LEFT COLUMN: 28.09.2001
What we think
No to imperialism! No to fundamentalism!
Stop the war!
Any day now, the US and British governments are expected to drop the first bombs of war. We must mobilise to stop the war if possible, to limit it and bring it to the quickest possible end if not.
The war will do nothing to bring back the dead of the horrific US aircraft-hijack attacks of 11 September, nothing to heal the wounded or console the bereaved. It will add more killing, maiming and disruption.
War by the US and Britain on Afghanistan or neighbouring countries will not halt Islamic-fundamentalist militarism, which has already taken more victims among the mainly-Muslim people of the countries where it is strong than it took in its New York and Washington crimes. It will not touch - may even comfort - many of the strong bases of fundamentalism; through its disruptions it may well generate more recruits for fundamentalism.
Maybe Osama bin Laden and his associates planned the atrocities in the USA; they have a record of such crimes. Maybe the US/British assault on Afghanistan will put them out of action. Neither proposition is at all certain. What is certain is that many more innocent civilians will die.
We need to understand four basic points to orient ourselves in the weeks ahead: the nature of the US and British states; the nature of the sort of fundamentalist militarism represented in the US attacks; the forces, probabilities, and possibilities in Afghanistan; which forces can put an end to the spiral of violence, and how.
The US and British states are machines of power geared to the interests of world-wide big-business profit-making. A thousand strings of personal connection, lobbying, money-power, and structural bias tie their vast unelected hierarchies of officials and military commanders to those interests. Those interests are decisive in the last analysis, though on smaller matters other influences can make themselves felt.
In their home countries, those states have some restraints of civilisation. The restraints have been built up by centuries of labour-movement and democratic struggle; by now the big-business bosses themselves usually prefer them as a more stable and cheaper framework for trade than outright crude violence in the pursuit of every dollar or pound.
On the international arena, though, they have far fewer restraints. If the best way available for the business interests which they represent to prosper is through the rule of a bloody dictator, a Pinochet in Chile or a Suharto in Indonesia - then that is what they will support.
Around 70,000 civilian died from US bombing in Indochina, especially Cambodia, in the late 1960s and early 70s. Thousands died after the CIA-backed coup in Chile in 1973. 30,000 died in the "Contra" war which the US sponsored against the radical Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the early 1980s. Between 5000 and 15,000 civilian died from US bombing of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war; a total of 100,000 Iraqis died in that war, many of them young conscripts slaughtered after the Iraqi army was already clearly routed. Tens of thousands have died from the US-led sanctions against Iraq after that war. None of these death-tolls subtracts anything from the criminality of the US aircraft hijackings. They do warn us about what the US state will do.
The rulers of the USA are not to be believed when they say they are fighting for civilisation against the threat of fundamentalism. For over 60 years they have been the close partners and allies of a fundamentalist regime - though one that keeps its violence for its own people - in Saudi Arabia. The Economist magazine (8 February 1986) reported: "The Saudi Arabian [women] you see are wrapped up like maize; their faces, as well as their heads and bodies, are covered... There is no cinema, theatre or music. The only forms of public entertainment [are] football and the public executions which happen most Fridays".
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was sponsored and financed, in its time, by the USA. Now the USA has decided to use it as its chopping block on which to display revenge and retribution, to reassert power. And it is doing all it can, using the British government as intermediary, to get friendly relations with the fundamentalist government, of a slightly different shade, in Iran, which sponsors the (also fundamentalist) Northern Alliance opposition in Afghanistan.
Fundamentalism - Islamicism - "political Islam" - none of the available terms is very satisfactory. This "fundamentalism" is not just, or even mainly, extreme religious devoutness. It is a specific political current, representing specific social forces - and murderous against the majority of the (Muslim) people in the societies where it is strong.
The nearest analogue from European politics, though not an exact one, is fascism. As with fascism, the leading force in fundamentalism is generally elements of the urban middle classes "run amok". Embittered by the disappointments of the capitalist development in their countries - which in many of them, though not in Afghanistan, has been rapid and tumultuous, thanks to oil - they turn to a sort of "reactionary anti-capitalism", and ally with reactionary social layers, the landlords in Afghanistan, the bazaar merchants in Iran, and so on. The element of religious dogma in their politics gives a special timbre to their ferocity against individual liberty and democracy.
These fundamentalist movements are not in any sense offshoots of national liberation struggle, or of an anti-imperialist awakening. They are entirely reactionary. If they are "our enemy's enemy", which they may be episodically, they are never our friends. We need to be clear about this, both in order to do our duty by the mainly-Muslim people terrorised by these fundamentalists in their own countries, and to equip us to understand any further fundamentalist atrocities like the 11 September hijackings. Those are unfortunately all too likely.
Afghanistan has become a nest for fundamentalism over the last 20 years. Almost the whole population rallied behind one fundamentalist group or another when they led the resistance to the Russian invasion of 1979. Then fundamentalist young men from all over the Muslim world came to join the battles and take advantage of the large cash flows from the CIA and the Pakistani government. Thousands of "Arab Afghans" got trained as fundamentalist guerrillas; some turned up later in Bosnia on in Algeria, some are still in Afghanistan. According to the Financial Times, 2000 of the Taliban's army are Arabs, and 8000 are Pakistanis, all non-Afghans.
The Taliban date only from 1994. They did not exist at the time of the war against the Russians in 1979-89. They were encouraged and sponsored by Pakistan and the CIA, so it seems, in the hope of getting a halfway stable government in Afghanistan. The two years since the final collapse of rump Stalinist government in the capital Kabul had seen the country collapse into catastrophic faction-fighting between rival fundamentalist militias. There was and is a big economic prize behind it all: a US-based corporation, UNOCAL, has been anxious ever since 1995 to start building a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to the Pakistani coast from Turkmenistan, which, in the early 1990s, was found to have the world's third-largest natural gas reserves.
It would be simplistic and crude economic determinism to say that the US is going to war in Afghanistan just for the pipeline. However, if the US does go not only for war, but also for trying to oust the government and put in a new government, that must be one of the factors. The attempt to do so is likely to lead the US into a quagmire, a war that could spread far beyond their plans. The US's only feasible-looking Afghan allies, the Northern Alliance, are fundamentalists themselves - linked to Iran, a bit more moderate than the Taliban because they are a coalition of minorities, ethnic and religious (notably Shia Muslims, of the same persuasion as the Iranian mullahs, who are reviled by the Sunni-Muslim Taliban), but very unstable in their alliance. Whatever the US is going to do in Afghanistan, it will not be a war for civilisation.
Meanwhile, some of the elements of civilisation at home will be under threat. Few will object to more security checks at airports, still less to clampdowns on tax havens. But altogether more dangerous measures are likely, such as the introduction of identity cards. This would do little to stop fundamentalists, and a lot to strengthen the hand of police surveillance over activists and labour movements.
Muslims are already being attacked and harassed; that will get worse if there are British casualties.
The central force that can defend civil liberties, defend the Muslim communities, and resist the war drive is the labour movement, with its ethic of solidarity. The more we can extend that ethic internationally, developing real solidarity with the labour movements, socialists and democrats of countries where the fundamentalists are strong, the more, also, we can create a real force against the evil of fundamentalism.
Solidarity with the victims of terror - in the USA and everywhere! Against fundamentalism, and against imperialism - workers of the world, unite!