Chris Harman

Thinking it through


(November 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.202, November 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban suddenly brought Afghanistan to the notice of the Western media last month.

Here, the message went, was the ultimate horror, the logical outcome of Islamic politics anywhere in the world. A religious army had conquered the state, and was committed to the full range of Shariah punishments – stoning adulterers, cutting off thieves’ hands, and so on. It banned all forms of visual representation, including films and television. It ordered all women to stop working, closed down every girls’ school and enforced a version of the veil, the chadari, that hides every inch of skin.

This, the message continued, was why it was right to unite behind any force, however despotic, willing to resist such politics. Such a response has been echoed by many on the left, who feel vindicated in their old belief that the defeat of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan early in 1989 was the defeat of civilisation at the hands of barbaric ‘feudal’ forces.

But the taking of Kabul by the Taliban was not the first, or even the worst horror to beset the people of Afghanistan. For two decades a succession of rival political forces, secular and religious, pro-Russian and pro-American, modernist and traditionalist, have wreaked havoc. A million people have been killed. Four million have fled into Pakistan. Food output has fallen by nearly 50 percent. And the succession of horrors is unlikely to end even if the Taliban are forced to evacuate Kabul.

Afghanistan is a case study of what happens when a very poor country gets dragged into the maelstrom of inter-imperialist rivalry.

In the 1970s it was one of the least modernised countries in the world. Most of the population were poverty stricken peasants or nomadic pastoralists, largely illiterate, making a living in medieval ways, unaided except for draught animals and the occasional water mill. Social organisation was through kinship groups or tribes headed by great landowners, ‘Khans’, who took about half of the sharecroppers’ harvests. Daily life ran along traditional patterns, with arranged marriages and acceptance of Koranic law.

There was no sense of national identity and people spoke a variety of Pushtan, Persian and Turkic dialects, with a Pushtan monarch presiding over local groups. These saw the state as an external imposition on them and officials who tried to make them change their ways as enemies.

Yet if the people wanted to ignore the modern world, that world did not cease its pressures on them. One of Afghanistan’s misfortunes was to be stuck in a strategic position between rival imperialisms – in the 19th century between those of Tsarism and Britain, in the mid-20th century between the USSR, Iran and the US’s regional ally, Pakistan.

The royal administration in Kabul could not ignore such outside pressures and was compelled to try to modernise the country, establishing schools and colleges, building a modern army and exploiting Cold War rivalries to get finance for four five year development plans aimed at creating a modern infrastructure and state owned industries.

Most of the aid came from the USSR, and Afghanistan was accepted by the US as being ‘80 percent’ in the Russian sphere of influence. But the plans did nothing for the mass of the rural population. A third of investment went on building a 2,000 mile long highway through the mountains to the Soviet border, but without a network of feeder roads to connect to the main production centres, still less to country markets. New power stations could only work at 40 percent of capacity because of the lack of an adequate distribution system. Most of the new factories worked at low capacity or stood idle through lack of raw materials.

And with the first lull in the Cold War, in the late 1960s, external aid fell by half, leaving the economy in disarray. In 1970-72 droughts led to widespread famine in the countryside and thousands of deaths from starvation.

To much of the middle class in Kabul, it seemed the only way to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment was by ‘releasing’ internal resources for modernisation through a radical transformation of life in the countryside. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDPA), which looked to the Stalinist model of development, seized power in a military coup early in 1978. Its leader, Taraki, argued that ‘the army’ could take the place of a ‘working class that has not yet developed’ in overturning ‘the feudal and oppressive government’. The professionals and army officers who dominated the party acted as if will-power and violence alone could overcome the poverty and backwardness of the countryside, and pushed through a series of reforms over the heads of, and in complete opposition to, the traditions of the mass of the rural population. The results were disastrous.

Administrators arrived in the villages to divide the land of the Khans among the peasants and ban money-lending by usurers. But there was no provision to give the sharecropping peasants the seedcorn they had previously got from the Khans, nor were there any funds to replace the usurers’ loans. The poor peasants found themselves worse off after reform than before. Even a literacy drive rebounded against the government, since it made the mistake of trying to impose mixed-sex classes taught by male students in villages where traditions prevented any mixing of adolescent boys and girls.

For the peasants a state they had always distrusted seemed determined to impoverish them and stamp upon their traditional way of life, which they identified with Islam. In one part of the country after another more or less spontaneous uprisings occurred, usually led by local religious leaders. An increasingly besieged government sent the army and secret police to smash peasant resistance and launch a wave of repression in the towns against anyone who might act as focus for discontent – the upper clergy, intellectuals, Islamist political groups, Maoists, ordinary people who spoke out against the repression.

In September 1970 it was the turn of the Parcham faction of the ruling party itself. Then, a year later, the top leaders turned on each other, with the premier, Amin, killing the president, Taraki. Official statements later told of a grisly total of 12,000 executions in just 20 months, and unofficial estimates were that at least another 50,000 people ‘disappeared’.

By December 1980 it was clear to Brezhnev’s Soviet regime that the Afghan government was on the verge of collapse – and with it Soviet influence in a vital border area just as the Cold War was growing more intense. In desperation it sent its own troops to seize Kabul, murdering Amin and replacing him by its own nominee, the exiled Parcham faction PDPA leader Karmal, who it then claimed had invited the Russian army in.

The invasion had the same impact on the disparate tribes, kin groups and ethnic groups of the Afghan countryside as the British invasions of the last century – it united them in a general struggle against the outsiders. The war rapidly developed into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Its troops found it very difficult to pin down guerrilla groups which would melt into the local population when attacked. The attack was soon against wide sections of the population itself. By 1986 the Soviet leadership, desperate to find some way of cutting their losses and withdrawing their troops without too much loss of face, had installed a new government in Kabul.

Now, however, it was the US’s turn to increase the level of horror. The renewed Cold War was at its height, and the US began providing Mujahadin groups with modern weapons.

By the time the Soviet withdrawal was finally completed the war had destroyed much of the old structure of society. But that was not the end of Afghanistan’s misery. The Mujahadin had been able to drive out the Soviet forces, but not to arrive at any unity among themselves. All too often they used their newly obtained modern weaponry to resume ancient feuds, while their leaders seized the opportunity to enrich themselves.

There were attempts to provide a national focus by Islamist groups based on members of the Kabul professional middle classes whose desire to transform society had led them to look to a reinvigorated Islam rather than Stalinism.

Settled across the border in the Pakistan city of Peshawar, they received large sums of US money. But here they continued with bitter, sometimes murderous quarrels, as disagreements about what it really meant to transform Afghanistan along Islamic lines intersected with different kin group and ethnic allegiances.

The eventual fall of Kabul to the Mujahadin could not bring peace. Islam did not provide the new Mujahadin government with some magic wand to overcome the fragmentation of society. In fact, each member of the government looked to the military power of his local supporters to further his own interests.

The behaviour of the US and Pakistani governments exacerbated the situation. In the late 1980s most of the modern arms had gone to the mainly Pushtun Hizb i Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar because its politics coincided with their strategic interests. Hekmatyar now used his heavy weaponry to pound Kabul in an effort to seize power from his one time Islamist colleague Rabbani. He did more damage to the city in a few months than had been done in the previous nine years of war. At the same time, the US cut off aid to the millions in the refugee camps.

Such were the conditions when the Taliban emerged as a fighting force.

It originated in schemes by the US and Saudi Arabia to prevent Afghan refugees in Pakistan falling under Iranian influence. Saudi and Gulf money was used to build hundreds of religious schools (madrasas) where a new generation of mullahs were trained, not according to the Hannafi interpretation of Islam accepted in most of Afghanistan, but the Saudi Wahhabist version – an extremely narrow and puritanical version. The graduates of these religious schools form the core the Taliban.

Yet it is not, in the main, Saudi money or Pakistani backing that explains the sudden emergence of the Taliban as a major force. Large numbers of people have welcomed the Taliban out of the despair created as the devastation wreaked by nearly two decades of war seems to know no end. It offers hope amid the wreckage of people’s traditional ways of living. The very puritanism and rigour of the Talibans’ message has seemed to offer an alternative to the squabbling, place-seeking and bloody fighting of the established Islamic politicians.

This explains why thousands of young men are prepared to fight fanatically for it and why many of the Pushtun areas of the country welcomed its armies. But it can no more fulfil its goals than can the other ideologies that have fought for influence in Afghanistan in the last two decades. It cannot overcome the poverty and economic backwardness that have been made worse by war. Its attempts to impose its religious code – particularly its denial of a livelihood to families dependent on women working – can only lead to rapid disillusionment with it in the most recently captured areas. And because its base of support is overwhelmingly Pushtun, it is inevitably running into bitter opposition from the Iranian and Uzbek speakers in the centre, west and north of the country.

Already the Tajik Mujahadin leader Massoud and the formerly pro-Russian Uzbek leader Dostam are collaborating with the Shias of central Afghanistan to roll back the Talibans. No doubt, if they are successful, the Western media and some of the left will celebrate a defeat for Islamic fundamentalism – and then forget all about the country once again.

Yet it is unlikely to be the end of the Afghan tragedy. The victors can be relied on to fall out among themselves before they can beat the Taliban in the south and the civil war will go into yet another bloody round.

We warned, back in 1981, immediately after the Russian invasion:

‘Afghanistan will never be able to escape from the morass of oppression and poverty until it is free from the attention of all imperialist forces. The Russian troops are not going to solve its problems. Neither would the installation of a US backed “rebel” regime.

‘Even if, by some miracle, the rival imperialisms were to leave Afghanistan alone, the problems facing its peoples would be all but insuperable. The physical resources do not exist for either capitalism or “socialism” in one country. They could only be provided by a revolutionary breakthrough on an international scale.’

Unfortunately, the horrors of the last 16 years have proved us right.

Last updated on 21 December 2009