The recent history of Afghanistan

Further into the depths: The recent history of Afghanistan has not only seen the defeat of secularist Kabul by counter revolution from the countryside. Outside intervention has exacerbated every problem, writes Eddie Ford

The death toll for the ‘International Security Assistance Force’ continues to creep up. The number of UK troops killed since 2001 now stands at 126 – of which, according to the ministry of defence, 27 died from accidents, illness or “non-combat injuries”.

Overall, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the imperialist coalition forces have suffered 1,186 fatalities. However, the American figure is described as occurring “in and around Afghanistan”, which, as the United States defence department admits, in reality means Pakistan and Uzbekistan – with four CIA operatives being named amongst the deaths.

Every year since 2003 has been deadlier than the one before. Hence in 2008 there were 3,276 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Afghanistan – a 45% increase over 2007 and then a record for the war. In the first two months of 2009, attacks with IEDs killed 36 coalition troops, triple the number for the same period in 2008.1

To put it bluntly, what are these troops dying for? Naturally, as well as combating Islamist terrorism of the sort responsible for 9/11, imperialism loudly proclaims itself to be in the vanguard of the struggle for ‘freedom’ against the ‘medievalist’ Taliban – a fully armed and all tooled-up champion of democracy, modernism and women’s rights.

This is hypocrisy of the first order, of course. The Taliban forces – now the objects of the coalition’s fiery wrath – were the by-product, Frankenstein-style, of imperialism’s cold war struggle against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (and beyond – Ronald Reagan wanted to bring down the ‘evil empire’ in its entirety). And the current regime sitting uneasily, and very precariously, in Kabul is increasingly in thrall to various Islamist groups and factions bearing a striking political-ideological resemblance to the very same Taliban ‘barbarians’ they are meant to be waging a democratic holy war against. Animal Farm, Afghan style.

Thus under the government of president  Hamid Karzai we have seen repeated attacks on women’s rights, attempts to prosecute – and execute – those deemed guilty of apostasy, and so on. Then again, should we be surprised? The Afghan constitution starts with the declaration, “With firm faith in God Almighty …. and believing in the sacred religion of Islam”, going on to call the country an “Islamic republic”. Furthermore, the constitution also solemnly tells us that in Afghanistan “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam”.2 You could be forgiven for thinking that the Taliban and their various backers have already won the war, but just not told us.

Town and country

Looked at historically, it is certainly true that the Afghan countryside has long been a stronghold of warlords, smugglers, obscurantist mullahs, landlords and moneylenders. Not that they have gone unopposed. There have been progressively minded forces who stood for modernisation and social advance – which nowadays implies the fight for a secular society. But, of course, the colonial/imperialist powers – the ‘Great Powers’ playing out the ‘Great Game’ – have acted to stifle and defeat the growth of secularism and the forces of progress, not encourage them. Then just as today. Not something you hear everyday on the BBC or Sky News.

Afghanistan’s first real attempts at secularism took place in the 1920s under the distinctly reform-minded king, Amanullah Khan – the former governor of Kabul, who in 1919 launched a palace revolution by unsentimentally assassinating his own father, Habibullah Khan. He thus gained effective control of the army and the treasury and imprisoned any troublesome relatives with rival claims to the throne. Upon his seizing power, the Soviet government under Lenin immediately expressed its solidarity and admiration for the unquestionably energetic “young and would-be progressive amir”, as one noted historian put it.3

Denouncing the onerous treaty obligations imposed upon Afghanistan by British imperialism – thus ensuring the continued praises and support of the Communist International – the newly installed Amanullah began a process of rapid modernisation from above. Clearly though, his model was not Soviet republics such as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. It was Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey. Afghanistan was hellishly backward economically and socially. In many ways it resembled feudal Europe of the 10th century.

Amanullah was determined to fashion an independent capitalist state. He introduced new cosmopolitan-orientated schools for both boys and girls, increased trade with Europe and Asia, and began to advance a ‘modernist’ civil legal code which significantly chipped away at the deeply-rooted sharia law – not to mention Islamic customs in general. Amanullah was even able to establish an Afghan airforce, albeit limited, consisting entirely of donated Soviet planes.4

Soraya Tarzi with her husband Amanullah Khan in Berlin, 1928.

Soraya Tarzi with her husband Amanullah Khan in Berlin, 1928.

Notably, and most symbolically, Amanullah effectively outlawed the burqa – or chadaree, as it is more normally referred to in Afghanistan. After coming back from a very high-profile and well photographed trip to Europe with his wife and queen, the Damascus-born Soraya Tarzi, Amanullah promptly announced dramatic restrictions on the wearing of the chadaree and – even more shockingly – motioned for his wife to take off hers before a loya jirga (grand assembly) meeting.

Naturally, our revolutionary king incurred the undying hostility of the rural tribal leaders and the mullahs – and, of course, British imperialism. It feared that its Indian empire was under threat. British agents busily distributed photographs of Tarzi waltzing around Europe without a chadaree – dining with “foreign men” at official functions, giving talks and lectures, receiving honorary degrees from Oxford University, having her hand kissed by various European leaders, etc.5

Exactly as intended by the British imperialists, the mullahs and regional leaders regarded the conduct – and images – of Tarzi to be a monstrous “insult” to Islam and to the “honour” of all Afghan women. At least partly thanks to such imperialist skulduggery, there was a whole series of reactionary uprisings and rebellions – culminating in late 1927 with a march from Jalalabad to the capital, which saw most of the army treacherously desert Amanullah in his hour of need. By 1929 the situation had clearly become hopeless and the king and queen fled into exile – Amanullah dying in Zurich in 1960, and the widely admired Tarzi surviving him until 1968.

Here we have a pattern that was to be repeated. Far-reaching and bold, indeed often genuinely revolutionary, social-political advances begin in Kabul – especially with regards to women’s liberation – only to be met by murderous opposition, and are then eventually swept away by the counterrevolutionary forces of the countryside. Invariably backed to the hilt by this or that imperialist power determined to pursue its own strategic interests, no matter at what human cost.

PDPA

The April 1978 revolution brought a much higher example of the type of reforms which Amanullah had attempted. This was led by the Khalq wing of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan under the leadership of Noor Mohammed Tarakki and Hafizullah Amin. Although the PDPA was more nationalist than Marxist, these ‘official communists’ nevertheless envisaged a thorough-going modernisation of Afghan society, breaking the power of the mullahs and landlords and freeing women from their age-old oppression in the countryside.

Yes, the 1978 revolution was carried out from above – but with a far broader social basis than the 1919 palace revolution of Amanullah. The PDPA had MPs, 50,000 members, women’s associations and trade unions, and from the mid-1960s was the recognised leadership of most urban and rural popular struggles. It also recruited and infiltrated the armed forces (in which many officers were Soviet trained and influenced). In April 1978 pro-PDPA units in the army and airforce were given the go-ahead by Amin to deliver the final blow against the crisis-ridden regime of prime minister Mohammad Daoud. The uprising was well planned and well executed. Afghanistan was declared a democratic republic with Tarakki as president.

In essence the army played a not dissimilar role in many other revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial world. Eg, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s free officers’ movement of July 1952 in Egypt, which forced king Farouk to abdicate; or Abdul Kassem’s overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958. Despite that the PDPA’s April 1978 revolution has been endlessly slandered by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty as a “military coup” or “putsch”.

However, and this needs stressing, the April 1978 revolution was not led by an isolated military clique. Nor did it put in power a general, a colonel or a captain. True, the final decisive blow was delivered by Afghan tank and airforce units. But the PDPA was a civilian-led party and had real social roots, albeit nowhere as deep as the party-armies of Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh.

The PDPA was led by predominantly middle class intellectuals, who because of Afghanistan’s proximity to, and relations with, the Soviet Union, could realistically look to emulate its southern republics in terms of overcoming extreme social, industrial and agricultural backwardness. Not that the PDPA should be thought of as a mere puppet of the Kremlin. Its Khalq wing had sympathies for Vietnam and Cuba and a policy of keeping a certain distance from the Soviet Union. That went hand in hand with some absurd Stalinite pretensions about Afghanistan having been catapulted into the forefront of social progress.

Be that as it may, the new PDPA government attempted to realise many far-going reforms. Usury was abolished in the villages – debts crippled much of the peasantry. A rigorous ceiling on private land ownership, along with the encouragement of cooperatives and offers of cheap credits, fertilisers, seeds and agricultural implements, was promised – in an attempt to free millions from the yoke of landlord exploitation. The government wanted to pursue a step-by-step programme of land confiscation and redistribution. Not instant collectivisation.

Admittedly, many of these measures were enacted in a bureaucratic and often heavy-handed manner. City-based officials would turn up to a village accompanied by a few soldiers, announce the government’s latest decree about land redistribution and then head off to the next village. While this did on occasion produce brief bursts of class struggle, the landlords and their allies tended to come out on top. They had more money and more local social connections … and Kabul was a long way away.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubting the progressive agenda of the PDPA. For example, with much fanfare, equal rights between men and women were announced. Other decrees banned forced marriages and set limits on dowry and marriage expenses. Then an adult literacy campaign was announced, directed especially at women in the countryside. Higher education was encouraged, with women coming to occupy more than 50% of places at Kabul university.

As for Afghanistan’s numerous national minorities, from now on they were to be treated with strict equality – or so declared the PDPA government. For the first time ever, oppressed language groups heard their mother tongue on Kabul Radio. A cultural revolution. Pashtun domination officially ended, and constitutionally the country became a multinational state – and a secular one too. Islam was not subjected to any special attacks, but the state promised not to promote or advantage any religion.

By any progressive yardstick a welcome social-cultural transformation was envisaged by the PDPA. Which was precisely why, of course, internal counterrevolutionary forces began to put up increasingly stiff resistance. This soon took armed form and, with a US nod and wink, modern equipment, logistical support and foreign fighters began to pour in over the border from Pakistan. Amongst them Osama bin Laden and what became al Qa’eda.

With secure bases in Pakistan, Saudi money and advanced US missiles and other such weapons, the Mujahedin, though always divided, became a formidable fighting force. Afghanistan gradually slid into a full-blown civil war. The methods used by the PDPA did not help matters. Air strikes did not just kill landlords: they helped snuff out the class war in the villages and allowed the counterrevolution to impose an asphyxiating control throughout the countryside. With the situation rapidly deteriorating by the day – echoes of the last days of the Amanullah regime – the leadership of Amin desperately appealed to the Soviet Union for more substantial assistance.

That was delivered. But at a terrible price. In December 1979 the full-scale involve-ment of the Soviet armed forces began in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of troops were landed in Kabul by air or crossed over the northern border.

The PDPA revolution was saved in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way. Amin, the effective and acknowledged organiser of April 1978, and 97 other leaders of the Khalq wing of the PDPA, were summarily butchered by Soviet forces. An appalling crime, as was the subsequent vilification campaign that branded the leaders of the April 1978 revolution “CIA agents”, etc – a slander, of course, mindlessly repeated by the ‘official communist’ press, naturally including the Morning Star.

People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1989 - Image by © Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis

People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1989 - Image by © Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis

Soviet involvement was upped and upped again. At their height there were well over 100,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. They were supported by tanks, helicopter gunships and sophisticated strike aircraft. Bombs and shells rained down on the villages. While the towns were made secure, the roads between them became a nightmare. There were constant ambushes and the Soviet army losses gradually mounted up, while the number of Afghan dead sky-rocketed. Though some 15,000 Soviet troops perished, perhaps a million or a million and a half Afghans were killed.

The Soviet Union – unwilling or incapable of launching a class struggle through a popular mobilisation of the cities, championing the rights of national minorities and winning the sympathy of the poorest peasants – fought a conventional war.  Afghanistan did indeed become its Vietnam. Mikhail Gorbachev gave the order to withdraw Soviet troops in 1990.

Wayward child

Surrounded by a reactionary Vendée in the countryside, deserted by the Soviet Union, the Parcham wing of the PDPA tried to find a compromise with the counterrevolution. But the end was already in sight, and Kabul fell to the Mujahedin in 1992. Mohammed Najibullah, the PDPA leader, spent the next four years in the UN building in Kabul, while the victorious Mujahedin factions fought each other. His hideously tortured and mutilated body was hung from a lamp post by the Taliban in 1996.

What of the Taliban? Clearly it is the product of the counterrevolution in Afghanistan. Yet, while the specific origins of the Taliban movement lie in the Pashtun population of the south and the madrassas (religious schools), it was born in the refugee camps of Pakistan and raised by the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service.

Though the godless Soviet Union had fallen apart and the communists had been driven from Kabul, Afghanistan descended further into barbarism. The Mujahedin groups almost instantly fell out with each other and began a new civil war. Kabul was turned to rubble. The Taliban determined to carry out a counterrevolution within the counter-revolution as the first step towards the universal caliphate.

As an aside, the Sunni Taliban have a deeply entrenched antipathy to Shi’ite muslims, who are viewed as unbelievers or heretics. Obviously, this virulent anti-Shi’ite sectarianism – even racism in the way it is directed against certain minority ethnic and national groups in Afghanistan – manifests itself in hostility to Iran. Leading to the grotesque irony that the regime in Tehran was more than a little pleased to see the Taliban defeated by US-UK coalition forces. Yes, the ‘war against terror’ has certainly drafted in some unlikely allies – my enemy’s enemy is indeed my friend.

Anyway the Taliban successfully trans-formed themselves from a raggle-taggle outfit into an efficient military-political force. This was in no small measure due to Saudi money and Pakistani military advisors. Starting off in 1994, the Taliban were able to quickly extend their rule further and further north. For many they were seen as liberators. Compared with the Mujahedin robbers and rapists, the Taliban brought order – of a kind.

Inevitably, women were the central victims of Taliban rule – as was shown graphically in 1996, when the Taliban eventually seized Kabul. Once they were esconced in the capital, no time was wasted putting their religious doctrines into practice. Women were banned from receiving education, and forced to wear the chadaree. Almost overnight, the once proudly cosmopolitan Kabul had reverted to its pre-1959 days, when the government of prime minister Daoud had announced the voluntary end of seclusion for women and the wearing of the veil.

Curiously enough, the US acting state department spokesman at the time, Glyn Davies, duly declared that the US could see “nothing objectionable” about the version of Islamic law the Taliban had imposed.

And he was not alone. Monstrously, the ‘revolutionary Marxist’ Socialist Workers Party also acted as attorneys for the Taliban – disgusting, yes, but this should not have been surprising, given its 1980s support for the Mujahedin ‘freedom fighters’. Socialist Worker glibly argued: “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 Mujahedin groups had on taking a city. The war years had seen repeated abuse and rape of women. They said that forcing women into seclusion was a means of protecting them.”6

Today the International Security Assistance Force pays lip service to modernisation, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. But in practice it relies on, panders to and compromises with the most reactionary forces in Afghanistan. Money is handed out to the landowners, mullahs and warlords and deals are done through them. Meanwhile the US-UK coalition fights a conventional war against the Taliban, a war which everything tells us they cannot win. Frustrated military commanders talk of negotiating with moderate Taliban leaders and bringing them into a coalition government. That can only mean a further descent into barbarism and that, in reality, is what American and British troops are dying for in Afghanistan.

Modernism, democracy, secularism and women’s rights can only be won by the class struggle in Afghanistan, not through outside intervention. That is why we continue to say: troops out now.

Notes

  1. tinyurl.com/2okb8y
  2. tinyurl.com/l6zh8j
  3. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1977, p239.
  4. tinyurl.com/nfzuv4
  5. tinyurl.com/lwldu4
  6. Socialist Worker October 6 2001.
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