Afghanistan, the Taliban and the British left: lessons from 2001

Submitted by AWL on 17 August, 2021 - 3:16 Author: Martin Thomas
Taliban fighters, Kabul, 2001

Everyone on the left is saying that the current disaster in Afghanistan shows that no-one should rely on US militarism to deal with the danger of Islamist militarism like the Taliban's. And that's true.

No-one on the left is claiming that the Taliban taking Kabul is a victory for liberation, anti-imperialism, or self-determination. Right again: it isn't. It's a result which threatens to crush all women's rights and almost all personal liberties, let along collective civil rights, for the people of Afghanistan's cities especially.

But then why did a large chunk of the left implicitly or explicitly side with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001?

The Taliban victory confirms the argument we made in 2001, and which was then a minority argument within the left, that the "reactionary anti-imperialism" of some (in global terms) relatively small powers in conflict with the USA can be just as reactionary as US imperialism, or more so.

In 2001 Workers' Liberty, the SWP, other groups, and many unaffiliated leftists were working together in the Socialist Alliance, so we debated this issue face-to-face.

The SWP at first made a virtue of "refusing to condemn" the 11 September 2001 attack on New York and Washington. In the Socialist Alliance we argued that the attack must be condemned, and on that we had the majority against the SWP.

Eventually, under pressure in a Stop The War conference, Lindsey German (then a leading figure of the SWP, now in Counterfire) backed down, saying "of course" we should condemn the attack. "Of course"? Well, yes. But then why had Lindsey German and the SWP been making a virtue of "refusing to condemn"...?

The Workers' Power group (now organised as Red Flag) proposed that the Socialist Alliance should argue explicitly for socialists to support the Taliban's "resistance to imperialism".

The SWP replied that Workers' Power was right in principle, but such slogans would be inopportune and off-putting (as indeed they would).

The SWP equally argued against Workers' Liberty and others who wanted the Socialist Alliance to have slogans denouncing the Taliban as much as US militarism. Their line was to advocate "Stop The War" as a broad slogan to rally all peace-lovers, and under that heading to smuggle in the idea that US militarism was the sole generator of reactionary war, and so war by the Taliban was "anti-imperialist" and should not be "stopped".

In fact, as we explained in the text below, issued as a leaflet at the SWP's "Marxism" event in summer 2002, they made it their business to explain away the Taliban's misdeeds as an inevitable part of the righteous "rage and despair" against "imperialism" which, they said, the Taliban expressed.

Was it right for socialists to back the Taliban?

[Workers' Liberty leaflet, summer 2002]

The 11 September attack on New York and Washington merely gave the people of the US a taste of what Islamic-fundamentalist militarists had meted out to the women, the socialists, the trade unionists, the workers and the oppressed minorities of their own countries for decades.

It was not a blow against imperialism. Al Qaeda carried out their attack, not despite the retaliation it would provoke from the USA, but deliberately in order to bring that retaliation. The ensuing war and tumult, so Al Qaeda hoped, would create the conditions for their Islamic-fundamentalist allies to overthrow the “American-Islam” regimes in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and impose full-scale Islamist dictatorship there. Where Al Qaeda went wrong was in exaggerating their own strength — Allah did not let them prevail against the USA as they probably hoped he would — and in understating the force and courage of secular, democratic and socialist activists in Pakistan.

Socialists obviously oppose US militarism, and have no brief for the corrupt US-allied regimes of the Muslim world. We must, however, learn the lessons from Iran since the 1979 revolution. To make “anti-imperialism” mean that we side, explicitly or implicitly (by “refusing to condemn”), with the Islamists, oppressors of “their own” people in a way whose nearest European analogue is fascism, was always wrong.

By November 2001, after the collapse of the Taliban in large parts of Afghanistan, what was politically untenable had become flagrant absurdity.

Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq, a courageous opponent of the US/UK war much closer to the scene than us, wrote at the time: “The surrender of Kabul shows the absolute dictatorial nature of the Taliban and its fast disappearing social base. The ordinary citizens of Kabul seemed quite delighted over this victory...

“The Taliban was the most hated regime that the Afghan masses had ever seen... The religious fundamentalist forces were a tiny, very committed minority who were able to hold on with the support of the international religious fundamentalist forces...

“There could be a little so-called liberal time in Afghanistan if a broad-based govemment is established under the influence of US imperialism”.

To preach distrust of US/UK militarism — that is always a basic and irreducible duty for socialists. Anti-imperialism in the name of the positive programme of democracy, socialism and international solidarity — which entails opposition to both the Taliban and to the US-sponsored replacement regime, dominated by the Northern Alliance — that makes sense. An “anti-imperialism” based on one-sided Americanophobia, silent on or making excuses for the Taliban, and implying that we should mourn the Taliban's downfall as a “victory for imperialism” — that was nonsense, and since November has been very obvious nonsense, both politically and morally.

The Taliban was created among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with money from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Its version of Islamic law was drawn more from Saudi Arabia than from Afghan customs. A large number of the Taliban's fighters were not Afghans, but Islamic fundamentalists from other countries; a large number of its Afghan fighters were young men who had come to Pakistan as refugee children, and then been brought up in religious schools there, as alien to Afghan society as the Taliban's Arab volunteers.

The quick collapse of the Taliban showed that they were even more significantly an outside force, imposing itself on the population, than we thought.

So should we regret opposing the US/UK war? No, we should not. The US commanders started bombing Afghanistan saying they would continue for months or years. That was a stated intention to kill directly as many Afghan civilians as required,and many more indirectly, through famine and disease, by wrecking even more an already wrecked society. Fewer civilians were killed only because the Taliban regime proved more fragile and thin than any calculators had expected.

No serious socialist could have given the US/UK war machine credence or political confidence in advance, even to bring down the Taliban. The US was and is deep in compromises and horse-trading with scarcely-less-vile Islamic fundamentalists, and not only in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties continue. We give no blank cheque to the US to deal with the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban with its missiles and cluster bombs.

As Farooq Tariq also pointed out: “Once the Northern Alliance strengthens its power base, the real face of these fundamentalists will come out in the open”.

And more. The fact that the Afghan war went so smoothly and easily for the USA increased the weight of those US government officials who talked, after 11 September, about “ending states” and attacking “a whole series of countries” — specifically, Iraq — as against the more cautious.

The Stop the War coalition statement on the fall of Kabul, put out by Lindsey German of the SWP and Andrew Murray, declared that: “At no time has the anti-war movement in this country supported the Taliban...”

Sadly, that was a half-truth, or a quarter-truth. The vast majority of those who joined anti-war demonstrations or supported anti-war resolutions in trade unions gave no support to the Taliban at all. Whatever way they would have chosen to phrase it, in essence they agreed with the view that we must stand for democracy and international solidarity against both US/UK militarism and Islamic fundamentalism.

And none, or very few, of the political currents within the anti-war movement said that they supported the Taliban’s politics.

The biggest of those currents, however, the SWP, opposed condemning the 11 September atrocity, and opposed all moves to have the anti-war movement distance itself explicitly from Islamic fundamentalism. Denunciation of the US/UK war combined with opposition to condemning the Taliban adds up to siding — positively though implicitly and, to be sure, “critically” — with the Taliban. After the fall of Kabul, Stop the War spokespeople felt the need to denounce the Taliban’s “contempt for democracy and human rights”. But only then, when the Taliban were in retreat! When the Taliban seemed strong, they made excuses for it. The SWP, for example, explained Islamic fundamentalism in general as a natural reflex of “rage and despair” against imperialism, and the Taliban’s seclusion of women as down to the Taliban’s leaders’ desire to protect women from the lusts of their young soldiers (Socialist Worker, 6 October 2001).

They sought alliance with the broadest forces of Islam, objecting to any differentiation from the fundamentalists because it would supposedly alienate Muslims.

Then they hastened to dissociate from the same forces, defeated, whom they made excuses for when they were strong.

This drive to latch on to whatever seems strong among our enemy’s enemies is the opposite of working-class politics — the opposite of any politics which can prepare the working class to act as a force in its own right, with its own principles and its own programme.


Submitted by AWL on Tue, 17/08/2021 - 20:00

Comment from Duncan Morrison:

Martin says "No-one on the left is claiming that the Taliban taking Kabul is a victory for liberation, anti-imperialism, or self-determination. Right again: it isn't."

However the SWP do in an article entitled 'The defeat of the West's Afghanistan war' lead with this comment:

"After 20 years, at least a ­quarter of a million killings and trillions of pounds spent on military assaults, the Taliban has overthrown the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.

"It is a colossal defeat for British and US imperialism. Even decades of bloody war could not ensure they won."

As far as I can see they make no explicit criticism of the Taliban in any of their articles.

The Socialist Party's article entitled 'Kabul falls: A devastating blow to the US and Western imperialism - Afghans' suffering continues under Taliban' which still seems to suggest some positive anti-imperialist side to the withdrawal although at least with the recognition of what the Taliban represent.

Of course the reality is that as Martin has written there is nothing at all to be celebrated in this.

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