Who is Bin Laden? What is the Taliban?

By Gerry Foley


As we go to press, the world is waiting for a U.S. military attack on Afghanistan. It is clear that the American rulers’ objective is to demonstrate their capacity for destruction and their ruthlessness, and to score some general political points based on that.

U.S. government spokespersons are increasingly having to admit that in attacking Afghanistan they have little hope of hitting the terrorist networks that they accuse of responsibility for the Sept. 11 slaughter.

There is no evidence that any government, not even the Taliban, materially backs the constellation of groups inspired and financed by the Saudi Islamicist multimillionaire Osama Bin Ladin-whom the U.S. accuses without any proof of masterminding terrorist attacks on targets.

(‘Islamicist” is a term used to describe political currents that claim to want to build states based on a narrow interpretation of Islamic religious law. They represent a small minority of Muslims in the world and are themselves divided by different political interests.)

In the organizational and political vacuum left in the wake of Afghanistan’s ruinous civil war and the guerrilla struggle against Soviet occupation, the Taliban may seek the help of relatively small groups of Islamicists against their internal enemies. But they have neither the resources nor interest in supporting any external terrorist campaigns.

All the available information about Bin Laden’s organization Al-Qaida indicates that it is a loose network of small conspiratorial groups scattered in as many as 34 countries.

None of the alleged highjackers have been linked to any mass movement in the Middle East. A few, including the so-called leader of the cell, Mohammad Atta, have been linked to the Egyptian Islamic terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad, which was involved in the assassination of the country’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.

Following that event, there was a war between the Egyptian government and the Islamicist terrorist groups, lasting for more than a decade, which resulted in more than 1200 deaths, mainly of innocent civilians and Islamic activists themselves. The Islamic conspiratorial organizations were decimated. The prisons are still filled with their members.

Ayman al-Zawahri, cited widely in the big business press as Bin Laden’s “right-hand” man, served three years in prison on charges of being involved in Sadat’s assassination. He left Egypt in the 1980s after being released. In 1998, his organization joined the Front for the Liberation of Islamic Holy Places, a grouping apparently inspired by Bin Ladin.

In the same year, the Jihad was accused of involvement in the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. It became the target of a major repressive campaign by the Egyptian government. In 1999, Al-Zawahri was condemned to death in absentia as one of the defendants in a mass trial of Islamic fundamentalist leaders.

An article analyzing the Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Sept. 14 issue of the Egyptian daily Middle East Times noted: “While some of these groupings do not have a popular base, they do not need one to operate efficiently.”

Ibrahim Naggar, one of the defendants in the trial that brought Al-Zawhri’s death sentence, said that Bin Ladin came out against attacks on the Egyptian government, calling on the terrorists to focus entirely on U.S. and Israeli interests, and calling for focusing their propaganda on military personnel.

These groups appear thus to be narrow circles totally innocent of any orientation to build mass movements opposed to imperialism in the decisive countries of the Middle East, which is more and more a social powder keg.

In general, such Islamicist fundamentalist groups, no matter how violent, represent little threat to imperialism’s basic interests in the region, and can even be manipulated by the imperialists to defend their interests. Over the long term, they have been more of an asset than a liability for imperialism.

In the past, Islamicists were used to help bring down the nationalist governments of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Sukarno in Indonesia in 1965. In the later case, gangs organized by Islamicist leaders massacred at least half-a-million poor peasants and wiped out the Communist Party, with U.S. approval.

Bin Laden was a U.S. agent

In fact, the state that has given by far the most “aid and comfort” to Bin Ladin is the United States itself, which used him as an agent in the Afghan civil war. He played no political role before his Afghan involvement, beginning in 1986.

The U.S. government did not use him simply as a conduit of aid to the Afghan fighters but as a means of reinforcing the most reliable social conservatives in Afghanistan. In fact, the main leaders of the Afghan struggle, like the recently assassinated Sheikh Massoud, the hero of the Panjir valley and generally acknowledged to be the most effective of the military commanders, were quickly pushed from power by the Taliban with the aid of forces linked to Bin Laden.

The Taliban was created by the Pakistani special forces with the assent, and perhaps even the blessing of the United States. The Taliban appeared only in 1994, five years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. And they first appeared as guards of Pakistani convoys.

After the Taliban captured the capital, Kabul, in 1996, the Washington Post wrote that they were “the best opportunity” seen in years “to put an end to the anarchy that has beset Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979.” The same paper noted, with implicit approval, that the Islamicist fundamentalists were “more antimodernist than anti-Western.”

The Post gloated that the Taliban victory was a defeat for the Islamic government in Tehran, which backed the Mujahadin and still supports those who continue to fight against the Taliban.

The Afghan resistance to the Soviet-backed regimes and to Soviet occupation was largely local and fragmented, and divided among the different ethnic groups that live in the country.

The guerrillas had no united alternative to the Soviet-backed regime. After the Soviets withdrew and the regime fell, they splintered. In those conditions, a relatively small disciplined group with resources coming from foreign backers was easily able to gain control of most of the country.

According to Sheikh Massoud, many local commanders were simply bought by Pakistani money. Moreover, the Taliban was based on the Pushtoon nationality, which straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan, which the U.S. has now enlisted in its “war on terrorism,” is a state based on Islam. It is the product of the British imperialist strategy of using Islamicists against the Indian national liberation movement. And religious parties have always been a fundamental prop of the successive reactionary regimes that have ruled the country.

During the cold war, Pakistan was the key ally of the United States in the region. It was the central country of the CENTO Alliance, which was a threat aimed at the Soviet Union until it was shattered by the Iraqi revolution of 1957.

Now, of course, many of the Islamicists have turned violently anti-American. However, Washington probably always knew that they were a double-edged sword, like most of the U.S. allies in the neocolonial countries.

In this way they are similar to the Salvadoran landlords, who could be relied on to organize murder gangs to crush the rebellious peasants but refused to carry out the limited land reform the United States considered necessary to allay social tensions. They also call to mind the ruthless military regimes of Latin America, whose atrocities embarrassed the U.S. government before its own people.

The United States is now seeking new allies in the Middle East, from the surviving mujahadin in Afghanistan, to the Iranian government, to the Pakistani military dictatorship, and the Hindu chauvinist government of India. But the imperialists have always had to use reactionary allies in an attempt to maintain their interests, allies who tended at some point to become too discredited or too hot to handle.

No stable, much less humane, world order can be based on such alliances. They have inevitably meant disasters for the peoples of the colonial and neocolonial world and ultimately to threats to the peoples of the developed countries themselves.

For example, 40,000 people were killed by the “war against terrorism” conducted by the Argentine military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. The declaration of a “war on terrorism” after the attacks in Washington and New York promises an incomparably greater slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of desperate people are already trying to flee Afghanistan in anticipation of U.S. strikes.

However, no matter how much the imperialists may be blinded by their greed and arrogance, they are hardly so stupid as to think that the small conspiratorial groups can be destroyed by massive military action. Whatever military strikes the U.S. military and its allies make, the real objective is to lay the political basis for tightening repression throughout the world. And the whole history of such attempts suggests there will be attacks on the rights of citizens of the developed countries as well.

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