The Taliban: another of imperialism’s monsters

You would never guess it from the mainstream commentary, but the Taliban is a product of imperialist violence. Neil Faulkner recalls some recent Afghan history.

 

‘We should all hang our heads in shame’ ran the front-page Guardian headline on 21 August alongside a picture of a baby being pulled over a barbed-wire fence.

The situation is, of course, a human catastrophe, with thousands of desperate people – former embassy employees, functionaries of the fallen regime, human-rights activists, journalists – trying to escape the clutches of the Taliban. Most are being abandoned as the Americans and the British prioritise evacuating their own nationals, while racist politicians like Priti Patel make clear that Afghan refugees will face the same militarised borders and detention-centres as any other kind of refugee displaced by war, persecution, and poverty.

But the mainstream analysis is skin-deep. We need not expect the conservative hawks – like Tory Tom Tugendhat – currently hurling around accusations of ‘betrayal’ to reveal any depth of understanding. But what exactly are all the hand-wringing liberals and former social-democrats suggesting? That what Afghanistan needs is another round of imperialist violence? That the Taliban should be met by further Western military aggression? That billions of dollars more of bombing and killing is some sort of solution? That we need to extend Afghanistan’s 40-year war to a neat half century?

Never underestimate the stupidity of the political class. Its ignorance of history, its collective amnesia, its capacity for self-delusion are almost limitless. Its perspectives are governed by tabloid prejudice and immediate political expediency.

It is the job of revolutionary Marxists to learn from history in order to understand the present and chart a path for human emancipation. In the case of Afghanistan, the former at least is not so difficult – though it is impossible to be optimistic about the challenges facing progressive forces inside the country as Islamic fascism tightens its grip.

Afghanistan in the crosshairs

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on Earth, but its situation in the heart of Central Asia, close to major oil and gas fields and astride major continental routeways, makes it a military platform of exceptional global importance.

In April 1978, the Afghan Communist Party took control of the country by force and attempted to implement a radical programme of economic development and social reform. Many government supporters were young idealists who meant well. They wanted to redistribute wealth, eradicate poverty, emancipate women, provide education and health care, make things better for the common people. But most were urban-based professionals with a top-down ‘we know what’s good for you’ approach to what they saw as a backward, benighted country. They were not socialists who believed in power from below, but Stalinists who saw progress in terms of blueprints and diktats.

When they ran into local resistance, their mentors, the Soviets, invaded the country to prop up the Kabul regime (in December 1979). Overnight, the socialists and feminists were on the same side as the bombing planes. That meant they were politically dead.

The Soviet invasion triggered a massive escalation in guerrilla resistance by Islamic mujahideen based in the countryside. Soon the entire country was engulfed by war. Murder, torture, and rape were widespread. Every Soviet atrocity was petrol on the flames. Ever more young men from the villages wanted a gun to fight back.

The mujahideen had plenty to hand out. They were supplied by the CIA. US funding of the mujahideen soared from $30 million in 1981 to $280 million in 1985.

It was a good investment. The combination of Islamic insurgency and US arms broke the Soviet occupation. Russian troop withdrawals began in spring 1988 and were completed a year later. The end of the Afghan War coincided with the beginning of the terminal crisis of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and therefore with the end of the Cold War. US neocons were ecstatic. They talked about ‘a new American century’ and even ‘the end of history’.

From Islamic nationalism to Islamic fascism

But the US had sown dragon’s teeth: from the mujahideen would evolve the Taliban. It is not difficult to understand why the Islamic nationalists of the 1980s evolved into the Islamic fascists of the 1990s.

Following the collapse of the Soviet client regime in Kabul, the country fragmented into regional warlord domains. In a country ravaged by war, displacement, and deepening poverty, elements of the former mujahideen hardened into a ruthless Islamist movement with sufficient ideological coherence and centralised direction – and with military support from Pakistan and financial support from Saudi-Arabia – to seize power in 1996. Though Taliban rule was never absolute – fighting continued in many parts of the country – it was hegemonic until the combined American and British invasion of the country in 2001.

Afghanistan then became the first operational theatre in the Western powers’ self-proclaimed ‘War on Terror’. The country was then devastated by another 20 years of violence, this new round of imperialist violence, like that of the Soviets in the 1980s, creating the shock-waves of bitterness and hatred that drove a whole new generation of young men into the arms of the Islamists, for it was they who seemed to offer, in addition to the military hardware with which to fight, clarity, structure, and purpose in a world of chaos and destruction.

The rule of the gun

War has its own logic. When the demand is for guns, whoever can provide them will gain in power. When high explosive and napalm were dropped on their villages by American bombers in 1970, young Vietnamese would join the Vietcong guerrillas of the National Liberation Front. In this way, the rage of the oppressed could be organised into a rational struggle against imperialism, landlordism, and corruption. Even so, the violence of the oppressor left its victims traumatised and unbalanced. The Vietcong sometimes committed atrocities of their own. But it was worse in Cambodia.  

In just six months in 1973, the Americans dropped one and a half times the bomb tonnage on Cambodia that they had dropped on Japan during the Second World War. Several hundred thousand people were killed. The advance of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, allies of the Vietcong in neighbouring Vietnam, was stopped. But the Cambodian guerrillas were filled with unprecedented hatred for the collaborationist regime in Phnom Penh which had sanctioned the American bombing of its own people to root out popular resistance.

When the war ended in 1975 – in both Cambodia and Vietnam – the rage of the Khmer Rouge peasant army was directed by its deranged Stalinist leaders into political genocide, de-urbanisation, and the imposition of agricultural slave-labour. Millions perished in Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’. But the seeds had been sown by B-52 bombers: the violence unleashed on an impoverished country had destroyed its economy, its social fabric, and, to a large degree, its political sanity.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was a monster created by imperialism. So is the Taliban. Only the most bone-headed and historically ignorant of liberals could possibly imagine that the solution to Afghanistan’s ongoing agony is another violent assault by the war-machines of Western imperialism.

The road to liberation

Solutions?

There are no one-state solutions anymore. Least of all are there one-state solutions for the most wretched of the Earth, the poorest, the most marginalised, those who have nothing, those for whom mere survival is a daily struggle.

We live in a globalised world dominated by transnational capital and a global police state. A world where capital is financialised and digitalised, fluid and mobile, moving at click-button speed. A world where the police are militarised and murderous, where they are internationally networked and coordinated to crush all forms of resistance to rule of capital. A world ringed with military bases and military hardware.

Unprecedented police and military power stands guard over transnational capital accumulation and its consequences – climate catastrophe, global pandemic, social disintegration, civil wars, mass displacement. The imperialist war machines and the global police state are the problem, not the solution: they must be overthrown by international revolution from below, so that the rich and the corporations can be dispossessed and the wealth of the world placed in the hands of the people.

The solution lies with the slumbering giant of the international working class, especially with its youth vanguard in the great cities of neoliberal capitalism. The solution involves forging an international revolutionary movement able to knit together hundreds of local struggles, able to deepen and spread and generalise those struggles, able to cut through all the layers of cant and false promise spewed out by a corrupt political class that does the bidding of the system.

The liberation of Afghanistan – like that of a hundred other places – depends upon international red-green revolution to destroy the system before it destroys us.



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Neil Faulkner's latest book is Empire and Jihad: the Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920. He is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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