US Victory in Afghanistan… What Does it Mean?

By GERRY FOLEY

 

The collapse of the Taliban regime, now completed with the fall of Kandahar on Dec. 7, came as a surprise to the Western governments and media, despite the preceding claims by U.S. officials of the effectiveness of their military campaign. The New York Times felt compelled to run a special article in its Dec. 2 issue to explain the sudden turn of events.

The final fizzling of the Taliban’s “holy war,” seemed certain on Dec. 5, when they agreed to surrender their last stronghold, Kandahar, after having vowed to defend it to the death.

Before the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the major city in Northern Afghanistan, to Northern Alliance troops on Nov. 9, the U.S. military campaign had seemed to be producing few results other than a political backlash in the Muslim world and rage among the Afghan people. The major capitalist world media concurred that the U.S. was sinking into a quagmire.

Then, suddenly, the stalled effort of the imperialists turned into a stunning victory, in which the U.S. seemed on the verge of achieving its declared and undeclared objectives in the “war on terrorism” that it had launched after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on targets in the United States.

The undeclared but fundamental aims of the U.S. operation were to deal a blow to the opposition to imperialist policies in the dominated world and in the capitalist heartlands.

In the big-business press in the United States and Europe, speculation has been shifting from the situation in Afghanistan to the likely next targets for U.S. attacks-Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq, or even Palestine. The London Guardian on Dec. 9 reported that the United States had already begun surveillance flights over Somalia, looking for forces associated with al-Qaida.

What led to the victory?

That is the index of the victory of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. This victory for the moment has altered the international political situation. Therefore, this triumph for imperialism and the perspectives it has created need to be looked at. In the first place, what explains it?

The most important factor is clearly the nature of the forces that the U.S. attacked-the Taliban and al-Qaida. Both were based on an elite that was highly motivated and self-sacrificial but without a program for solving the problems of the masses of the Muslim world oppressed by imperialism, and still less of the rest of the neocolonial world. Both leaderships operated on the idea that determination could succeed without a political strategy.

Islamist currents managed to tap anti-imperialist feelings among the masses in Muslim countries following the defeats or capitulations of Stalinist or nationalist leaderships. Their stock-in-trade was that they would stand firm for principle, not capitulate or bend to imperialism, and that they could win because they were prepared to fight to the death.

The Islamists also claimed that on the basis of their religious ideals they could unite the entire Muslim world against imperialism, and constitute a more powerful force than a movement confined to one or a few countries.

The Islamists won some successes. Bin Laden became a hero of the discontented in the Muslim world, from which he recruited a devoted band of fighters. Hamas, the main Islamist organization in Palestine, grew to the point of challenging or even out-distancing the traditional Palestinian leadership.

Both the Arab and Western bourgeois papers were saying before Mazar-i-Sharif that bin Laden had won the political contest for the sympathy of the Arab masses.

The collapse of the Taliban, however, showed the limitations of the Islamist perspectives. Afghanistan was supposed to be the model Islamic state, the only true Islamic state, as bin Laden called it, and as the Islamist volunteers from many countries apparently believed. But for the masses it was hardly an attractive model.

The only information from the areas from which the Taliban fled or were driven out is that the population felt relieved or even liberated. That may not be the whole story, but there is certainly no evidence that the Taliban left a resistance movement behind among the population.

Whereas bin Laden and his followers believed that their Islamist principles could unite the entire Islamic world and recreate the Caliphate of the Islamic golden age-which ruled a vast territory stretching from northern India to the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean-in Afghanistan they failed even to unite the various peoples and tribes of one relatively small country where religion has played an unusually powerful role.

Support for the Taliban was essentially confined to the Pushtun people, about 40 percent of the population of Afghanistan. The other major nationalities, representing at least another 40 percent of the population and dominant in the northern half of the country, followed other leaderships, mainly united (however loosely) in the Northern Alliance.

Among the Pushtun themselves, tribal loyalties seem now to have prevailed over any loyalty to the Taliban. Thus, it proved impossible to unite the faithful against the infidel, but rather one self-proclaimed Muslim faction, backed by imperialism, prevailed over the other that claimed to be waging a “holy war” against the “Judeo-Christian” enemy.

A common religion did not give the peoples of the region sufficiently strong common interests to provide a basis for unity against imperialism. That was something that only the collective economic and political interests of the oppressed and exploited working people of the region could do.

Moreover, the appeal of Islamism was largely based on a mystique of unbreakable determination leading to victory. Once the Taliban forces suffered a major defeat, the mystique was shattered. Their support began to crumble. The cascading cave-in was not limited to Afghanistan. It is notable that in Pakistan, following Mazar-i-Sharif, mass demonstrations in support of the Taliban have ceased, even though an estimated 8000 Pakistani Islamists have died fighting for the former rulers of Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership’s claim that they were evacuating the cities in order to fight in the mountains seemed clearly no more than a figleaf of self-justification to cover the extent of their collapse. They abandoned Kabul without a fight but allowed their main forces to be encircled in Kandahar.

If the Taliban thought they had the popular support necessary to sustain a prolonged guerrilla war, it is not likely that they would have declared that they were prepared to sacrifice the hard core of their fighters in a futile struggle in an isolated city.

The reason for this decision seemed to be a last hope that they could rescue themselves from the ignominy of their collapse and rout by a symbolic fight to the death. Now even that hope has proved illusory. It is extremely unlikely that after such a crushing political defeat, they will be able to mount any serious guerrilla activity.

Behind U.S. victory in Mazar-i-Sharif

The battle of Mazar-i-Sharif was thus decisive politically as well as militarily. Its outcome was almost certainly the result of political factors as well as military ones.

From the military standpoint, after the U.S. victory in the Gulf War, a conflict with which their al-Qaida allies were intimately familiar, the Taliban leadership could not have been unaware of what it was up against. But according to The New York Times, they made the fundamental tactical error of concentrating their forces and thus making them into sitting ducks for the deadly air power of the United States.

From a political standpoint, the Taliban could not make a stand in the Mazar-i-Sharif because the population was hostile to them. They risked a massacre if they withdrew into the city.

Then, once they abandoned this key northern city, it was clear that the whole northern part of the country was going to fall into the hands of the Northern Alliance, which is based on the populations of the region. The Afghan majority of the Taliban’s forces began to crumble, leaving the foreign fighters isolated.

The battle of Mazar-i-Sharif also marked a shift in the U.S. strategy. Previously, the U.S. bombing had avoided committing its air power to supporting the Northern Alliance forces on the ground. The bombing had been dispersed throughout the country with the rationale of destroying the Taliban’s infrastructure, despite occasional admissions even by U.S. spokespersons that the Taliban had virtually no infrastructure.

Washington’s Pakistani allies even began to describe the U.S. bombing as “random.”

The real objective of the United States seems to have been political rather than military, to put pressure on the Pushtun tribal chiefs to break from the Taliban. It was only when that failed (the main effect seemed to be to rally the population behind the Taliban) that the bombers went to the aid of the Northern Alliance.

And it was only when the Northern Alliance began to score decisive victories that the desired defections among the Pushtun leaders began in earnest.

Washington got its victory, but at the price of hitching its war wagon to local forces of dubious coherence, dubious discipline, dubious representiveness and-worst of all for the United States-dubious reliability for their imperialist allies.

The Northern Alliance initially emphatically rejected the proposals for stationing a “peacekeeping force” on their newly won territory. They did, under who knows what pressure, later give in on this point, but it is obviously a ticklish one for them.

If their Northern Alliance allies and their new friends in the Pushtun southeast have some unpleasant surprises in store for the U.S., it would hardly be the first time that Afghan factions have burned their foreign backers.

It was initially the U.S. that armed and financed the Islamists in Afghanistan. Then Pakistan backed the Taliban, enabling it to defeat its rivals. Now essentially the U.S. has done the Pakistanis one better by providing a sort of artillery support for the Northern Alliance and the Pushtun tribes beyond anything Pakistan could offer.

Moreover, any conflict in Afghanistan threatens to spread internationally. The mountainous country is the focus of a complex of potentially competing interests-Chinese, Pakistani, Russian, as well as Iranian. It seems unlikely that the U.S. will be able to hold all these balls in the air for very long.

The interim government set up by the accord among the anti-Taliban factions in Bonn at the beginning of December is clearly a basket of crabs, denounced by various Pushtun chiefs and now by the most notorious turncoat in the shifting sands of Afghan politics, General Dostum, the warlord of Mazar-i-Sharif.

And there is always the possibility that any dissident faction in Afghanistan will find a patron or patrons among the foreign powers contending for influence there.

In the long run, the fact that the United States was forced to turn on its long-standing Islamist allies represents a reduction of its options in the region. Islamism, moreover, is a giant ruin that continues to pose many stumbling blocks. Although the Pakistani military rulers have been forced to turn on the extreme wing of Islamism, religious ideology continues to be the basis of the Pakistani state.

History has shown that it is not so easy to keep the religious zealots under control. It will be even more difficult to find replacements for them.

The Pakistani government has now begun to try to trim the network of religious schools that provided the basis for the Taliban by integrating them into the state educational system and introducing secular subjects that supposedly will prepare the pupils for jobs in a modern economy. But in the neocolonial economy it is not likely that there will be jobs even for scientifically trained youths.

That is the case in most Third World countries, where it has not been possible to divert a large part of the youth into otherworldly education. And the disillusion will be correspondingly greater for young people who think their education is a preparation for life in this world rather than in another.

Although the Pakistani Islamists have suffered a severe defeat, the turning of the top military commanders, such as President Pervez Musharraf, against the Islamic ideology previously fostered by successive military regimes must have left deep wounds in the army and intelligence services.

Among other things, the Afghan war exposed the Pakistani government’s support for Islamist guerrillas operating in Kashmir, who in turn were intertwined with al Qaida. The Indian government and media are arguing that if the U.S. is serious about a war on terrorism, it should come down hard on Pakistan.

The Indian press and local people have reported that the Pakistani government evacuated selected people, probably military operatives, from the beleaguered city of Konduz in northern Afghanistan before it fell to the Northern Alliance. U.S. officials have supported Pakistan’s denials.

But there is convincing evidence that the stories are true and that therefore the United States has chosen to wink at the contradictions of the Pakistani regime. But winking at them will not remove them.

Pakistan has even had to detain and interrogate some of the top figures in its nuclear program because of their contacts with and apparent sympathies for the Islamists in Afghanistan.

Northern Alliance wants “Islamic state”

In Afghanistan itself, an editorial in the Dec. 3 issue of the Northern Alliance on-line journal, Peyam-e-Mujahed (published in Dari, the Afghan form of Persian), thundered, “an Islamic state, not a secular one.” The statement went on to say that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, that Islam is “democratic.”

But a religion-based state and democracy are like oil and water. The concept of the rule of divine law above the will of the people is fundamentally undemocratic, no matter which religion interprets it. This attempt to maintain an Islamic state means that the new authorities are going to continue to try to use religious ideology to suppress any struggles by the Afghan masses for a better life.

Undoubtedly, because of the international scandal created by the reactionary fundamentalism of the Taliban, the new imperialist-sponsored state authorities in Afghanistan have made certain concessions to international democratic opinion. These include allowing women to work outside the home and including two women in the interim government set up by the Bonn accord that is supposed to govern the “transition to democracy.”

But the Northern Alliance government in Kabul refused to allow women to march in support of their rights at the end of November, arguing that the security situation was too dangerous. (At the same time, the Nov. 22 issue of Peyam-e-Mujahed stressed that peace and tranquility now reigned in the Afghan capital.)

The diversion of mass anti-imperialist sentiment into Islamist channels in the Muslim world has led to a series of disasters for the liberation struggle, of which the current debacle in Afghanistan is only the latest. But despite the defeats the masses have suffered, there has been a certain accumulation of lessons that can strengthen their struggle in the future.

In the first place, when it is the masses who are determined, they can win victories, like the Iranian revolution of 1979. The protests in arms against imperialism have crystallized a deepening hatred among the oppressed masses for the imperialists and their local agents.

They also showed that a layer of young people are prepared to sacrifice everything and suffer any deprivation to fight against the humiliation and oppression of their people.

U.S. government representatives are now hinting, and the pundits of the bourgeois press are saying openly, that the U.S. rulers can afford to ignore the feelings of the masses in the Muslim world.

But a hatred so widespread and so intense as that revealed by the sympathy for bin Laden must eventually find more effective expressions. Moreover, the sufferings of the masses in the Muslim world have nothing to do with the ancient wars of religion. They are shared by all the peoples of the neocolonial world regardless of their religion.

The fundamental fact remains that the great majority of the world’s population is condemned to exploitation and brutalization by imperialist domination and they will never give up hope of escaping this curse.

And the more idealistic and open-minded elements in the imperialist countries, in particular the youth, will continue to recognize that a system based on the impoverishment of the great majority of the world’s population has, and should have, no future.

Finally, despite the fearsome display of destructive power by the United States, the struggle in Afghanistan was still decided by political and not military factors. If the United States had not been able to exploit the political weaknesses of the Taliban, its murderous bombing would have only inflamed the feelings of the people of the region against it.

Although the technological advances of the U.S. military represent a growing threat to the peoples of the world, they are not a solution to the challenges the U.S. rulers face in a world of seething discontent.