Up until recently, while Iraq was viewed as a quagmire, Afghanistan was seen as a relatively successful part of George Bush’s “War on Terror.” Now, even this silver lining is beginning to disappear. Canada’s new Conservative government is attempting to make amends for not sending troops to Iraq by expanding the military so they can send troops to all subsequent wars of US imperialism. Working class youth in uniform are being asked to fight and die for the profits of the oil corporations. For the first time in generations, Foreign Affairs is the number one issue in Canadian politics.
The Afghan people and Imperialism
Afghanistan traditionally played the role of buffer between Russian Tzarism and British imperialism. The “Great Game” fought out between the major powers has left deep scars on the landscape and the psyche of the Afghan people. Only 12% of the land is farmable, there is a 16% infant mortality rate, and life expectancy is only 43 years. 300,000 Afghanis are classified as Internally Displaced Refugees (IDRs) and upwards of 50% are unemployed. 80% of the labour force is engaged in agriculture with only 10% working in industry (typically small scale textile operations). Therefore, Afghanistan has almost no working class and no labour movement. The extreme backwardness of the country is a testament to centuries of imperialism and this fact alone has been burned into the Afghan consciousness.
In the last 2500 years, at least twenty-five different dynasties have ruled Afghanistan. Genghis Khan and his Mongols were preceded by Persian, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Indians, White Huns, and Turks – all of whom incorporated part, or all, of present day Afghanistan into vast but often short-lived empires stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent, or from India to the steppe lands of Central Asia.
Each new invasion or migration left behind its own ethnic deposits in the form of settlers, who either interbred with the inhabitants or forced them to retreat deeper into the mountains. Over the centuries, this created an ethnic mosaic of bewildering complexity. Today, 42% of Afghans are Pashtun (based in the south and east), 27% are Tajik from the north, 9% are Hazara, and 9% are Uzbek.
Modern imperialist intervention begins in the 19th century with the competing desires of British and Russian imperialism. The Russians hoped to gain a warm-water port while the British aimed to create a buffer around India.
On 25th April, 1839 British troops captured Kandahar after intense fighting. But British troops faced severe resistance around Kabul and the Afghan people attacked them from every corner. Out of 15,000 British troops, only one survived to reach Jalalabad. The British were defeated again in 1878, underlining the point that Afghanistan is a graveyard for foreign armies. It was not until the 1890s that the British were able to gain control of Afghanistan, and they extracted their pound of flesh by re-drawing the Afghan border in the form of the “Durand Line.” With this new border, India (now Pakistan) annexed up to a third of the Afghan population and divided the Pashtun people in a classical divide-and-rule strategy. The Afghan people have good reason to hate foreign invaders.
The Soviet Invasion
In April 1978, a section of the Afghan intellectuals, urban professionals, and army elite launched a coup in response to the repression and corruption of the Daoud dictatorship. This coup set up a Proletarian Bonapartist regime which abolished landlordism and capitalism, but one where the working class had no democratic control. Despite the deformations, the new regime sought to modernize Afghanistan and put through a number of progressive measures:
- Abolition of mortgages and debts of peasants.
- Land reform – the redistribution of feudal lands to peasants (representing 80% of farmable land).
- Announcement of nationalization of “anything worth nationalizing”.
- Abolition of the “bride price” where women were sold into slavery.
- The right of women to work
- Literacy campaigns and schools for men, women, and girls.
All of these measures were a direct affront to the reactionary mullahs, landlords, and money lenders who relied on the oppression of women and the peasantry. In response, these elements provoked a guerrilla war in the mountains to reinstall feudalism and the oppression of women. They were also aided by the fact that the Proletarian Bonapartist regime in Kabul made no significant effort to explain its reforms to the peasants under the sway of fundamentalist mullahs. The Afghan government, even in a distorted way, stood for revolution and therefore was implacably opposed by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia who funded the rebellion. However, the reactionaries had no mass basis amongst the Afghan population until the intervention of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The Russian Stalinists played no role in the overthrow of the Daoud regime and opposed it. They were concerned by the presence of an independent “revolutionary” government on their border and were quite willing to sacrifice the leaders of the coup to prevent instability. However, when presented with a new Proletarian Bonapartist regime, they sought to control it. They arranged for Soviet troops to be “invited” into Afghanistan and then proceeded to purge the army and State. This, in turn, acted as an excuse for US imperialism to mobilize the reactionary forces of Islamic fundamentalism against the regime of “Godless Communists and foreign invaders.” The CIA had no qualms about funding, arming, and training the oppressors of women against a regime that was building roads and schools and defended the right of women to work and learn. When one looks at history, you can see that their current claim to be fighting for women is so much propaganda.
The most subservient of the rebel groups were the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, who were set up by the Pakistani ISI secret service, the Saudi royalty, and the CIA. Canadian General Hillier labelled these people “murderers and scumbags.” He is correct, and we could add much more to their crimes; but, he neglects to mention that these murderers and scumbags were set up by the western powers who are fully responsible for them.
After a lengthy war of attrition, Russian troops were withdrawn after the collapse of the USSR. Even after this, the regime of President Najibullah managed to hold its own against the mujahadeen. However, when the Russians removed aid in agreement with the Americans, and the Saudis and Pakistanis continued to fund the Taliban, the Proletarian Bonapartist regime fell in 1994. The western-backed Taliban hanged Najibullah from a lamp post and stuffed his genitals in his mouth. They overpowered the other mujahadeen factions, who were seen as corrupt by the Afghan masses, and gained control of 95% of the country by 1996.
Why do the imperialist powers care about Afghanistan? If they were truly concerned about women’s liberation, they would never have supported the Taliban in the first place. Their aims are to gain access to the Caspian oilfields and to have strategic bases to use against the Iranian and Pakistani people.
Russian, Chinese, and Western imperialism are all trying to secure raw materials – and above all, oil. Turkmenistan, which controls the majority of the Caspian oil, is hemmed in by Russia to the north, Iran to the west, and China to the east. The only route by which the West can get the oil is south via a pipeline across Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to the Indian Ocean. US oil corporations such as Unocal were happy to deal with the Taliban to build a pipeline (with the help of Haliburton and Enron) and the Bush administration even invited a Taliban goodwill representative 5 months prior to 11th September, 2001. Only after the terrorist attacks did this relationship become untenable and US imperialism discovered the plight of Afghan women. Just to underline the point that oil is the most important consideration, after the overthrow of the Taliban, former Unocal advisor Hamid Karzai was installed as president. It goes to show that where imperialism is concerned, there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests.
The Americans overthrew the Taliban not with troops but with money. Still fearing a ground war after their defeat in Vietnam, they decided to back the Northern Alliance who conducted most of the fighting. The regime collapsed when a series of well-placed bribes led to the defection of a slew of formerly pro-Taliban warlords. The core of the Taliban were never defeated, they merely retreated to the mountains on the Pakistan border.
The Northern Alliance are no more progressive than their former mujahadeen allies, the Taliban. In fact, in 2001, opium cultivation was practically eradicated in all parts of Afghanistan except for those areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. The position of women under the Northern Alliance is no better, not to mention what exists under the warlords who make up the majority of the Afghan government. It is estimated that over 50% of Afghan parliamentarians are guilty of war crimes. However, the new Western-backed regime had a window of opportunity to consolidate itself. The Afghan masses hated the oppression of the Taliban and were willing to give the Americans a chance to show what they could do. If capitalism was a progressive system on a world scale, they could have invested and developed the Afghan economy. Unfortunately for the Afghan people, capitalism lost any progressive content over a century ago and Bush was more interested in waging war on the people of Iraq than actually living up to the rhetoric about reconstruction. Any money for Afghan reconstruction was quickly swallowed up in local corruption, and that window of opportunity is now closed.
The Afghan people have now become sick of the corruption and inaction of Hamid Karzai’s government which has little influence outside Kabul. With the lack of any other alternative to put food on the table, the Afghan peasants have turned back to poppy cultivation. 2005 and 2006 were record years and Afghanistan accounts for 92% of world opium and heroin production. When a farmer can make 25-times more money growing poppies compared with wheat, the choice is easy to understand. Even the CIA estimates that opium accounts for a third of Afghan GDP (other sources say it is more likely two thirds). The neo-Taliban have come back on the offensive in their Pushtun strongholds in the south, with opium money and a pledge to defend the poppy farmers from Western troops. The Western troops are now as hated as any other foreign invader and are fighting a losing battle.
The neo-Taliban are a looser outfit compared with their former incarnation. As well as the hardcore fundamentalists from the Pakistani madrassas, they are linked up with local warlords, drug traffickers, the unemployed, and Pushtun nationalists. They are awash with drug money; so much so that while the soldiers and police of the Afghan government earn about $6 per day, the Taliban can hire unemployed youth at 3-times this figure with extra bonuses for successful attacks.
It has been impossible for the Western troops to conduct any reconstruction when under attack. Their latest offensive created an additional 100,000 internal refugees and pushed more people into the hands of the Taliban. General David Richards, the British officer commanding NATO troops in Afghanistan, said that 70% of Afghans may start supporting the Taliban if their lives do not improve in the next six months. He is probably being optimistic and it looks unlikely that Germany, France, Italy, and Spain will come up with the extra 2000 troops in time. Just like Iraq, Western imperialism is stuck in a war it cannot win in Afghanistan.
The Role of Canadian Imperialism
At a recent speech to a business crowd in the oil patch, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that casualties in Afghanistan are the price for Canada having an increased role in the world. This is true, except that it is not him or his corporate friends who have to pay the price. The deaths hit working class youth who enter the military for economic reasons and the increased risk of terrorism hits the working class as a whole. Harper and the oil executives profit while none of their children are fighting and dying.
Increasingly, the majority of the Canadian population believes that the price is too high. The current rate of deaths is about 1 or 2 per week and, unlike the US, Britain, or France, the Canadian population is not used to such losses for greater imperial glory. A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives put the likelihood of Canadian deaths at six-times the rate of death of US troops in Iraq, and greater than any other nationality in Afghanistan. A separate report by a British medical journal estimated that the rate of death of Western troops in Afghanistan was approaching that suffered by the Russian occupation in the 1980s. There is no way public opinion will withstand this toll.
Corporate Canada is attempting to extend its reach on a world scale to solidify its profits and investments. Military spending has gone up from $15-billion to $20-billion, with a planned increase to $25-billion per year. They do not spend such sums unless they can get a healthy return on the investment. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has even been a representative of Canadian oil firms wishing to invest in central Asia. Taking on such missions also frees up US troops for other interventions. The largest area of Canadian foreign investment is in US banks and insurance houses. When US imperialism profits from its foreign investments, Canadian capitalists gain a cut of the loot.
The actions that Western governments have taken to seize profits have created bush-fires everywhere. This is the first time in human history that instability has reached every corner of the globe. There is a middle class philistine saying that, “all politics are local.” Now we see that in fact the opposite is true, “all politics are international.” A conflict in a far away land is now the number one issue in the normally quiet world of Canadian politics. This may be the issue that brings down the minority Conservative government. In a confirmation of the perspectives of the Marxists, the movement in society is starting to have its reflection in the mass organizations of the working class – the unions and the NDP.
NDP Calls for “Troops Out”
After a year of waffling on the issue, the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress have adopted a “Troops Out” position on the Afghanistan war. This is due to the immense pressure from the party rank-and-file and the larger working class. All those on the Left who wrote off the NDP as being immune to the pressure of the working class are now left scratching their heads with no explanation. Those who have been relying on fringe “coalitions” outside the mass organizations are finding themselves pushed aside as the real bodies formed by the working class come forward. This is the first leftward move in social democracy in 20 years. Marxists have always explained that eventually the mass movement will be reflected in the mass organizations; now we see this coming true.
In the past, we have seen a steady move to the right internationally in social democracy and the unions. After the mass movements of the 70s and 80s were defeated, a degree of tiredness and frustration was felt in the working class. Workers became less involved in their organizations which gave the leading bureaucracy more independence to move rightwards. In turn, these rightward moves led to more defeats and increased demoralization. The most extreme version of this downward spiral was seen in the victory of Tony Blair in Britain. But now, this process is starting to go into reverse. No bureaucracy can stop the movement of history, and NDP Leader Jack Layton was forced to come out in opposition to the Afghan war. Even with a confused position, this step enthused the party membership who gave Layton a 92% leadership endorsement. As the war becomes more unpopular, NDP support should increase and youth and workers who wish to end the war will join the party. This in turn will push the party further to the left. If the NDP bureaucracy does not capitulate, this could be the defining issue of the next election. Those who are pro-war will vote Conservative, and those who are anti-war NDP. There is a real possibility that the Liberals could be squeezed out, but only if the NDP remains firm.
Unfortunately, the position of the NDP leadership is far from firm and they are backtracking daily. At the September Federal NDP Convention in Québec City, a clear resolution was passed by the membership calling for a “safe and immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.” The Canadian Labour Congress issued an even stronger statement saying, “our military isn’t fighting the forces of corruption, violence and the heroin trade. We’re supporting them.” However, scared by what a direct confrontation with the interests of Capital would mean, the right wing of the parliamentary party is attempting to water down the position. At the NDP Convention, MPs Alexa McDonough and Dawn Black attempted to pass an amendment to only commit the NDP to withdrawing troops from war-fighting in Kandahar province in favour of “peacekeeping” around Kabul. The amendment was resoundingly defeated. Peacekeeping in the interests of imperialism, corruption and violence is no better than war-fighting for the same cause. But now the “democrats” in the party leadership are ignoring the will of the membership and Layton, McDonough and Black have all been promoting their defeated position.
Capitalism = War
The weakness of Layton’s position comes from the lack of an anti-imperialist analysis of the Afghan war. The same is true for many pacifists in the anti-war movement who just oppose war without understanding its link with imperialism and capitalism. Some who even call themselves Marxists have jumped on this bandwagon. As we have explained, the war in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and all the other major conflicts, is the product of capitalism’s search for markets, raw materials, and spheres of influence. This is known as imperialism. Imperialism is merely the highest product of capitalism and if you wish to fight not just one war but all wars, you must also fight the system that creates these wars – capitalism.
Layton has since proposed negotiations with the Taliban to end the conflict. He has been justifiably ridiculed in the right-wing press who call him “Taliban Jack” for seeking to negotiate with such reactionaries. The Conservatives seek to portray themselves as the main opponents of the Taliban, but they initially set them up and now their actions do nothing but inflame the insurgency. George Bush, Tony Blair, and Stephen Harper are effectively the best Taliban-recruiting sergeants and internal government documents have all but stated this. Every day that foreign troops are present on Afghan soil means an increase in support for the Taliban. Right-wing Republicans and Hamid Karzai have proposed coming to an accommodation with the Taliban, too. This just shows how little they care about the women and peasantry of the country; they just wish to make a gentleman’s agreement to gain the oil while leaving the population to rot.
Layton should be the number one critic of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance warlords, and the Canadian, US and British imperialists that created all of them. The Afghan people understand instinctively the role of foreign intervention and they yearn to be able to settle their own affairs without interference. Foreign troops are not there to aid, but to enslave the Afghan people. In the words of the courageous Afghan MP Malalai Joya, “The situation in Afghanistan and conditions for women will not change positively until the warlords have been disarmed and both the pro-US and anti-US terrorists are removed from the political scene in Afghanistan. And it is the responsibility of the Afghan people to accomplish this goal.”
The NDP must call for all foreign troops out now and help build a movement not just in parliament but also on the streets. This is not just another parliamentary manoeuvre but a fundamental fight for the interests of working people in Canada. The youth wing of the NDP can play a lead role in launching this movement and forcing the party leadership to remain true to the democratic wishes of the membership.
The people of the region will be much more capable of defeating the hated Taliban without the obstruction of the Western oil profiteers. Above all, because of the lack of a workers’ movement in Afghanistan, the Afghan people will need help from their brothers and sisters in the Pakistani and Iranian labour movement. United in the fight for a Socialist Federation of Central and South Asia the Afghan people can finally come out of the shadow of barbarism. The Pakistani socialists will be at the forefront of aiding the Afghan people in defeating the Taliban fundamentalists. At the same time the greatest aid the workers of Canada can give to the people of Afghanistan is by building a massive anti-war movement on the streets, which pushes forward the NDP to adopt socialist policies and bring the troops home. The policies and tactics that best benefit the Afghan people are also those that best aid the Canadian working class. Our main enemy is at home in the form of the war-hungry Conservative government. Let’s bring them down and start the fight for socialism.
- NATO is waging war on the Afghan peole, but resistance is growing by Lal Khan (16 Oct. 2006)
- Eyewitness report from NDP Federal Convention: Rank-and-file push leadership leftwards by Julian Benson (19 Sep. 2006)
- Jack Layton comes out against the war in Afghanistan, finally by Fightback editorial board (6 Sep. 2006)
- 17th Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan by Julian Benson (10 Jul. 2006)
- Troops out of Afghanistan! Canadian imperialism comes of age by Alex Grant (4 May 2006)
- Mission Impossible by Rob Sewell (26 Mar. 2002)
- Afghanistan: “Fools rush in…” by Ted Grant and Alan Woods (12 Dec. 2001)
- Afghanistan: “The Marines have landed” by Alan Woods (28 Nov. 2001)
- The war in Afghanistan: Swamps and alligators by Alan Woods (21 Nov. 2001)