per capita has declined. Primary school enrolments have stagnated. Huge inequality, poverty, unemployment have continued. While the Green Zone and some other areas of Kabul had some boom years with NGOs and aid, over 50% of the city's population live in shanty towns. As far as we can tell, Ashraf Ghani's administration from 2014 incurred even more contempt than Hamid Karzai's in the earlier years after 2002.

Now such improvements as there have been are nullified by the Taliban winning more complete domination than they ever had before 2001.

There is no evidence of wide popular support for the Taliban, rather than grudging acquiescence, an assessment that the Taliban are less corrupt than the old Kabul government, and a feeling that it is better to go with the winning side.

Probably, a lot of people will now decide to submit to the Taliban and hope that they will provide, at least, less corrupt administration and an end to 43 years of war. But in 2001 the streets were full of cheering as the Taliban were ousted. In 2021, the Taliban couldn't, or didn't think it worth trying to, organise crowds of any size to applaud them as they took the cities.

In a collapse pretty much unparalleled in military history, an Afghan military nominally 350,000 strong, armed and trained over 20 years by the USA, and equipped with an airforce, evaporated in just ten days as the Taliban advanced through the cities, though the Taliban was still a scrappy militia mostly of young men with Kalashnikovs riding motorbikes or pick-up trucks.

The Taliban had made more and more gains in recent years, and by late 2020 already controlled most of Afghanistan's major highways, sufficiently to sustain itself largely by levying taxes on traffic there as well by the opium trade which it controlled.

Trump promised in February 2020 to withdraw, demanding essentially nothing in return from the Taliban that they go through the motions of talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban cannily waited and prepared, advancing enough so that the USA could not conclude that after all it had reached a sustainable balance in Afghanistan with a limited presence there, but not so much as to panic Trump or Biden into reversing the drawdown.

And sadly the balance of evidence is that few strong "civil society" organisations, or at least none yet capable of pushing back the Taliban, grew up in an Afghan economy dominated by corruption and by service industries generated by foreign troops and aid.

The new Taliban administration will face huge economic problems, but as Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq has written: "It seems that the Taliban will remain in the government for a long time now. Just as the Iranian mullahs' government continues after years, these Taliban can now stay in power for a long time, it will not be easy to withdraw them".

The principle of a "third camp" against the USA and the USSR was established by the "Heterodox Trotskyists" of the 1940s and 50s.

In those days, however, colonial empires or semi-colonial spheres of influence still covered much of the world. Back in 1882, at the time when Britain took semi-colonial control of Egypt (de facto: it was never formalised, right up to the 1950s when its last traces were overthrown), Frederick Engels wrote about the Egyptian military figure Ahmed Arabi, who fought the British:

"We don’t know much about Arabi, but I’d wager 10 to 1 that he is a run-of-the-mill Pasha who begrudges the financial chaps their tax revenue because he would... sooner pocket it himself... As I see it, we can perfectly well enter the arena on behalf of the oppressed fellaheen without sharing their current illusions... and against the brutality of the English without, for all that, espousing the cause of those who are currently their military opponents."

But by the 1940s, and for decades after, popular nationalist movements of one stripe or another had emerged in almost all the colonies and semi-colonies. A clash between a big power and the local forces would almost certainly be between imperial force, aiming to sustain some degree of imperial control, and some measure or degree of national emancipation. In those clashes "anti-imperialism", for socialists, was shorthand for, in positive terms, support for national emancipation, even if under bourgeois leadership.

The Europe-centred colonial empires were overthrown by 1974-5, when Portugal's colonies won independence. Fifteen or so years later, Russia's empire in Eastern Europe was overthrown. There are still struggles for national liberation. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq still deny the Kurds independence; China denies rights to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs; Morocco dominates Western Sahara; Israel occupies the West Bank and (with Egypt) blockades Gaza - but for the last 30 years or so the world has been mostly an "empire of capital" rather than of colonialism or semi-colonialism.

We now have imperialism, in the sense of economic domination by the big centres of capital, and also "reactionary anti-imperialism", in the sense of local movements in conflict with those big centres but seeking local hegemonies even more brutal than the "dull compulsion" of global economic relations.

The "third camp" has suffered a defeat with the disaster in Afghanistan. Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq has posted this assessment:

"The return of the Taliban in the Afghanistan government is a setback for the progressive forces in the world, particularly for South Asia. We condemn the forcible takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban fighters. Their victory is not at all a sign of stability and peace but a perpetuation of the civil war.

"The establishment of another religious fanatic state in South Asia will promote religious sectarianism throughout the region... We apprehend that a theocratic state that the Taliban intends to install will not only be disastrous for Afghanistan but also for its neighbours and beyond..."

He adds: "Only the victory of a truly democratic socialist ideology can stop the future bloodshed in Afghanistan."


Submitted by Ted Alleyne (not verified) on Fri, 27/08/2021 - 16:36

...that you snipped out "in good oriental fashion" from the Engels quote. He and Marx weren't exactly 'PC' in modern terms.

Perhaps more significantly, a different edit of the same letter gives us:

"Here we have the same old story as in all agrarian countries. From Ireland to Russia, from Asia Minor to Egypt, the peasant of an agrarian country is there to be exploited. It has been the same since the time of the Assyrian and Persian empires... As I see it, we can perfectly well enter the arena on behalf of the oppressed fellaheen without sharing their current illusions (for a peasant population has to be fleeced for centuries before it learns from experience)"

This begs the question of where we expect progressive forces to come from in a still largely feudal economy. Without the existence of a proletariat, is it realistic for a Marxist to talk about "...the victory of a truly democratic socialist ideology..." as Farooq Tariq does here? Serious question.

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