Historical Features of Afghanistan
A) Afghanis have fought the British in three separate wars and Russians once and defeated them or held them at stalemate. This is military dimensions of this war is something the American brass and political establishment are aware of. This is reflected in the uneasiness of sending more troops although the new fiscal realities of the U.S. government are probably playing a role as well.
B) Afghanistan is one of the few places on the Earth where bourgeois-capitalist development has had little if any impact. While many newly independent countries in the post-colonial era were taking stabs at state-led development, Afghanistan was largely left out of this dynamic. This has meant a centralized state with a national ideology, which reaches into the pores of Afghanistan, has never existed. There is a huge gulf between the cities and the rural sectors of society. It also means that the presence of a working class is minimal.
C) The Communists following the overthrow of Daoud did not have a base in the countryside. 90% of the Afghani population lived here at the time. To push for change they had to rely on a top-down strategy which alienated the villagers. This meant force and violence had to be used by the Communists fuelling an insurgency. The pitfalls of revolution from above laid the gravestone of the Afghani Communists. So when Afghanis hate Communism, it is not because they are backwards, it is because Communists first became their jailers and tortures and later with the Soviets sided with those who jailed and tortured them.
Most Communists made another fatal mistake in supporting the Soviet invasion. Socialism/Communism cannot be brought by the barrel of a gun. Furthermore, the Soviet army found itself playing the role of occupier instead of some progressive force. This was the inherent logic from the beginning.
Understanding the rise of the Taliban
Most precisely, the Taliban came to power in the context of a civil war which happened after the Soviet Union and the US left, once Afghanistan was of no use to them. The Taliban stepped in the wake of immense corruption and violence as various Islamist parties fought for the control of the country. They promised to stop the corruption and war that plagued the country. There is nothing about the Afghan people to think that a left alternative could not have provided a different vision. The Taliban were heavily funded by Pakistan and de facto supported by the United States. The latter hoped that someone would stabilize the country and become a negotiating partner they could work with regarding oil pipelines.
The social base of the Taliban are the following: village mullahs or clerics, Afghanis who are no longer willing to tolerate the U.S. occupation, and massive amounts of students in Madrasas in NWFP in Pakistan. Many of these students’ parents were refugees from the Afghan-Soviet war. Conversely that has meant village/ tribal leadership has been seriously eroded in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban are Pashtun-chauvinists. This has limited their ability to provide a cohesive national program for Afghanistan. Ethnicity and tribe play a role in Afghanistan. However, the larger lines of social differences existed upon class, one’s position on the Soviet invasion, and whether the King should return to establish some type of monarchy.
Furthermore there have been reports where the Taliban in the NWFP have developed a right-wing populism, which attacks rich landowners and better of middle class layers who mistreat poor peasants.
Pluralities: Islam in Afghanistan and in general
Islam is hardly a monolithic religion. So far this line of argument has been taken over by liberal Muslim commentators. But there are more radical and more “Anarchist” or “Communist” interpretations to Islam and its pluralism. There are Sufis, Shias, Ismailis, Black Nationalist Islam to name some. Then there are also the immense cultural differences which exist from country to country. A common anecdote is that a Muslim in India 20-30 years ago would have had more in common with their Hindu neighbors then with Muslims in most countries. Conservative Muslims label this as the problems of Islam. Historically this points to the complexity of how Muslim people have practiced their faith. It has not been a closed vessel where no other religious, cultural, ideological, or spiritual trends affect it. This makes sense as I recall my mom telling stories of how her family celebrated Divali with their friends in India. Probably one of the most influential stories from my Mother was when she told me a few lines of how a Hindu family gave shelter to my family when they were on the verge of starvation in India. The point is there can hardly be a discussion of a single, unitary Islam.
There is also the matter of political interpretations of Islam. These range from liberal and conservative interpretations which we see in the United States to Islamic socialism of the type of Ali Shariati, to nationalist like Nasrallah in Lebanon, and reactionary ones advocated by the Taliban. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Today the most intense push comes from US Empire which demands every Muslim interpret Islam in terms of American-liberal-foreign policy interests. Tangled with this is the migration of millions of Muslims to France, Britain, Germany and of course the United States. The “clash of civilizations”, “war on terror” rhetoric, and wars in the Middle East and South Asia have closed the dimensions of what is acceptable practice of Islam for many young Muslims today. To use a simple anecdote, when I was growing up in the metro-Detroit area, many women in my community would have never thought of wearing the hijab. They thought it was an Arab import. No one’s commitment to Islam was questioned on the basis of the hijab. In the last fifteen to twenty n years this has drastically changed. Part of it is the influence of Wahhabism creeping in the United States and the other major part is the impact of 9/11. Women want to make a clear and powerful choice. They refuse to see their own people attacked, their religion demonized, and have chosen to wear the hijab. Today conversations, amongst my family regarding Islam have certainly narrowed because of these trends. This is happening across the advanced capitalist countries. My sense is that this is process is slightly different in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim, but more on that later.
This has important implications for the left. Muslims see Muslim people being attacked and correctly feel that Islam is under fire. Treating Islam as a backward or as false consciousness is only going to leave the field open to liberals and Wahhabists. The revolutionary left has to throw its dog in the fight. Concretely, this means that Islam is a religion and ideology, which must be engaged with. It means that there is a political spectrum and the left should help develop the most democratic, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal interpretations of Islam. If Christian Liberation Theology is legitimate then why cannot the same be said of an Islamic liberation theology. Arguably one of the reasons that cross-fertilization has not happened in the last twenty five years is because of the decimation of the revolutionary left in the Middle East and most of South Asia. There has been no revolutionary pole for Muslims to gravitate to.
In Afghanistan eighty percent of Afghans belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect which for our purposes is the most liberal of the four schools of Sunni thought (Taliban, Ahmed, 83). There are also Shia, Ismaelis, and Sufi Muslims. There were plenty of more liberal and moderate Islamic organizations in Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion, but the U.S. chose to support the more radical Islamic Mujaheddin parties. Wahhabism or Salafism has never received much support in the country. It was believed to be a foreign ideology by many Afghanis, but all this changed with the CIA-ISI funding of the former. This gave them the arms, the clout, and manpower to change the ideological field in Afghanistan.
What colonialism/ U.S. Empire have done to Islam
The best summary of this argument is found in Aijaz Ahmed’s “Islam, Islamisms, and the West”. It lays the basic arguments of the contemporary landscape of Islam, identity, and liberation movements have been reshaped in the last fifty years. Its complete arguments and ideas need to be taken up in a future post. For now, I hope we can keep our eyes on its relevancy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, although any discussion of Islam, colonialism, U.S. Empire will directly impact discussions on other parts of the world—especially the Middle East.
Muslims have lived in a diversity of ways since the existence of Islam. Muslims have not understood their own world only through the lens of religion. This is an Orientalist and racist position—period. This coincides with the myth that countries with majority Muslim populations become transformed into Muslim nations. This is an important slippage where the tensions must be explored. Some of these countries have had Communist Parties of larger magnitudes then in Europe or the United States, Canada, or Australia. This has to complicate any “Islamic” essentialist identity of these countries. Looking at the experience of India, Indonesia, or Bangladesh are cases in point.
The argument among the right and sections of the left has been that at least the U.S. is bringing democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan. This could not be further from the truth. Elections are not synonymous with democracy. Just ask Black people in the United States during the era of Jim Crow. A nation can have “democratic elections” which are hardly democratic. Furthermore, what historical evidence if there of the U.S. invading a third world country and democracy shortly following? The historical evidence simply does not exist. For white chauvinists this simply confirms that western civilization is not compatible with much of the colored world, further justifying the need to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., among other reactionary policies. For revolutionaries this means we are for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The arrival of colonialism or U.S. Empire actually reinforces a sectarian-religious structure on society. Lebanon’s experience with French colonialism is one powerful case in point. Sectarian divisions were built into the nature of the state system locking conflicts based religious differences. Ahmed sums up the problems with the U.S. Empire and democracy building project:
“First, it helped Islamism flourish by recruiting it as a force against ‘communism’, which encompassed not only the broadly-based communist movements that had arisen among the Muslim peoples but also any regime which subscribed to economic nationalism against Western corporate capital. The Western left typically underestimates all that history as a minor episode in what it too calls ‘the Cold War’, a term it has borrowed from the imperialist vocabulary. Second, by ensuring the overthrow of those secular regimes that were not communist (most of them were actually anti- communist) but which either tolerated communists (the Sukarno regime in Indonesia), or refused to align with the West (Sukarno again, but also Nasser in Egypt), or were even mildly nationalist in the economic domain (Mossadegh in Iran) – the West ensured the narrowing of the space for secular politics and therefore the emergence of varieties of Islamism, moderate as well as militant: Sadat, who succeeded Nasser and brought Egypt into the US-led camp, patronized the moderate wing of the Muslim Brothers but was gunned down by the armed ones who had broken with their par-ent organization, precisely on the question of Sadat’s alliance with the US and what they regarded as a capitulation on the question of Israel. Third, when Islamism became a powerful tendency in so many of those countries, the West played a cynical game of extreme pragmatism: continued sup-port for regimes like the Saudi one; the organization of the jihad against Afghan communism, as if what developed there was just a ‘Soviet invasion’, with no domestic basis; support for the most autocratic regimes, such as that of Mubarak in Egypt, against the Islamicists, adding to their claim to be ‘anti-imperialist’; displaying nothing but contempt for those Islamicists who had actively demonstrated their belief in electoral politics (in Algeria, in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, in Lebanon) and treating them as just ‘terrorists’.” (Ahmed, Islam, Islamisms and the West, 25)
Class politics: does it exist?
The mainstream press never discusses the news in terms of class when talking about imperial adventures. Once in a while they might come up with cute names like the twitter revolution ala Iran which certainly says something about how they understand the social composition of a movement, but I don’t think it goes too much farther than that. In terms of Afghanistan, there is so much misinformation and confusion I wonder how little journalists actually understand the actual social and political dynamics they report on.
Class differentiation is not along the same lines as activists in U.S. might recognize, but they do exist in Afghanistan. The lack of recognition that class formation and politics plays a powerful role in “Muslim” countries has been a critical handicap of the left. It denudes social movements of their content and leaves the assessment only at an ideological level. The inability to integrate class can only be a disorienting position to begin an analysis of any struggle.
One of the most powerful indicators of class politics right now is that part of the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan is related to its support of poor or landless farmers attacking the large landowners in the countryside.
It also appears that the Taliban movement was one against the tribal chiefs in Afghanistan. These tribal chiefs were landowners and they were the ones who destroyed the country to pieces till the Taliban intervened. Tribal authority and politics reached it limits in terms of providing a positive vision for countless youth, for dealing with the country’s numerous problems and the Taliban sought to replace this vacuum.
Af-Pak dimension: why Pakistan
The term “Af-Pak” stems from Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan special envoy. Holbrooke’s contribution to ruling class policy debates connected any Afghanistan resolution to Pakistan. He is not certainly the first person to point out the connections between the two countries. Afghani militants and the Taliban have used the FATA areas as sanctuary. This has been a big problem for the US. You cannot have parts of the battlefield which are generally off limits to your troops—predator drones aside. The Af-Pak tango is a huge danger for Pakistan. It has caused hundreds of thousands to flee brutal attacks by the Pakistani army as they level whole villages and towns. This is one of many reasons the Zardari government has no popular support in the country. Furthermore, it appears that the Taliban have begun to wage a low-level campaign inside Pakistan as well targeting military HQs, assassinating lower level generals, and at times exploding bombs in civilian districts as well. This is in the context of the Pakistan’s army’s offensive into the Waziristan. The Taliban’s message is simple: we can bring the war to you too.
Understanding the basics of Pakistan
The Pakistani state and society has been manipulated and mutilated beyond recognition by the U.S. funding of the Pakistani Army. This has given the Army an amount of power that few Army’s in the world have. This has been one of the fundamental dynamics of Pakistan. Furthermore, landowners and a comprador bourgeoisie have built an important relationship with the Army, relying on it for stability and the protection of property.
NWFP and Balochistan (equivalent of states in United States) are the most underdeveloped states inside Pakistan. The central government in Islamabad discriminates heavily towards these two states in states. This has created separatist movements in both regions at times. There is also immense racism towards the Baloch and Pashtuns in the NWFP. Islam as a glue in Pakistan is barely holding the nation together. If anything, the fear of instability, the “threat” of India, the Army and a lack of an alternative is what keeps the state from fragmentation.
Pakistan has supported sectarian/ fundamentalist Islamic organizations for almost 30 years. This has been useful in smashing the left in Pakistan, it has been useful in legitimizing the Pakistani State, in fomenting insurgencies in Kashmir, in keeping a hand in the Afghanistan Pot, and in continuing to be an important player in the region.