Afghanistan: Polling day quagmire

James Turley calls for troops out of Afghanistan now

karzai_hmed_6a.hmediumOn August 20, the population of Afghanistan (or some of it, at any rate) went to the polls to elect their president. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, remains the favourite, as the votes are counted.

The mood in much of the western media, at the outset, was cautiously optimistic. Times columnist Melanie Reid criticises (as well she might) Karzai’s compromise deal with Shia clerics to establish the right of husbands to deny their wives food if the latter refuse to have conjugal sex. The same piece of legislation – the Shia Personal Status Law (better known to Afghan women as the ‘right to rape’ law) – also gives husbands a veto over their wives’ employment. “Is that what we’re fighting for?” asks the headline.

Still, this is a concession to “pragmatism”, apparently, and should not distract us from the basic direction Afghan society is taking – “under Karzai’s stewardship it is possible to say that things have improved a little for women, and can only, with stability and democracy, improve even further. It will be an achingly slow process – the horrific statistics tell you that – but it can only move in a better direction” (The Times August 18).

Even the most delusionally triumphalist neo-conservatives, however, must surely baulk at the basically laughable character of the polls – let alone wavering elements such as Reid. The Taliban, needless to say, boycotted the vote, calling it “the programme of the crusaders”. An ostensible ban on warlords standing has been barely enforced. And it is already fairly clear that fraudulent electoral practices are the rule, rather than the exception – BBC journalists said they were offered thousands of votes at roughly £6 a pop; and an unusually high turnout among women in the most conservative areas of the country strongly implies that their votes are being used by others.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s closest rival, at a press conference on August 23 publicly accused the incumbent of systematic electoral fraud. Undoubtedly nervous following the mass protests in neighbouring Iran, he insisted that he would only challenge the result through “legal channels”. Support for the two men is divided primarily down ethnic lines; Karzai is a Pashtun, and Abdullah a Pashtun-Tajik with primarily Tajik support. The majority of Pashtuns, the largest ethnic-national group in Afghanistan, are concentrated in the south of the country … but so are the (largely Pashtun) Taliban, and turnout has unsurprisingly been particularly low there. Abdullah’s charge is that this eventuality has led Karzai to rig the ballot to compensate.

The prospect of further ethnic divisions in an already fractious country will not be welcomed in Westminster and Washington. Quite apart from that, from the imperialists’ point of view, is how to deal with the results when they pan out more fully. One UN official told The Guardian: “If the international community say it is all wonderful, they lose further credibility and are associated with an illegitimate government. And if they say it was fraud then their publics will say ‘why are we there then?’ Neither way is it a good result for Afghanistan” (August 23).

Of course, what the unnamed UN source does not mention is the worst ‘result’ of all for the Afghan peoples (and such an ethnically fractious society needs the plural): precisely the foreign occupation, justly reviled by the general population, propped up only by cynical deals with local warlords, and motivated now by very little more than the unacceptability – both in terms of domestic politics in the US and Britain, and in terms of the global order – of defeat. A free and fair election under such conditions would be nothing short of an act of god. In the event, Karzai (and, no doubt, many of his rivals) have not even managed to passably stage-manage the fraud.

The deepening scandal around the Afghan results is, then, one more nail in the coffin of that liberal ‘wisdom’ exemplified by US president Barack Obama – that Afghanistan was the ‘right’ war, the ‘war that got away’ thanks to the calamitous adventure in Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth (except, perhaps, the reverse position). The war in Afghanistan has been characterised by exactly the same slippages of reasoning, violent atrocities and cynical backroom dealings as Iraq; both countries have seen religious reactionaries, some on the side of the invaders and others in rebellion, incomparably strengthened directly or indirectly due to the occupations. This ‘wisdom’ could just about be sustained while all eyes were still on Iraq; in Britain, it is kept alive through the ritualisation of soldiers’ funerals, as the death toll mounts. But it cannot last, and already a majority of Britons and of Americans want troops out of Afghanistan.

This, of course, begs the question of precisely why it is that the US and UK remain so wedded to this unpopular, unwinnable and interminable war. It was once widely held, particularly among anti-war liberals and their far-left useful idiots, that it was a matter of ideology – Washington has been taken over by ‘the crazies’, the neo-conservatives around the defunct Project for the New American Century think-tank who formed the core of George W Bush’s cabinet. Tony Blair, then British prime minister, was thought to be either a co-thinker or a politically abject tool of US foreign policy – most commonly in comic strip caricatures a poodle. It was a tale made particularly easy to peddle thanks to the PNAC’s record of utterly unashamed advocacy of global US hegemony.

However, it no longer rubs after a wholesale change of personnel in the White House; even before Obama’s coronation, Bush had distanced himself from ‘the crazies’ and appointed in their place so-called ‘realists’, among them Robert Gates, who succeeded hard-line neo-con Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence and continues in that role under Obama. This is a war the ‘rational’ side of the ruling class seems perfectly happy to get behind.

In reality we have to situate the whole conflict, as this paper has repeatedly argued, in the context both of the decline of US hegemony and of capitalism itself. The development of capitalism has rendered large-scale colonial empires impracticable, and so it was impossible for the US, assuming global hegemony after World War II, to rule ‘in the old way’. Instead, it dominated the global periphery via levers of economic pressure and direct patronage of semi-colonial strong-arm client regimes, such as the shah’s Iran.

These arrangements, however, rest in the last analysis no less on military force than direct colonial occupation. US military expenditure remains by far the highest in the world – its navy, for example, is larger than the next 13 put together – and the US has to marshal this force not just to punish those recalcitrant states who attempt to subvert the world order, but also to ensure stability on regional and global levels so that capitalism can function on a day-to-day basis. This need underlies the calamitous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. That they went so badly wrong is not the luck of the draw, but a symptom of US decline.

What, then, are the Afghan masses to do about this? The first thing that has to be noted is that Afghanistan is not a ‘natural’ state – there is no clear national majority, and the shape of its territory is an inheritance of earlier imperial wrangles. If this were not bad enough, 30 years of almost constant war – with US interference at almost every stage – has left the country socially decimated, its never-huge working class deproletarianised in line with the general devastation of infrastructure. The fragmentation of the country has only accelerated, and if Karzai is well known never to have been in control of much more than Kabul and its surroundings, the Taliban too were reliant on deals with local warlords to govern outside their own bases.

The inescapable conclusion is that any progressive solution to the permanently broiling ethnic divisions in Afghanistan has to be regional in scope. Even the US brass acknowledge this in a distorted way when they admit that the tense situation in Pakistan is a serious problem for the war effort; but at the opposite border is Iran, as well, and both have significant influence in Afghan politics. And despite their own problems both Iran and Pakistan have highly developed working classes, whose militancy is particularly clear in the light of the recent events in Iran.

Any serious attempt to sweep out the warlords, clerics and sundry parasites from Afghan society must enjoy the partisanship of the masses – mostly peasants – who suffer for them. This is a task of which imperialism is singularly incapable – a task for the proletariat in the region and around the world. In Britain, our central contribution has to be ending this ruinous war once and for all. Get the troops out now!

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