LEFT COLUMN: 15.11.2001
What we think
For democracy and international solidarity - against both imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism
After the fall of Kabul
An opposition to US/UK war plans which did not also condemn Islamic fundamentalism and its atrocities like 11 September was always an "anti-imperialism of idiots". It always meant misusing "anti-imperialism" to side, implicitly, with the dark-ages warriors of Islamism, oppressors of "their own" people in a way whose nearest European analogue is fascism.
Now, after the collapse of the Taliban in large parts of Afghanistan, what was politically untenable has become flagrant absurdity. The picture is still unclear; our information is still mostly filtered through US military briefings to the media. However, the Taliban has retreated from most of Afghanistan outside the Pashtun areas of the south-east, and there it faces large revolts.
Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq, a courageous opponent of the US/UK war much closer to the scene than us, writes: "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 government is established under the influence of US imperialism".
To preach distrust of US/UK militarism - that was and is still 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 a possibly-more-liberal US-sponsored replacement regime - 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 is nonsense, and now very obvious nonsense, both politically and morally.
In our "Questions and Answers" on the war, we wrote: "The Taliban's laws are largely impositions from the outside. The Taliban was created among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with money from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Its version of Islamic law is 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 shows that they were even more significantly an outside force, imposing itself on the population, than we thought.
We welcome the fall of the Taliban and the flow of more foreign aid into Afghanistan. We demand more aid.
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. Though civilians have been killed, it has not turned out like that. The Taliban regime has proved more fragile and thin than any calculators had expected. That is the nature of war - weak and rotten structures collapse suddenly under the impact of force.
At the start of the war, we wrote: "We denounce the Taliban regime! We want to see it overthrown as soon as possible". The cost in Afghan civilian lives of overthrowing it by US bomber aid to the Northern Alliance was reasonably expected to be very high. 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 is deep in compromises and horse-trading with scarcely-less-vile Islamic fundamentalists, and not only in Afghanistan.
Besides, the war is not over. There will be more civilian casualties. Cluster bombs left unexploded after the 1991 Gulf war killed 1,220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqis between 1991 and 1999. How many will be killed by unexploded cluster bombs in Afghanistan? At the very least, the Taliban are likely to stage prolonged and serious guerrilla resistance in Pashtun rural areas. We give no blank cheque to the US to deal with them with its missiles and cluster bombs.
The threat to civil liberties in the name of "fighting terrorism" continues - the New Labour government's proposed new legislation would permit the indefinite jailing of asylum seekers "suspected" of terrorist connections, without charge or trial.
The Northern Alliance is a coalition of warlord groups - all communalist, mostly fundamentalist, and some scarcely less totalitarian than the Taliban - who killed tens of thousands of civilians through their feuding and reprisals when they dominated Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who declare that "the retreat of the terrorist Taliban from Kabul is a positive development", also express great alarm about the Northern Alliance coming back to power. "We would like to emphatically ask the UN to send its effective peacekeeping force into the country before the Northern Alliance can repeat the unforgettable crimes they committed..."
Perhaps the US can lean on the Northern Alliance hard enough to make it accept a coalition government with Pashtuns and to allow, as Farooq Tariq puts it, "a little liberal time in Afghanistan" while the media spotlight is on them. Past US and UN operations give no room for confidence that the "little liberal time" will last long, or to think that Farooq Tariq is wrong in arguing that: "Once the Northern Alliance strengthens its power base, the real face of these fundamentalists will come out in the open".
And more. If everything continues to go smoothly and easily for the USA, that is no guarantee of peace, but just the opposite. In our "Questions and Answers" at the start of the war, we wrote that "smooth and quick victories" for the US/UK war - which we did not expect, but considered as a possibility - would increase the chances that the views of those US government officials who talked, after 11 September, about "ending states" and attacking "a whole series of countries" - specifically, Iraq - would "prevail over more cautious counsel". The cautious still have many power-politics arguments on their side; but the drive to attack Afghanistan came fundamentally from the need of the Bush administration to be seen to do "something" about the 11 September attack on the USA. That need made not yet be satisfied, and there is a real possibility of an attack on Iraq. Any let-up in opposition to US/UK militarism now will make further, broader war more likely.
Unless the Taliban's military collapse is suddenly reversed, the US/UK Afghan war is probably not going to spread jihadi-fundamentalism wholesale in the way we feared it would. Pro-Taliban currents will be demoralised and thrown into disarray.
However, a US war on Iraq would change that calculation radically. And even immediately, terrorist-fundamentalism is not on the retreat across the board. The Iranian regime, the most powerful bastion of terrorist-fundamentalism internationally, and sponsor of many terrorist-fundamentalist groups in other countries, has gained. On 11 November, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that Iranian military advisers were working side by side with the US in Afghanistan, and spoke of Iran's "legitimate interest in what happens" in Afghanistan. As a long-term sponsor of key Northern Alliance groups, Iran has greatly strengthened its position in Afghanistan.
Before 11 September, the Iranian regime faced increasing internal discredit and a burgeoning movement of opposition to clerical rule among young people. Its reinforcement, the postponement of its downfall, is a boost for terrorist-fundamentalism perhaps bigger than the downfall of the Taliban is a blow. The terrorist-fundamentalist threat has not been abolished. Its roots have not been cut. 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, this is a half-truth, or a quarter-truth. The vast majority of those who have joined anti-war demonstrations or supported anti-war resolutions in trade unions have given no support to the Taliban at all. Whatever way they would choose to phrase it, in essence they agree 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 would say that they support the Taliban's politics. The biggest of those currents, however, the SWP, opposed condemning the 11 September atrocity, and has 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.
Other currents who share the SWP's basic view but are more plain-spoken and candid have spelled out the conclusion explicitly.
The Stop the War spokespeople now feel the need to denounce the Taliban's "contempt for democracy and human rights". But only now, when the Taliban is 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. They sought alliance with the broadest forces of Islam, objecting to any differentiation from the fundamentalists because it would supposedly alienate Muslims. Now they hasten 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.
Down with US/UK militarism!