Questions and answers on the US-British war in Afghanistan, and terrorist-fundamentalism

By Colin Foster

On Sunday 7 October the US and Britain started bombing Afghanistan. They have said that they will continue to do so for several days more, and suggested that they will then send in ground forces.

This war will not bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or console the bereaved from the 11 September attacks in the US. On the contrary, it means rich, civilised, democratic governments will do to unknown but large numbers of innocent Afghan people what ultra-reactionaries from one of the most shattered societies on earth did, unpardonably, to six thousand people in the USA on 11 September. It will pile further distress and devastation on an Afghan population which has already suffered much. It will create new masses of refugees.

It will not prevent further attacks like 11 September. It will not defeat terrorist-fundamentalism. Even if the US/British attack defeats bin Laden and the Taliban, it will spread the spores of fundamentalism in many other countries. The war should be opposed.

Doesn't the USA have a right to strike back against bin Laden and his Taliban allies?

Yes, in principle. But who, how, what - that makes a big difference. This particular "striking back" is big-power devastation of many innocent people.

Compare the Omagh bombing of 1998. An Irish Republican splinter group killed 29 people in a bomb attack. In proportion to the society of Northern Ireland, the numbers dead would compare to 4700 in the USA.

Why shouldn't the British government have responded by bombing the city of Dundalk, in the Irish Republic, where the Omagh attackers were based? Was it because the Irish are a white, European people, and the Afghans are an Asian people? Socialists reject this racist double standard. Afghan lives are as important as American or Irish lives.

Aren't the US and British being careful to target the military sites of the Taliban and bin Laden?

Don't take media reports at face value. The media are just telling us what the US and British commanders are telling them. We have no independent account from reporters on the ground in Afghanistan. Probably the true extent of civilian casualties will only filter out much later.

True, the US is not carpet-bombing with total disregard for civilian life as it did in Cambodia, for example, in 1970. The leaders of the US ruling class are as ruthless as they were in 1970, but not stupid. They do not want to stir up the whole Muslim world against them, with its huge oil assets.

However, they are not just carrying out a surgical operation against identified criminals. They have gone to war. They have dropped, and will drop, masses of explosives.

In the Gulf war of 1991 against Iraq, also, they had Muslim allies to keep on side. They claimed they were using "smart" weapons which would home in precisely on military targets. Yet they killed between 5,000 and 15,000 civilians by bombing; tens of many Iraqi conscripts when their army was already routed; and further tens of many civilians by sanctions since the war. Saddam Hussein still prospers.

The US/British attack will kill many civilians in Afghanistan.

How else can you defeat the terrorist-fundamentalists?

The US-British alliance will not defeat, or cut the roots, of terrorist-fundamentalism.

Its stated aim in Afghanistan is to replace the Taliban regime by a "broad-based" government around the king, the Northern Alliance - and splinters from the Taliban! The Northern Alliance are also fundamentalists. They are guilty of many atrocities - only their atrocities have all been in Afghanistan rather than some being in other countries. Between 1992 and 1996 they dominated the country, and killed tens of thousands of people, mostly through their faction fights between themselves. Presumably the US-British alliance will try to put a scaffolding of some UN military force - maybe mostly drawn from mostly-Muslim countries -- around their "broad-based" government. Even if successful, this project will not defeat terrorist-fundamentalism.

And the US-British alliance may well be drawn into a war much wider, much longer, much deeper, much messier and much bloodier than they have started with.

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, plainly they reckoned on a much shorter and easier war than in fact they got. Ten years later, over a million Afghans were dead, six million had fled the country. The US generals will have read the history of Russia's war, and tried to learn from it. It is still quite possible that the US-British attack will end with bin Laden, or his similars, still at large and active, and new masses of recruits for them and other terrorist-fundamentalists.

At the very best it will push back one terrorist-fundamentalist faction. It will not cut the roots of fundamentalism. It will not end or diminish the widespread fundamentalist terror against the people of the fundamentalists' "home countries".

Many of the socialists who now campaign against the US/British war are exactly the same people who were most vocal until recently in denouncing the Taliban regime. Isn't that a contradiction?

No. We still denounce the Taliban regime! We want to see it overthrown as soon as possible - but by a democratic uprising of the people of Afghanistan. There are many horrific regimes in the world. Socialists advocate not US/British attacks on them, but labour-movement solidarity with the working-class and democratic resistance in those countries. The Taliban, vicious though they are, have considerable popular support in some areas, if only because they appear as the force which introduced more-or-less stable government after long years of deadly chaos. An assault by foreign powers will solidify much of that support. Foreign assault will oust the Taliban only at the cost of killing sizeable numbers of civilians and creating deep disruptions and grievances.

Isn't the answer not to oppose the US-British war flat-out, but to demand restraint?

It might be, if the US and British military were of a different species from what they really are. In fact, they are bureaucratic, hierarchical machines of power, geared to the interests of world-wide profit-making. As well ask them to carry out police action in a strictly restrained and humane way as ask a tiger to be a babysitter.

But the US actually is being restrained by its broad diplomatic alliances.

Yes, up to a point. The US government is no longer talking about "ending states", or attacking "a whole series of countries", as some of its leading officials did in the days after 11 September. However, those officials are still in place, and their views could prevail over more cautious counsel either if the US-British attack wins smooth and quick victories - in which case they will say, why not go for more? - or if a more "restrained" strategy gets bogged down.

More to the point, for the labour movement to make ourselves echoes of the various states urging restraint is to reduce ourselves to nullity. Our job is not to advise the powers-that-be, but to explain the basic issues.

It would be foolish and naive to collapse into supporting the US-led war - which must be taken as a whole, not just bit-by-bit - because on the basis of what we can see so far, from a pliant mass media utterly dependent on what the US and British military tell them, it seems more restrained than at first we feared.

How else do we deal with terrorist-fundamentalism?

We can't deal with it by supporting the US government! For over 60 years they have been the close partners and allies of the fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia. They helped the Pakistani state and Saudi Arabia sponsor the Taliban in the mid-90s. They have frequently given aid to fundamentalist movements as a counter to secular nationalism. They are trying to mend their relations with the fundamentalist regime in Iran, and with its Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance.

Now as before 11 September, our answer to terrorist-fundamentalism is: solidarity with the labour movements, the socialists, and the democrats in those countries. Socialists must combine physical self-defence against the fundamentalists in the countries where they are strong with bold advocacy of secularism, and working-class action on the social issues which the fundamentalists exploit, everywhere.

That is not a quick fix. But there is no quick fix.

If bin Laden can come out of the 11 September atrocity with impunity, then that can only encourage further similar atrocities.

True. We want a militant struggle against fundamentalism; only, we want a working-class and democratic struggle against all fundamentalists, not a big-power military spectacular against some fundamentalists which kills a lot of innocent people along the way - and will help, through the reaction it generates, to increase the forces of terrorist-fundamentalism even if it kills bin Laden.

Can we defend the right of the Afghan government to provide a base for terrorist-fundamentalist attacks on US cities?

No. We seek to deny that right by solidarity with the democrats of Afghanistan in a struggle to overthrow that government. The US/British action is seeking to deny that right by a war which will kill many innocent Afghans and, quite likely, recruit thousands more to the terrorist-fundamentalists.

Isn't it really just a police action, not a full-scale war of conquest? Can't we support it in the same way as we might support, or at least not oppose, action by the police against fascist terrorists?

If it is "police action", it is police action on the scale of a large war. Not a full-scale war of conquest, maybe, but a large war. We would not support a war, with masses of Cruise missiles and 50,000 troops poised to act, by local police against an area in which fascists were strong. In Afghanistan, worse: missiles and troops are being sent from abroad into a country, one of the world's poorest, with a long history of suffering from big-power invasions.

Shouldn't we ask for the action against the Taliban and bin Laden to be put under the control of the United Nations?

That would just mean giving a place at the command desk to the Russian government, the butchers of Chechnya, and the Chinese government, the butchers of Tibet. The USA has its own reasons for not wanting to be bothered with that, but it is certainly not a guarantee of fair and democratic behaviour.

Or shouldn't we get bin Laden brought to an international court?

It would be good to see bin Laden follow Milosevic into the dock. But, sadly, there is no world government, no world rule of law organised by a world state. The nearest approach to it is the US military acting as a world police force - a police force which is a law unto itself, much more so, qualitatively more so, even than the cops in a country like Britain. After all, shouldn't Henry Kissinger, the man who ordered the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, also be brought to an international court? The US military won't do that.

Doesn't denouncing "fundamentalism" feed anti-Muslim prejudice?

It would be good to find a better word than "fundamentalism". The Taliban, or bin Laden's group, or the Saudi ruling elite, are not selections of specially devout religious people, but ultra-reactionary political formations. By "jihad" they mean not something spiritual, but literal "holy war" to fend off or destroy the "infidel" world.

We denounce these jihadi-fundamentalist politics and oppose any racist scapegoating of Muslim or Asian people in general. No contradiction, far from it, because the main victims of fundamentalist politics are the people, mostly Muslim, of the fundamentalists' "home countries".

Where does jihadi-fundamentalism come from?

Generally its core activists are urban middle class men thrown askew by the disappointments and turmoils of capitalist development in their countries - university graduates unable to find good jobs, for example. They ally with reactionary social layers threatened by modern capitalist development (mullahs, landlords, merchants), and mobilise sections of the disorganised and disoriented poor, around a programme of restoring an imaginary past where everything was in order and under control.

This fundamentalism is a product of the disappointments and turmoils of capitalist development. Not especially of "the West". The mainly-Muslim countries have long had capitalist relations in the very heart of their societies.

People who think that capitalism is an outside "Western" imposition there are as wrong as the Populists in the 19th century United States who thought that capitalism was an English imposition on their country.

Fundamentalism is not an automatic product of capitalist development. It rises by defeating other trends within that development. Mostly it has risen by defeating the secular nationalism which achieved some things in the mainly-Muslim countries - political independence, state or local ownership of the main means of production, some industrialisation, some land reform - but is now exhausted and at a dead end. Fundamentalism also rises in conflict with the democratic, socialist and labour-movement response, which has so far been weak in these countries, partly because so many would-be socialists (in the old Communist Parties and similar groups) tail-ended the secular nationalists.

One European analogue of fundamentalism is the "reactionary anti-capitalism" of the early 19th century which Marx analysed in the Communist Manifesto: "half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future". Another is fascism. Fundamentalism is a sort of composite of the two.

Should we support the government's plans to bring in a law against spreading hatred of religions?

We must be in the forefront of the defence of Asian communities in Britain against any scapegoating or persecution on the pretext that they "look like" or are Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorist-fundamentalists, and have no part whatsoever in responsibility for the 11 September atrocities.

Local labour movements should offer physical support to the defence of mosques and Muslim community premises against attack.

Preaching hatred of Muslims as people should be illegal, just like preaching racial hatred. But to preach hostility to Islam - or Christianity, or any other religion - as a set of ideas, is a democratic right.

We should strongly resist anything like the old laws against "blasphemy".

We are Marxists, and therefore atheists - opposed to any religion, Muslim, Christian, or other, which seeks to make people guide their lives by the will of an imaginary God rather than by human concerns. We are even more opposed to any attempt to have religious doctrines shape law or education. We also defend freedom of religion. We object to Muslims who want to destroy the "infidel" world by violence, but not to the vast majority of Muslims who simply exercise their right to their own private religious beliefs.

What is "terrorism"?

The mass media use "terrorism" to mean any sort of unofficial violence they disapprove of. Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky wrote about "terrorism" in a different sense when they criticised people like the Social Revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia for seeking to disrupt the government and rouse the masses for socialism by killing Tsars, ministers and police chiefs.

Lenin and Trotsky advocated organising for working-class mass action in contrast to the individual heroism of the "terrorists", but did not object to "terror" against the Tsarist dictatorship. They expressed their "moral solidarity" with the terrorists. Our "moral solidarity" is not with the 11 September attackers, but with their victims - ordinary people, not tyrants.

To discuss "terrorism", we must first know which "terrorism" we are talking about.

Call it fundamentalism or call it terrorism, it is a relatively small threat, on a world scale, whereas US imperialism is a big threat. Of course we do not agree with the fundamentalists, but we must side with them against the USA, mustn't we?

That is to say that when two reactionary forces are in conflict, we side with the weaker one! Why? If both are reactionary, we oppose both. If fundamentalism is a relatively weak force today, we certainly do not want it to be a stronger one tomorrow. In social, political, historical and human terms, the fundamentalists are reactionary even compared to George Bush!

When we support the liberation movements of small nations against big powers, despite criticisms - say, support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua against the US-Contra war - our argument is not that liberation movement is just as reactionary as the big power, only weaker! We support the democratic, liberating content of the nationalist movement, while opposing its nationalist ideas. And we want that democratic, liberating content to turn out stronger, in its own arena, than the oppressor, not weaker.

Fundamentalism has no democratic, liberating content.

Of course the fundamentalists are weaker, on a world scale, than the US ruling class. Whether they are a smaller threat depends on who and where you are. They are not a smaller threat in Iran, in Algeria, or in Pakistan. They were not a smaller threat in Manhattan on 11 September. They may not be a smaller threat in London, as the war proceeds. To people attacked by the fundamentalists - in Tehran or in Karachi, in Algiers or in New York - it is no answer to tell them that the threat they face is a small detail on the great scene of world history.

Still, the main enemy is at home?

Our first task, as working-class socialists in this country, is to pursue the struggle for working-class interests, democracy, socialism, and the rights of nations world-wide, against our "own" ruling class and our "own" government. That is true; that is what we understand by the phrase "the main enemy is at home"; and that is what the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht meant by it when he coined it as a slogan against the sell-out German socialists who supported the German government in World War 1 on the argument that the "main enemy" was Tsarist Russia.

However, Karl Liebknecht did not support Tsarism! He allied with the Russian revolutionaries who fought Tsarism.

Moreover, to centre everything round denouncing the USA is not quite to follow the idea that "the main enemy is at home"! The US ruling class is in the USA, not "at home" here in Britain.

But isn't anti-Americanism a legitimate and progressive response to the crimes of the US government?

No, it is not. We oppose the US government; but we are firmly on the side of the US people, and the US working class especially, against the terrorist-fundamentalists.

The US government has a long list of recent international crimes - the bombing of Cambodia, the Contra war against Nicaragua, and others. The list is longer than those of other capitalist governments only because the US is bigger, not because it is worse.

The US people - arguably less xenophobic, and more cosmopolitan, than the people of any other big capitalist country - managed by protest to force their own government to accept defeat in its last big imperialist war, in Vietnam, something the British people have never managed in any of Britain's imperialist wars.

Anti-American sentiment in Britain may dress up in democracy and internationalism, but often is much more a matter of the peevishness of the smaller exploiter against the bigger exploiter. It reflects the grudge of the old British world-rulers against the new US world-rulers, or (among the left) the Stalinist camp against the USA's in the Cold War. We should have no truck with it.

Our first priority must be anti-imperialism?

What is imperialism? In the early 20th century, around the time that Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet on imperialism, it meant a world system of competition for territory between colonial empires or spheres of influence, dominated by a few great powers. Lenin argued that this system was not just a matter of temporary or casual policy by a few governments, but organically connected with the evolution of the big capitalist economies at that time into the domination of big corporations and banks which were closely linked with the government machines of their home countries and relied on them to secure their markets and sources of raw materials.

Today, "imperialism" is commonly used on the left as another word for "advanced capitalism". This usage adds an extra edge to moral condemnation of capitalism, but at a fatal cost of confusion.

Against "classical" or "high" imperialism, the imperialism of the old colonial empires, socialists sought to be the foremost fighters for the political liberation of the small, conquered nations. Against a reversion to that colonial imperialism now - against a US/British attempt to conquer Afghanistan and subject it to old-style colonial rule - socialists should side with even a Taliban government. We would back it in so far as it resisted the colonial conquest, while simultaneously working to overthrow and replace it.

But, under the blows of vast national liberation struggles, the old colonial empires declined after 1945. Since 1975 - or 1989-91, if you include the Russian empire - they have almost disappeared. What is now rationally called imperialism is mainly the domination of the world by the big corporations and banks, largely through market forces and without colonial empires.

Against colonial imperialism, the socialist and consistently democratic programme was national liberation. But to propose "national liberation" against the modern "imperialism of free trade" leads to political nonsense. It leads sections of the left into support and sympathy for all opponents of that "imperialism" (i.e. world-market capitalism) - jihadi-fundamentalist, or whatever - similar to that we had, and should have had, for the movements which won freedom for the colonies of Britain, France, Portugal and other powers.

Against modern "IMF imperialism", there is no way forward but working-class struggle and socialism. A "national liberation" movement that has no colonial or semi-colonial rule to combat can say it fights imperialism, but cannot really do so. It can only produce an "anti-imperialism"- or just anti-Americanism -which is a vague amalgam of nationalist frustration, resentment and envy.

It cuts against the necessary development of working-class movements by calling on people of all classes to combine against an outside enemy - and, moreover, an enemy that they cannot overthrow, not least because the leading (capitalist) parts of this "anti-imperialist" movement share its fundamental nature. This is nationalist populism.

Such politics have been obstacles to independent working-class politics in Latin America, even in very advanced countries like Argentina. In jihadi-fundamentalist movements, they become downright rejection of much of the modern world.

The only "rational" expression of this populist "anti-imperialism" is the drive to make a country economically independent of the world market. But wherever such a programme has been attempted - in Argentina between the 1940s and the 1970s, in Ireland between 1932 and 1958, or in many other countries - it has been an economic, social and political blind alley.

To use "imperialism" as a word to brand advanced capitalism as an especially bad form of capitalism is to make our "anti-imperialism" an objection to advance, not to capitalism. It entwines us into a sort of international popular front with all sorts of Third and Second World reactionaries. The favourable attitude to jihadi-fundamentalists adopted by some British leftists is a case in point.

The nature of the US/British war, and the reasons why we oppose it, have a lot to do with the nature of the US and British states as bureaucratic-military-capitalist hierarchies, which can only think of responding to the fundamentalists by Cruise missiles from the sky rather than building a democratic opposition from below. But it is not strictly speaking a matter of "imperialism", either in the sense of colony-grabbing or of enforcing free-trade rules or IMF debt-payment plans.

Our principle is not the negative one of "anti-imperialism". It is the positive one of democracy, internationalism, and socialism.

But Lenin stressed the struggle against imperialism above all else, didn't he?

He did not. Even in his day, living in a world where "imperialism" was primarily the system of great colonial empires, he wrote: "Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism" (A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism).

He was arguing against some comrades who wanted to drop the call for the right of nations to self-determination, but remain "anti-imperialist". Lenin replied that "anti-imperialism" in abstraction from the positive programme of the right of nations to self-determination was (in Lenin's own words) "a hollow phrase, meaningless declamation".

The US is trying to conquer Afghanistan. Against that, shouldn't we support the Afghans' right to self-determination, even under the worst political leadership?

It is possible that the US will be pulled into a quagmire much deeper than they want, but at present they do not want to install a US governor-general in Kabul. For over half a century now, the US ruling class has deliberately rejected old-style colonial imperialism, and instead looked mostly to having its big corporations and banks dominate through the "imperialism of free trade". The main exceptions have been essays in semi-colonial domination in Central America and the Caribbean.

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, it looked as if the US would march on to Baghdad and impose a puppet government there. Experts have claimed that they were all set to do that, and would have done it but for concerns about disrupting their war alliance. They did not do it. Why would they want to seize Afghanistan now, a country of far fewer economic resources than Iraq, and in a situation where the likely fall-out in Pakistan alone would be greater?

It is premature, to say the least, to be shouting "Defend Afghanistan", or "Side with the Taliban", now.

We have no reason to take sides with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, or the king. Both Taliban and Northern Alliance have been US-sponsored in the past. Both are reactionary and fundamentalist - the Northern Alliance more "moderately" so than the Taliban, since it is a looser coalition, including ethnic minorities and Shia Muslims as well as Sunni.

Shouldn't we always support a poorer country against a richer country?

This comes down to the idea that we should always support a weaker reactionary force against a stronger reactionary force. We support smaller nations against bigger nations when the issue is the self-determination of the smaller nation against impositions by the bigger. But support for poorer states against richer states when the conflict is not to do with national self-determination cannot help cure poverty. The only force that can do that is working-class struggle, to create a new world based on solidarity rather than profit-grabbing.

Lenin said we should support the violence of the oppressed against the violence of the oppressor. So shouldn't we support violence against America?

We support the right of the oppressed to use violence in struggle against oppression. Right-wing violence against ordinary people by attackers who may be downtrodden or aggrieved is not the same. The rights of the poorer countries do not include the right to sponsor or support the people who used plane-bombs in the USA on 11 September. Besides, how is Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire, an "oppressed" person?

The pipeline's the key to this! A US-led consortium made agreements to build a pipeline across Afghanistan from the large oil and gas reserves in Turkmenistan. Isn't the real reason for the war that the USA wants the pipeline?

The USA does want a route for Central Asia's oil and gas outside Russian control. But it has options other than Afghanistan (under the Caspian sea; through Iran; maybe even through China). The Afghan option has been on hold since 1999 - because of Afghanistan's instability, not because of any Taliban opposition to the pipeline, far from it. If the USA's economic competition with Russia were the real issue here, why would Russia be backing the USA? To explain this war from the pipeline project is contrived "economic determinism", not Marxism. The 11 September bombing is the cause of the war.

It's arrogant and Euro-centric to denounce the Taliban for such things as their laws which compel women to wear all-enveloping cloaks with only an eye-slit and men to grow beards and pray in the mosque five times a day. It seems strange to us, but if that's their culture, how can we criticise it?

We are against brutal enforced "modernisation" from outside, such as the USSR tried to impose on the rural people of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. However, the Taliban's laws are also largely impositions from 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. It is imposed most ferociously in the cities, where society is not just "traditional". Afghanistan, after all, introduced secular law as long ago as 1919, and legal equality for women and men in 1964.

An aid worker recently in Afghanistan writes: "Taliban troops speed around Kabul in their clean new Toyota pickup trucks, tricked-out, hip-hop ghetto rigs. On the sides they have painted pseudo-American phrases: 'City Boy,' 'Fast Crew,' 'King of Road.' Inside, young solemn-looking Taliban men sit in their black holy dress, sporting Ray-Bans... Taliban troops and police are always easy to spot. They have black flowing robelike clothes... and big silky black turbans with long tails running almost to the ankles... Many wear black eyeliner, and their hair is long and curly... They carry themselves like supermodels".

Another aid worker reports that one of the defiances for which Kabulis have been willing to run the risk of Taliban punishment is... underground showings of the film Titanic on videos smuggled from Pakistan.

Taliban fundamentalism is a modern movement - not an expression of a community's wish to go at its own pace, but a deliberate attempt to impose an imagined past as a response to the modern world.

But aren't the terrorist-fundamentalists an anti-imperialist movement?

Fundamentalism did not arise in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Egypt, or in Algeria as an offshoot of a movement against US domination. Far from it: in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan fundamentalists have been backed by the US.

Fundamentalism is "anti-imperialist" only as part of being against the "infidel" world. Fundamentalists may condemn profiteering, market-forces ruthlessness, and US arrogance as features of the "infidel" world; but they also condemn Marxism, democracy, individual liberty and secularism as parts of the same "infidel" whole.

In practice fundamentalist regimes, in Iran or Saudi Arabia, do nothing to stop capitalist profiteering. Their sharp edge cuts against women's rights, sexual self-determination, individual liberty, democracy, secularism, Marxism.

If this is anti-capitalism, it is a reactionary, "fascistic" anti-capitalism, a movement which opposes capitalism in the name of something worse, not better. We have no common ground with it. The only way forward to a better world is through building on the contradictions within capitalism - specifically, the contradictions which put the working class and democracy in opposition to capitalist power and privilege - not through trying to back out of capitalism into an imaginary ideal past.

In some countries - Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosova, Palestine - fundamentalist ideas have become strong among people who are fighting for national liberation. Iranian and Saudi money often has a lot to do with it. This influence of fundamentalist ideas always has a bad effect on the liberation movements, curdling their nationalism into chauvinism. It does not prove fundamentalism progressive any more than the support for Nazi politics from the leaders of the oppressed Palestinian Arabs in the 1940s demonstrates anything good about Nazism.

Osama bin Laden explains the aircraft hijacking attacks like this: "As to America, I say to it and its people a few words: I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine..." He has a fair point, hasn't he?

We want peace in Palestine. We want the Israeli military to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and concede to the Palestinian Arabs their right to a properly independent state alongside Israel. We sympathise with the Palestinians in their struggle against the Israeli occupation. We want a socialist federation of the Middle East, with the right to self-determination for all minority nations.

That gives us no real common ground with bin Laden. By Palestine, he means the whole territory which was British-ruled Palestine before 1948, including what is now Israel. By peace, he means that this must become "Muslim land" again. Jews must be driven out. His programme also has no room for the Christian minority among the Arabs, let alone for secularists or atheists.

Bin Laden is right to denounce the USA for its support for Israel, though, isn't he?

The USA's policy is to support Israel but nudge it towards compromise with the Arab states and the Palestinians. We criticise that policy. But bin Laden's grievance against the USA is essentially that the USA will not accept the destruction of Israel. His programme of destroying the Israeli-Jewish nation is worse, not better, than the USA's. It is a programme for a relatively big cluster of powers - the Arab states - to impose their will on a small nation, the Israeli Jews, not a programme for the liberty of small nations. It is not anti-imperialist!

Since 11 September, the US has shifted its emphasis on Israel and Palestine, coming out plainly for an independent Palestinian state for the first time. We may not like the tactics, but that shows that actions like the 11 September attack work, doesn't it?

At first the reaction to the 11 September attack gave the Israeli government space to attack Palestinian towns and villages without much censure. Since then things have shifted. The US wants to keep Arab states on side for its war in Afghanistan, so it is leaning harder on Israel to make concessions. A similar thing happened after the 1991 Gulf War.

Blows which shake or damage our enemies - such as the US ruling class - are valuable to us only in so far as they connect up with the development of a progressive, democratic and socialist working-class movement to win a better world. The bad effects of the 11 September attack, and of the current war, for building that movement much outweigh any "good" side-effects.

Why be so concerned to explain what's bad about terrorist-fundamentalism? The mass media will do that. Our job, as socialists, is to build an anti-war movement. Any argument that helps to build that movement must be good. Any argument which helps the US paint the Taliban as evil must be bad.

Socialists should not be lawyers, scraping together every argument we can to support a "brief" handed down to us, but champions of the whole truth. The first socialist duty, as Leon Trotsky put it, is "to face reality squarely... to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be..."

If socialists simply ignore the facts presented by the mass media about the Taliban, or try to explain away the Taliban's crimes, then we will taint our anti-war arguments in the eyes of thinking people. A lot of socialists in Britain are doing that, and we have to explain why we think they are wrong.

One truly terrible example is the latest Socialist Worker (6 October 2001). Supporters of war indict the Taliban's persecution of women. They are right about the persecution, wrong about war. Socialist Worker responds by passing on the Taliban's lying excuse - they subject a woman who dares show her face unveiled to 100 lashes only for her own protection!

"The Taliban's treatment of women reflects both the underdevelopment of the villages the Taliban had come from and the trauma of the war years. Like every other guerrilla group, they were composed of men who had spent years in fighting units. Taliban leaders feared that their soldiers would behave as some previous mujahedeen groups had on taking a city. The war years had seen repeated abuse and rape of women. They said forcing women into seclusion was a means of protecting them".

In fact, the Taliban had existed for only a few months, in Pakistani exile rather than Afghan villages, and done no fighting at all, when they took Kandahar in November 1994, imposed the burqa (an all-covering cloak for women, with only an eye-slit to see through), banned women from working, and shut all girls' schools.

Throughout human history, the oppressors of women have always claimed they were acting for women's own protection. It is only in recent history that organisations like the Taliban have found such conscienceless and shameless socialists to act as their attorneys!