Imperialism’s Bloody Trail
Enduring Oppression and Infinite Injustice
The following is an edited version of a talk given by Tom Riley at several campuses in the Toronto area in early November 2001. Reprinted from 1917 No. 24.
We are a few weeks into a “war” between one of the poorest, most backward countries on earth and the world’s biggest and most advanced industrial society (which also happens to have ten times the population). And the larger power is backed by a “coalition” that includes every other imperialist country (including “brave, neutral” Canada). The mighty United States Air Force is engaged in systematically “degrading” what little remains standing in Afghanistan after 20 years of continuous civil conflict. Simon Jenkins of the London Times (a traditional mouthpiece of Britain’s conservative establishment) described the coalition campaign as follows:
So far more than a thousand Afghan civilians have been killed. Like the destruction of the World Trade Center, this is an exercise in monstrous criminality.
The U.S. was clearly going to make somebody pay for the attack on the “homeland”—but killing ten or a hundred thousand Afghans is not going to make the world a safer place for Americans or anyone else. Officially, of course, it is not a war on “Afghanistan,” but on “terrorism,” which the FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense define as:
The U.S. has used “force or violence” to coerce and intimidate civilians and overthrow other governments more regularly than any other state: in Guatemala in 1953, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Nicaragua throughout the 1980s, and there are lots of other examples. But none of them qualify as “terrorists” according to the FBI, because they were “lawful,” that is, authorized by the U.S. government.
On 9 October, two days after the bombing began, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte announced to the UN Security Council that Washington’s “war on terrorism” could be visiting other countries after Afghanistan. Iraq is widely thought to be next on the list, but Syria, Libya and various others have also been mooted as potential targets. John Pilger, writing in London’s liberal Guardian, pointed out that Negroponte was a particularly grotesque choice as America’s “anti-terrorist” messenger to the world because:
Global Capitalism: Infinite Injustice
The capitalist world system headed by the U.S. is based on massive, unending violence against the vast majority of humanity in the service of funnelling wealth from the poor to the rich within nations and between nations. The World Bank reports that half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Now, with economic indicators turning down, we are told to get ready for a period of generalized belt-tightening. For those trying to eke out an existence on $2 a day or less, things are going to become even more horrific. The impoverishment of billions of unfortunates at one pole is, of course, “balanced” by the enormous accumulation of wealth and power by a tiny elite at the other.
After the attack on 11 September, the U.S. Department of Defense published an outline of current U.S. military doctrine, signed by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It proclaims that America has “enduring national interests” in “access to key markets and strategic resources” everywhere on the planet, and asserts a U.S. right to overthrow non-compliant regimes:
The current “war on terrorism” is, above all, an exercise in “imposing the will of the United States.”
The Rise of Radical Islamism
To understand the chain of events that led to 11 September, we have to go back at least a few decades. In the early 1960s radical Islamic fundamentalists were generally regarded as a lunatic fringe by most of the Arab world—much as “creation scientists” are seen today in North America.
This began to change with Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Egyptian airforce was completely destroyed and Israel seized the Sinai peninsula. This shattered the prestige of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leading figure in the “Arab Revolution,” who in 1956 had successfully nationalized the Suez Canal and resisted the joint British-French-Israeli invasion. The fundamentalists claimed that Egypt, the cultural and political leader of the Arab world, had been defeated because it had turned away from Allah to embrace secular modernism.
The big breakthrough for the Islamists came in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi’s Peacock Throne and established an “Islamic Republic” in Iran. The Shah had come to power in 1953 in a CIA-engineered coup that overthrew the modernizing, nationalist regime headed by Mohammed Mosaddeq. To “stabilize” the Pahlavi dynasty, the CIA, with the help of Israeli intelligence, created SAVAK, Iran’s notorious political police. SAVAK imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of opponents of the regime. Iran under the Shah, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, was one of the pillars of American imperialism in the Middle East.
Islamic fundamentalism must, at bottom, be understood as a reactionary response to imperialist domination—an assertion by a section of the oppressed of their own cultural identity and a rejection of the values of their oppressors. One thing that radical Islamists (including Khomeini, bin Laden and the Taliban) have in common is opposition to social equality. They insist on the total and absolute subordination of women within the family, and their virtual exclusion from society. They are hostile to socialism, as well as Western capitalist ideology.
The “structural adjustment programs” pushed by the International Monetary Fund, and embraced by many domestic rulers in the region, opened the door to foreign capital penetration and cheap imports. Agriculture, indigenous manufacturing and many traditional occupations were dislocated by the sudden introduction of the “efficiencies” of the world market. The result was the growth of urban shantytowns full of impoverished former peasants who are today entirely dependent on the Islamic charities (run out of the local mosques) for healthcare, schooling and any other social services. These people constitute the mullahs’ mass base and can be summoned into the streets at any moment. But the cadres of the Islamist movement are chiefly recruited from members of the scientifically trained intelligentsia, who feel that they, not the current gang of corrupt imperialist lackeys, should be in power.
Imperialism & Reaction in Afghanistan
American intervention in Afghanistan dates back to 1978, when the CIA first backed Islamic reaction against the pro-Soviet Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA was a radical nationalist Stalinist formation, similar to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. In an interview published in Le Nouvel Observateur (15-21 January 1998), Zbigniew Brezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, revealed that CIA support to the mujahedin predated the Soviet intervention:
The interviewer asked Brezinski if, in hindsight, he had come to “regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?” He replied:
The mullahs, the moneylenders and the big landowners opposed the PDPA because of its decrees slashing debts, lowering the bride price (a major source of business for the moneylenders) and giving peasants the land they tilled. The PDPA had also abolished child marriage and initiated schooling for girls. The leaders of the “free world” instinctively sided with the Islamic reactionaries, just as revolutionaries defended the PDPA and their Soviet allies.
U.S. aid was directed toward the most fanatical of the mujahedin factions, on the grounds that they would be the most intransigent opponents of the Soviets. The U.S. also encouraged volunteers for the jihad to come to Afghanistan to fight the infidel. One of those who answered the call was a young Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. The CIA armed and trained the cadres of bin Laden’s organization and built the “terrorist training camps” that the U.S. Air Force has been bombing.
When the Kremlin bureaucracy betrayed their Afghan allies and pulled out Soviet troops in 1989, the U.S. lost interest in the conflict. The PDPA regime held out for three years before finally being overwhelmed by the Islamists. But the victorious mujahedin warlords, currently gathered together in the “Northern Alliance,” fell out among themselves in a savage power struggle which exacted a terrible toll on the civilian population.
Civil order in Pakistan was threatened by the continuing unrest across its border. The Pakistani intelligence agency, which had been the conduit for CIA support to the mujahedin throughout the 1980s, began to provide “active military support” to the Taliban, a fanatical Pashtun Muslim sect based in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. The Taliban enjoyed spectacular military success, toppling one warlord after another and in 1996 seized Kabul.
After taking power, the Taliban moved quickly to outlaw beard trimming, as well as music and dancing at weddings. They closed down all schools for girls and banned televisions, tape recorders, homing pigeons, and even kites. Under the Taliban, thieves are punished by amputation; adulterers are stoned to death; and political, religious and national minorities are brutally oppressed.
The discovery of major oil and natural gas deposits in Central Asia, immediately north of Afghanistan, in the early 1990s considerably increased Afghanistan’s geo-political significance, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted in a December 2000 report:
Initially, Washington welcomed the Taliban as a force for stability in Afghanistan. The State Department was pleased when the Taliban selected a consortium headed by UNOCAL, a major American oil corporation, to build a $2 billion natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. There were plans for awarding a similar contract for the construction of an oil pipeline. This would have given the U.S. access to Central Asian gas and oil fields bypassing both Iran and Russia—its two chief rivals in the region. The deal fell through in 1998 after Al Qaeda blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa prompting Bill Clinton to retaliate by launching 20 cruise missiles at Afghanistan.
One objective of the American “war on terrorism,” in addition to eradicating a hostile regime, is to increase U.S. leverage in Central Asia. The establishment of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both previously considered firmly within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, is a major step in that direction. The Russians have been assured that these installations are only “temporary”—but Putin no doubt recalls the solemn promises made to Gorbachev at the time the Berlin Wall came down that if the Soviets agreed to a united Germany remaining in NATO, no other former Warsaw Pact country would ever be allowed to join. Today Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are all NATO members, and most of the rest of the former Pact countries are on the waiting list.
A source of considerable irritation for the “coalition” partners thus far has been the ease with which bin Laden has been winning the “Spin War” for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the region. The explanation for this is pretty simple: bin Laden’s program is in tune with what most people in the area want. He has pledged to call off Al Qaeda’s jihad against the U.S. if three conditions are met. First, U.S. forces must leave Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two most holy sites. The second condition is that the sanctions against Iraq, that have killed over a million people, be ended. Thirdly, bin Laden demands an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state on these territories.
Most Americans wouldn’t find these demands objectionable, which is why they have been virtually blacked out. Bin Laden’s ultimate program is of course to impose fundamentalist Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East, but as a first step his chief concern is to expel the “infidels” from the region.
U.S. attempts to extinguish “terrorism” have certainly elevated the status of Al Qaeda among disaffected Muslims. If tens of thousands of Afghan refugees end up starving or freezing to death this winter, that support seems likely to increase further. The rulers of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (both officially supporters of the U.S. campaign) are concerned that a prolonged conflict may destabilize their regimes. But Washington appears determined to try to break Taliban resistance from the air, regardless of the toll on Afghan civilians, before risking American ground troops.
Taking the War to the Pashtuns
At this point it is difficult to predict the outcome of the conflict. The Taliban are deeply unpopular with many Afghans, but there is some evidence that the coalition terror bombing has solidified their support, just as the attack on the World Trade Center pushed up Bush Jr.’s ratings. The Taliban leadership appears to think their troops are well enough dug in to survive the worst that the U.S. Air Force can throw at them. The 26 October issue of Britain’s Tory Telegraph reported that the elite U.S. Delta Force was taken aback by fierce Taliban resistance when they staged a brief raid on an abandoned compound in the Kandahar region on 20 October.
The Taliban strategy apparently involves drawing out the conflict long enough and grinding up enough American soldiers to force the U.S. to withdraw. This is the lesson they have drawn from Reagan’s hasty retreat from Lebanon after the 1983 demolition of the U.S. Marine barracks, and Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia a decade later when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight with the forces of a local warlord. However, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, popular support in the U.S. for the assault on Afghanistan is much deeper than it was for intervention in either Lebanon or Somalia.
If the U.S. is serious about taking out the Taliban and creating a stable client regime in Afghanistan (rather than just providing aerial support for its Northern Alliance proxies or capturing Kabul) it will have to take the fight to the Taliban’s base area around Kandahar among the Pashtun population which straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. That could pose a whole new set of problems—as General Pervez Musharraf’s government seems likely to be an early casualty of such an assault. Instability in Islamabad conjures up a lot of nightmare scenarios given Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The War at Home
The U.S. rulers are using the “war against terrorism” to attack the hard-won democratic rights (and living standards) of American workers. More than a thousand people, mostly Arab immigrants, have been locked up indefinitely. The authorities are refusing to release their names or state what (if anything) they are charged with. There has also been talk of legalizing torture to speed up confessions, as they do in Israel. Here in Canada, Jean Chrétien’s government, which has backed the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan at every step, is pushing “anti-terrorist” legislation that amounts to a blank check for the government to harass and incarcerate anyone they don’t like.
The Bush Administration is using the current wave of xenophobic fervor to shower U.S. corporations with billions of dollars in retroactive tax rebates. It has also promised tens of billions in bailouts for the airlines and insurance companies. This is all going to be paid for by looting the social security “lock box” that was supposed to ensure that American workers don’t have to spend their retirements living in cardboard boxes and eating cat food.
When U.S. workers realize that this “war” is being waged on two fronts—against Afghanistan and against them—we could see an eruption of class struggle in the American “homeland.” It is worth noting that there is much less patriotic hysteria in the black population, which historically tends to be the most politically advanced section of the proletariat.
The job of Marxists in every country of the imperialist “coalition” is to struggle to win working people to see that they have an interest in defending Afghanistan against their “own” rulers. A single workers’ political strike against the war could have enormous political impact internationally—particularly in the Middle East—and help lay the basis for joint class struggle in the future.
The Taliban are the mortal enemies of the oppressed and must be overthrown—but this task, like the removal of the rest of the reactionary regimes in the region, falls to the oppressed and exploited, not to the imperialists. The worst outcome of this conflict, from the point of view of working people here and in the Middle East, would be for the U.S.-led “coalition” to score the sort of lop-sided victory it did over Iraq a decade ago. A cheap imperialist victory would set the stage for larger-scale and bloodier campaigns in the future.
Most of the ostensibly socialist left has responded to the imperialist attack on Afghanistan with pacifist, liberal bleating. When Tariq Ali was in Toronto six weeks ago, we asked him if he, as a former “International Marxist,” defended Afghanistan against imperialism. He answered with a flat “No!” The self-proclaimed Marxists of the International Socialists refuse to defend Afghanistan, and are instead pushing simple-minded pacifist calls to “Stop the War.” But the imperialists themselves want to “end the war” as soon as possible, as the 31 October issue of the New York Times reported:
The U.S. rulers want to “end the war swiftly” by escalating the killing! We would like to see a swift end to the war as well—but only through the immediate withdrawal of the “coalition” aggressors. Demands to “stop the war” are fine for pacifists—but revolutionaries have a side when imperialist predators attack neo-colonial countries.
Expropriate the Expropriators!
If a protracted imperialist campaign in Afghanistan goes badly, and casualties mount, it will strengthen the capacity of oppressed peoples and workers around the world to resist capitalist attacks. It would also be likely to weaken several of the regimes that have historically been closely identified with the U.S., including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
After two decades in power, Iran’s Islamic Republic appears rather brittle. Every major sporting event or other public occasion threatens to turn into a political demonstration against the rule of the mullahs. This is an important symptom of a developing pre-revolutionary situation. A successful uprising against the Shiite theocrats based on Iran’s powerful working class, led by a hard communist organization armed with a consistently revolutionary program, could touch off a wave of socialist struggle in the region, just as Khomeini’s victory in 1979 gave impetus to the Islamists.
Ultimately, the cycle of escalating brutality that characterizes imperialist rule will only be ended by eradicating the international system that forces the majority of humanity to live in poverty. This planet can only be cleansed of violence and irrationality through a revolutionary struggle to expropriate the expropriators and create a socialist planned economy on a world scale, in which production is geared to meeting human need, rather than maximizing private profit. Today this may seem a distant goal, but we of the International Bolshevik Tendency believe that not only is it possible, but that there is no other way out for humanity.