Thursday, 24 July 2008

Branch Meeting: Afghanistan

It fell to me this evening to pull a lead off out of the hat for the weekly branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party. My topic of choice was the recent sorry history of Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan tends to be treated almost as an afterthought by the mainstream media, especially when you compare it to coverage of the Middle East's other trouble spots - the occupying presence of US and UK troops in Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Furthermore many more people are supportive of the role Britain is playing in Afghanistan than Iraq. A March ICM poll for the BBC measuring public backing for the war in Afghanistan puts it on 40% (with 48% opposed). Compare this with a similar poll conducted in March 2007 on Iraq, again for the BBC. Only 29% thought the conflict was justified. Another key difference is whereas British troops are more or less confined either to barracks or patrolling the border with Iran in Southern Iraq, the government has stepped up its commitment to Afghanistan. Des Browne, the minister for "defence" announced in June that the government will be increasing personnel by 230 by next Spring, taking the total number of troops to over 8,000 and making available greater numbers of aircraft.

My aim therefore was to provide a potted modern history of Afghanistan from the period shortly prior to the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 up until the present day. I aim to set out why the US saw it necessary to invade the country, the nature of the resistance to the occupation, a brief discussion of Afghanistan’s class structure and politics, and what socialists should be doing about it.

With the rising prominence of the European empires of the 19th century, Afghanistan was caught between the expanding British and Russian empires. Between 1838 and 1919 Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan to reduce it to the status of a puppet buffer state and ward off Russian designs on its Indian possessions. By 1933 the country settled into a rare long period of political stability. King Zahir Shah ruled until 1973 and tried to undertake a series of modest reforms. During this time Kabul saw the building of its first university and an attempt to become a liberal democracy with free elections, universal suffrage and the establishment of a parliament. However development was constantly frustrated by infighting among the elites, which meant modernisation was a very slow process.

In 1973 the monarchy was overthrown in a coup by the King's former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, a coup backed by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The King’s liberal democratic set up was replaced by a Loya Jirga – a grand assembly of various (appointed) tribal/regional leaders. Furthermore the new government grew closer to the USSR and received modern military equipment to ward off the predations of the USA’s regional client states – Pakistan and Iran under the Shah. Initially he also promised many progressive reforms but reneged on them and began to build a dictatorship marked by repressive methods. Having got what it wanted from the soviets, the government began to make overtures to the West and tried to move against the PDPA.

The PDPA was a soviet-aligned political party primarily composed of the urban intelligentsia and army cadres. It was an organisation divided into two factions – the Khalq who argued for a party of professional revolutionaries who would lead the working class in revolution, and the Parcham, who argued for an alliance between the working class and “anti-imperialist” patriotic sections of the elite. Reacting against government repression, the USSR gave the PDPA the green light to overthrow the leadership, which it did on April 28th, 1978.

Like its predecessors the PDPA promised ambitious reforms, but actually moved to implement them. It stood for freedom of religion, secularisation of government, land reform, waiving of farmers’ debts, and womens’ equality. Unfortunately all of these progressive measures, though supportable, were implemented in a particularly heavy-handed fashion. Conservative Islamic opposition was strong in the countryside and was antagonised by a reform agenda imposed through administrative feat. Then US president Jimmy Carter saw an opportunity to lure the Soviet Union into its own Vietnam and began authorising CIA arms shipments and training for the rag tag bands of Mujahideen who had risen against the PDPA government. The USSR took the bait. Already it had been covertly backing the Parcham wing of the government, and when it finally invaded Afghanistan one of the first things it did was purge the PDPA of the Khalq and install its own puppet leader. And so began a war that was to last until 1996.

The war was a disaster for Afghanistan. Casualty figures put the number of deaths anywhere between 600,000 and two million. An estimated five million Afghans fled and the country itself was comprehensively devastated. To give one example, the soviet military systematically demolished and forcibly removed/massacred villages to the south of Kabul to make the capital easier to defend. This kind of stupid brutality not only alienated Afghans from the government, it served to discredit progressive policies generally.

In 1989 the USSR withdrew and the PDPA finally defeated in 1992, but the misery was far from over. The Mujahideen fell upon each other and spent the next four years carving up the country among themselves. This renewed round of bloody civil war was the context in which the Taliban emerged. They were able to gain ground initially because of the promise of ending the war and ridding the land of petty warlordism. From their point of origin in 1994 it took them only two years before they occupied Kabul, and by 2000 95% of Afghanistan was under their control.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks the Taliban refused to handover Al-Qaeda suspects to the Americans. Very quickly the US was able to pull together a military coalition of NATO countries and began bombing Afghanistan on October 7th, specifically targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda camps. Simultaneously the Northern Alliance grouping of old Mujahideen warlords launched a ground offensive with US assistance and ousted the Taliban from Kabul in November, and their base in Kandahar in December. In early 2002 an interim government was formed out of exiles and anti-Taliban militias, backed up by American military power. A new liberal democratic constitution was ratified by a Loya Jirga in 2004 and the first nationwide election since 1973 was held in 2005 on the basis of universal adult suffrage. This came at a price of 5,000 civilian deaths and the destruction of what was left of the Afghan infrastructure.

Since 2005 the insurgency has grown in intensity. Though the Taliban are used to blanket label the resistance there is evidence to suggest not all of it is Taliban inspired. The ethnic grouping they’re primarily drawn from, the Pashtun, has a popular folk history of resisting invaders, be they British, Russian or American. They reside in the south of the country, which is where NATO personnel are most heavily concentrated. Furthermore the insurgency receives a lifeline from Pashtuns over the porous Pakistani border, as well as acting as a magnet for militant Islamists who travel from all over the world to confront the ‘great Satan’.

So why is the US concerned with the occupation of Afghanistan? After all, they more or less abandoned the country to its fate after it has served its purpose for weakening the USSR. To recap the official view, in the aftermath of the Sept 11th attacks Bush and Blair argued Afghanistan was a failed state that was allowed to become a Mecca for terrorist organisations. The West, as defenders of civilisation against the Taliban’s and Al-Qaeda’s barbaric medievalism had a humanitarian duty to stamp them out. This was certainly part of the story, there was a pressing need on the US and British administrations to be seen to be doing something to avenge 9/11. But as is usually the case, there was more bubbling beneath the surface.

Some on the left argued this was a war for oil. Though simplistic there’s an element of truth to the argument. The primary effect of the war was to strengthen the USA's grip on the region. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 declared Middle Eastern oil reserves vital to US strategic interests and would regard any attempt to remove them out of its control as an attack on the USA itself. Hence, for example, the USA’s military response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990-1. The invasion of Afghanistan gave the US a relatively secure base of operations from which it could defend its interests in Saudi Arabia, menace Iraq and Iran, and serve as a starting point for establishing military bases in the central Asian states with an eye toward the Caspian Sea oil reserves.

There have been some economic benefits from the invasion and occupation for Afghanistan. When a country is laying in ruins there is a demand for reconstruction, and there are some indications this has been taking place. In terms of GDP – the measure that adds together the sum value of all goods and services produced in a particular country, it has grown 29%, 16%, 8% and 14% in the years 2002-5 respectively. While not bad on paper, considering Afghanistan is starting from a very low base this is pretty slow progress. These figures however do not factor in poppy production for the global black market in opiates. Some 3.3 million Afghans out of an ‘economically active’ population of 11 million are engaged in this industry. Furthermore surveys have indicated modest gas and oil reserves that may encourage reconstruction.

The problem however is reconstruction is likely to be uneven and will reflect the strategic interests of the US rather than the needs of nascent Afghan capital. The continuing insurgency in the south allied to sporadic bombings in the north, plus seemingly arbitrary US bombings of civilians is not a conducive environment for attracting foreign capital.

So what is to be done? I suggested a number of talking points. First, given the small size of the Afghan working class what kind of strategy would we pursue if we had a sizable section there? How do we make the case against the Afghan war at home? How do we counter the argument that pulling the troops out will leave the country to the Taliban? And how would we win over the popular support for the insurgency in the south?

N suggested opiate production could provide one way of addressing Afghanistan's developmental needs by having it produce for the pharmaceutical industries. If the CWI had activists on the ground a demand of this character would also call for agricultural cooperatives, which would help improve the incomes of the people at the bottom of Afghan society. T argued socialists in the West can spur this development on by arguing for a decriminalisation of all drugs. Heroin should be available free on prescription from the NHS, which in turn would cancel out the material basis of a good deal of crime and the need to expend vast resources on a fruitless war on drugs. N observed that Afghanistan is also a major source of Cannabis. As a material less water intensive and more resilient than cotton, hemp production should also be encouraged.

On the question of the occupation and whether there would be chaos if NATO troops left the country, C noted it's a bit rich to describe the current situation there as "stable". E suggested that as long as the troops are present there will be an anti-occupation dynamic that distorts Afghan society. M said that to replace the troops perhaps a series of militias need to be set up, but as N noted this was part of the problem in the 1992-6 phase of the war, as private armies faced off against private armies. M then pondered whether it really suits NATO to have peace in Afghanistan. If there is no threat from an insurgency it becomes more difficult to justify a lengthy occupation. Plus it provides an exercise in low level warfare and a live arena for testing the latest weaponry. Plus a section of Afghan society materially benefits from the occupation in terms of local contracts, employment, etc.

A said we shouldn't underestimate the capacity of Afghans to drive out invaders, after all they've done it before. But the only lasting solution to the problems facing the country is a socialist one. Thing is, how do we get there? The perspective of troops out needs to be linked with the development of multi-ethnic militias made up of and subject to the control of 'normal' Afghans. A socialist programme would also call for the nationalisation and democratic control of what industry that exists, as well as a redistribution of the land. The only force capable of doing it is the tiny but growing working class in alliance with others. It requires an independent organisation linked up to others in the region. It may well be ambitious and difficult to achieve, but how else can the problems of Afghanistan be resolved?


Paul said...

'It may well be ambitious and difficult to achieve, but how else can the problems of Afghanistan be resolved?'

Wishful thinking in the extreme!

Seriously though I enjoyed your post and you have identified some of the problems in AFG. One problem with your extremely optimistic plans is the Taleban. How do you think they will respond to calls for secular socialism? It has been tried before in the country. Also how would you divide the pashtun rebels who are perhaps more nationalistic than Islamist from the Taleban? You would have to defeat the insurgency or at least contain it in order to achieve that aim. I like your thoughts but i gain the impression that like many left leaning academics you like experience of the real world. Hence you come up with lofty ideas that are completely unworkable and border on fantastic I'm afraid.

Phil BC said...

Thanks for suggesting I "lack experience of the real world". Tis true I haven't worked in Afghanistan or had much experience with our misogynistic medievalist friends the taliban, but family background, low pay, crap jobs, trade union activity and regular street campaigning has kept my feet firmly on the ground thank you very much.

The problem with the PDPA was they didn't try 'secular socialism' - they instead clumsily and heavy handedly tried to force through reforms that brutally attacked the fabric of traditional Afghan life. There was no democracy, no attempt to win over opposition through debate and argument. And don't know about you, but for us socialists socialism without democracy isn't socialism.

I don't know how we would undermine the taliban. But the international organisation my organisation is affiliated to, the CWI does have affiliates in Israel, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka where they pursue strategies to tackle fundamentalist religious ideas (of whatever hue), so there is experience our organisation can draw from should we develop a groups of activists in Afghanistan.

Ken said...

I saw a report a while ago that many of the soldiers of the US/UK backed government army are former soldiers of the Soviet-backed government, and that there is some tension between them and those in the same army who fought on the other side. The former PDPA govt soldiers are still called 'communists'.

Paul said...

Phil, I was somewhat obnoxious in my original comment. However it remains somewhat naive in my opinion to believe that in Afghanistan any political system (including western democracy of course) can take root. This is due to the popular culture being so grounded in Islam. Islam of course has it's own system of governance (Sharia) unlike other religions which are largely private theologies.

Anyway I wish you luck! You said 'I don't know how we would undermine the Taliban. But the international organisation my organisation is affiliated to, the CWI does have affiliates in Israel, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka'. Well out of those only Pakistan is Islamic but we can see there the problems of governance. So called secular governments such as those of Bhutto, only effectively ruled the cities and modern areas. The rural hinterland and especially the FATA were administered locally under tribal leaders. These same areas are now effectively ruled by the Taliban under their austere version of Sharia.

The example of the PDPA is a case in point. The government tried extending a modern political system to a rural tribal area. Immediately the Mullahs and tribal leaders rejected it and started a revolt that gained pace in the countryside before the USSSR intervened. The rest we know is history.

Ken makes a good point. There are all sorts of tribal, ethnic and political tensions in the Afghan army. I do believe however that creating a modern unified army is the best way forward in Afghanistan. The alternative is warlordism or the Taleban. Most Afghan units are a mixture of Tajik, Uzbek, and Pashto etc. Not a bad idea. It strikes me as ironic however that our own army in the 21st century is not like that! Regiments are still divided regionally and nationally. Just look at the pain caused in Scotland over the issue of dissolving clan regiments like the famous Black Watch into the amorphous Royal Regiment of Scotland. I digress I know, all the best with establishing secular democracy in Afghanistan.