The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan

Another failure for U.S. imperialism

     Now that they are back in power, what will the Taliban do?  Much reflection on the question is influenced by the Taliban’s well-deserved ill fame in harboring terrorists and in violating the most fundamental rights of women and girls.

     But perhaps we should proceed with caution.  The Taliban is not Al Qaeda nor the Islamic State of recent notoriety.  In fact, I came across reports that maintained that the Taliban was fighting Al Qaeda, while the U.S. government was supporting Al Qaeda and similar thugs in the pursuit of its amoral objectives in the region.

     The world is different today than it was when the Taliban were last in power.  China has forged an alternative road to economic ascent, different from the path of conquest and superexploitation forged by the European colonial powers, characterized by mutual beneficial relations among nations.  In this project, China has the cooperation of Russia, key nations in East Asia and the Middle East, the Non-Aligned Movement, G-77, and progressive and socialist governments in Latin America.  In this historic moment, it is very much in the interests of a Taliban government in Afghanistan to develop trading and diplomatic relations with these nations.

     The case of Iran is perhaps illustrative.  When the new role of China in international affairs began to emerge, when the Non-Aligned Movement recovered its classic voice demanding national and social liberation for the Third World, and when Latin American political reality became transformed by the emergence of nations demanding their real sovereignty, the Islamic Republic of Iran became incorporated in this process as a fully accepted and respected member of the alternative international community being forged from below, even though the Islamic Revolution that triumphed in Iran in 1979 had political and ideological roots fundamentally different from the founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement.  The rapprochement between Iran and the Third World is illustrated by the election of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement in 2013, and by the repeated declarations by the Non-Aligned Movement that every nation has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

      The current socio-economic situation in Afghanistan must be attended, if political and social stability is to be attained.  UNESCO has reported that 43% of its population is illiterate; and that some 40% of the population is affected by hunger and malnutrition.  The new government in Afghanistan will need trading relations and economic aid, and it already has announced its desire to develop relations with China, Russia, and Iran.  In fact, Afghanistan could play a role in the Chinese “new silk road.”

        The interest of the Taliban in developing mutually beneficial economic relations with other nations could have an effect on its policies toward the rights of women and girls, because flagrant violations on this issue, out of conformity with international norms, would likely adversely affect its prospects for developing international relations with beneficial consequences. 

      If a Taliban government in Afghanistan were to develop positive economic and diplomatic relations with Iran, China, Syria, and Russia, the USA would not have the right to falsely declare that such comportment is a threat to its national security.  Such relations might adversely affect U.S. economic interests in the region, but they would be fully in accordance with the principles formulated in the Charter of the United Nations.  Sovereign nations have the right to develop economic relations with one another, without interference from a global power. 

      Nor would the United States have a right to use violations of the rights of women and girls as a pretext for an economically-motivated intervention.  All entities interested in the protection of the rights of women and girls should do so through example, reason, persuasion, appeal to international norms, and the development of economic and social projects, not through military aggression nor economic sanctions.  Democracy cannot be imposed.

     U.S. foreign policy must liberate itself from its knee-jerk interest in imposing its imperialist economic objectives.  Vietnam, Cuba, and Afghanistan have demonstrated the impossibility of doing so, as do the recent roles in international affairs exhibited by China, Russia, and the Non-Aligned Movement.  U.S. foreign policy must be reframed, so that the nation can debate the defense of U.S. interests in the context of an emerging new world order that respects the sovereignty of nations.

     In our public discussion of Afghanistan, we often lose sight of the extent to which there was a historic relation between progressive Afghans and the Soviet Union that dated to the 1920s, which was being developed by progressive Afghan nationalists as a wedge against British imperialism.

    Throughout the Islamic World in the 1920s, in the wake of the Western European conquest of Islamic Empires, there emerged a school of political thought known as secular modernism, which included nationalism and a commitment to develop a modern nation-state, forged by intellectuals and professionals of the middle class.  The secular modernists were Muslims, but they attempted to interpret their religious faith in accordance with modern tendencies.  At the same time, they were anti-imperialist; they wanted to break the grip of the Western powers over their peoples.  They therefore confronted the West as “revolutionary anti-colonialists rather than as zealous Muslims,” in the words of the Iraqi-American writer Tamin Ansary.1  They constituted a third way, between Islamic traditionalism and Western imperialism. 

     However, in the 1920s, the Islamic secular modernists lacked popular support.  Although traditional religious Islam was beaten and subdued in the aftermath of colonial domination, it nevertheless was pervasive.  Everywhere, radical fundamentalists presided over rural mosques. But the modern world had arrived, so the secular modernists believed that the future belonged to them.

    The modernist Islamic third way gained force in the 1950s and 1960s, with the emergence of the revolutionary Third World project of national and social liberation, which rejected the imperialism of the West and at the same time sought to move beyond a traditionalism shaped by impractical adherence to the beliefs of the pre-colonial and pre-modern past.  In the Arab world, the Third World project was most fully represented in the 1950s and 1960s by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.  In 1952, Nasser led a group of young military officers in overthrowing a corrupt monarchy that was subservient to European interests.  The officers represented various strains of Egyptian political thought, including nationalism, Islamic modernism, the Muslim Brotherhood, communism, and Pan-Arabism.  Once in power, Nasser forged the ideology of Arab socialism or Islamic socialism, by which he meant a socialist society built on a foundation of the principles of Islam.  Nasser’s government took decisive anti-imperialist steps: it nationalized the Suez Canal and foreign companies and banks; it refused to participate in military alliances against the Soviet Union; it purchased arms for the modernization of its army from Czechoslovakia, avoiding the political conditions that were tied to the U.S. offer of arms; and it recognized the People’s Republic of China.  Egypt became a center for solidarity organizations from Africa and Asia as well as for nationalist organizations of the Arab world.  Nasser was one of the leading voices (along with Sukarno of Indonesia, Nehru of India, and Tito of Yugoslavia) in the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.  During the period 1956 to 1967, Nasserism was the hope of the Arab world.

     In general, the West reacted by seeking to block the creation of the more just world-system that Third World revolutionary nationalists advocated. The strategy of the West was to support the Third World economic and social sector that was tied to Western interests and that advocated an accommodationist nationalism, subordinate to the interests of the West.  In the particular case of the threat pose by Nasserism in the Arab world, the West supported a project of “development” directed by the Arab elite. 

     The “development” project of the Arab elite promoted a form of religious fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, named for the eighteenth-century Arabian cleric Abdul Wahhab.  In the context of the unfolding European domination of the Islamic world, Wahhab called upon Muslims to eliminate Western influences and to return to the pure, original form of Islam.  As it developed, Wahhabism preached that Muslims ought to follow literally and exactly the Islamic laws on prayer, fasting and alms-giving.  It taught that jihad is a religious obligation, and it defined the enemies of Islam as including Muslims who loosely followed Islamic laws, who were hypocritical in their practice of Islamic, or who introduced innovations into Islamic theology and practice.  This traditional and literal approach to Islam had attained enormous influence throughout the Islamic world by the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly among the rural poor. 

      In promoting literal interpretations of Islam such a Wahhabism, the established upper social classes sought to derail the progressive and socialist readings of the Islamic tradition that were integral to the Nasserist Third World agenda.  Saudi Arabia played a leading role in this ideological strategy of Islamic literalism.  And the strategy was supported by the USA, which also gave full political, economic and military support to monarchies and dictatorships in the region, as alternatives to Nasserism.

     The defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967 was a turning point.  Nasser never recovered from the loss of prestige, and Saudi Arabia emerged as the regional leader, displacing Egypt.  And Islamic literalism spread at a rapid pace.  In addition to the Six-Day War, there were various reasons for the rapid spread of Islamic literalism: the limited gains of the revolutionary Third World project of national and social liberation, blocked by the West; the limited capacity of the Nasserist project to deliver on its promise of autonomous national economic and social development, inasmuch as it was hampered by Western opposition and sanctions; the growing class inequalities generated by accommodationist governments in the region; the undignified subordination of accommodationist nationalism to Western economic interests; and the evident hypocrisy of accommodationist politicians with respect to nationalist aspirations.  Islamic literalism was a turn to the past, driven by a loss of faith in the future that Nasser had envisioned; and driven as well by a rejection of accommodationism, for its lack of dignity.  In the 1970s, developmentalism and modernism remained the dominant discourse of the elites who managed states, but Islamic literalism had become the most influential theory and practice among the marginalized and excluded of the Islamic world.

    A particular version of this drama unfolded in Afghanistan.  In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan had been a zone of competition between the empire of Czarist Russia to the north and the British empire expanding from India to the south.  It was a territory of “hostile and mutually antagonistic tribes,” in the words of Ansary.  The imperialist powers found that the territory could be militarily occupied, but Afghans were difficult to control, inasmuch as they formed guerilla bands that operated from the hills.  So the two imperialist powers agreed to a buffer zone between the British and Russian empires, a territory that would become Afghanistan, in which Afghan kings were able to forge a kingdom under the tenuous control of a central government in Kabul, seeking to keep imperialism at bay, which was British imperialism after October 1917.

     In 1919, after a three-month war with British India, Afghanistan gained independence from Great Britain.  King Amanullah Khan, who had been tutored in secular modernism, sought to integrate Afghan social groups into a nation state and attain full sovereignty in practice in the context of a colonial world order.  He enacted modern reforms, including a liberal constitution, the liberation of women, a secular school system, and a dress code of no veils, no beards, and no turbans.  He approached the new revolutionary government in Moscow, which provided help in the construction of roads, dams, power plants, factories, hospitals, and office buildings.  The Afghan government also developed airline companies, newspapers, and radio stations.  A university was founded, and women were drawn into the public sphere.  During the 1920s, thousands of Afghan students attended technical schools and universities in the Soviet Union.

    But the new constitutional order, even with Soviet support, was unable to free itself from the dominance of tribal society, which was shaped by Pashtun tradition, in which authority was concentrated in local and regional assemblies guided by elders or wise men.  The Pashtun constituted 40% of the Afghan population.  Other ethnic groups were excluded from both the new constitutional order being created by the King and the traditional assemblies of the Pashtun tribes. 

     The new constitutional order was a threat to imperialist interests.  So, the British supplied guns to radical, fundamentalist local clerics, driving the King into exile.  But rule by the fundamentalists was short lived.  The British recognized a new king, Nadir Shah, a cultural nationalist whose form of modernism did not challenge British imperialist interests.  He established social stability by revising the constitution to recognize the special authority of the assemblies of the tribes, thus giving them de facto independence.  British imperialism was back in charge, with the pretense of a supposedly sovereign nation of Afghanistan, and with the de facto independence of rural tribal societies.

     Nadir was assassinated in 1929, but his model was followed by his son, Mohammad Zahir, who reigned until 1973.   During the reign of Mohammad Zadir, the nationalist and progressive currents of thought that had entered the country in the 1920s remained alive in the capital of Kabul, inspired and sustained by observations of the experiences of the nearby lands of the Soviet Union, where more equal societies were emerging. 

     During the 1960s, in a time in which currents of national liberation and socialism were sweeping the Third World, Afghan-Soviet relations were renewed.  The Kabul Polytechnic Institute, a joint Afghan-Soviet project dedicated to the education of Afghan engineers and geologists, was established.  In 1965, national democratic revolutionary currents united to form the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). 

      In 1973, Mohammad Zahir Shah was overthrown by his nephew, Muhammad Da’ud, with the support of the national bourgeoisie and some elements of the PDP.  The monarchy was abolished and an Afghanistan Republic was proclaimed.  A reform program was announced, focusing on expanding the industry and infrastructure of Kabul, combined with road building to connect the capital to regions that were not linked to the state’s sovereignty.  In addition, the army was strengthened through an intensive officers’ training course in the Soviet Union.

    In 1978, Da’ud was overthrown in a bloody coup by military officers associated with the PDP, as a result of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform.  The PDP government, initially led by Muhammad Taraqi, launched extensive land reform, which included the cancellation of peasant debts, on January 1, 1979.  In addition to land reform, its program of social and economic equality, carried out with significant Soviet aid, included: equal rights for minority nationalities; increased access to education, medical care, decent housing, and sanitation; price controls and reduced prices for key food items; literacy programs for men and women; the inclusion of women in the professions and in government; and projects of infrastructure construction, mining, and agriculture. The expropriation of land provoked violent resistance from the landlords, who received aid from the United States and Pakistan.

     Soon after taking power, a power struggle emerged within the PDP government.  Taraqi was assassinated in September 1979.  Hafiz Allah Amin, the headstrong leader of the leftist-socialist wing of the PDP, took over the affairs of state and mercilessly attached enemies in a dictatorial form.  In this context, Afghan politicians involved in the power struggle requested Soviet military intervention.  From November to December 24, 1979, nearly 100,000 Soviet troops arrived.  On December 27, 1979, Tajik Babrak Karmal of the PDP was proclaimed president. 

     The Islamist resistance to Soviet military presence in Afghanistan was backed with money and arms by the Saudi-financed World Muslim League, which generally supported Islamic literalists, and by the CIA, which hoped to involve the Soviet Union in an unwinnable war.  Direct support of the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a new turn for U.S. policy, which previously had supported the Islamic insurgency indirectly through support of Saudi Arabia.  The eight-year anti-Soviet guerrilla war empowered the country’s Islamist ideologues and attracted zealots from around the Muslim world, now packaged as freedom fighters against Soviet military occupation. 

     After the Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the beleaguered PDP government managed to function for three more years.   With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Afghan communists, the USA disengaged from Afghanistan, making no effort to rebuild the war-torn country.  The jihadists made Afghanistan, now reduced to a rubble, as their base of operations for a war against the West.

     Amidst the turmoil and fighting among warlords, the Taliban in 1994 attained a following quickly, as a result of their promise to put Islamic values first and to put an end to corruption.  In 1995, a New York Times correspondent reported that a “new force of professed Islamic purists and Afghan patriots” have taken military control of more than 40% of the country.  Just a year before, many of the fighters had been students, which is the meaning of “Taliban.”

      When the Taliban came to power over most of Afghanistan in 1996, they declared an Islamic Emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of the Quran, including brutal public punishments.  Women were barred from most jobs; and girls and women were excluded from schools.  Women caught outside the home with their faces uncovered risked severe punishment.  Not tolerating rival religious practices, the Taliban destroyed 800-year-old Buddhist statues.

     The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban government did not comply with U.S. demands to turn over Al Qaeda leaders who had planned the September 11 attack.  The United States routed the Taliban and occupied Afghanistan, and Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders fled to Pakistan.  They were not pursued by American forces, so Pakistan evolved into a safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

     The United States turned to nation building in Afghanistan.  A pro-Western government was installed; new hospitals and schools were built.  Girls, barred from education under Taliban rule, attended schools.  Women went to college and jointed the work force.  However, corruption was rampant, and hundreds of millions of dollars intended for construction was stolen.  At the same time, the Taliban re-established their capacity to fight, and they inflicted increasingly heavy casualties on Afghan security forces.  The Taliban began gaining ground, particularly in rural areas.  Their numbers grew; the Afghan diaspora in Pakistan was a rich recruiting area, among the youth of families that had fled the violence in Afghanistan, who had been brought up in religious schools.

     At the end of 2014, U.S. forces disengaged from combat, confining their role to training and assisting Afghan security forces.  In 2018, the Trump administration began negotiations with the Taliban.  And on February 29, 2020, the USA and the Taliban signed a peace agreement, with provisions including the withdrawal of all regular American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control, and the initiation of talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.  The agreement was supported by China, Pakistan, and Russia, and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. 

     With Afghan security forces weakened by desertions, low recruitment, poor morale, and the theft of pay and equipment by commanders; and suffering high casualty rates at the hands of the Taliban; the end was near.  Following an announcement by the Biden administration of a U.S. withdrawal deadline of August 31, the Taliban militarily retook the national territory with surprising speed, reminding many analysists of the fall of Saigon in 1975.

      As usual, news accounts distract the people through attention to the less important.  They look for signs that the Taliban will return to its oppression and brutality of the past, when it really is too soon to know.  And they focus on the chaos, often blaming the Biden administration.  To be sure, the ignominious retreat of a once great superpower could have been better organized, but such dramatic shifts in power often are messy, if they are true shifts in power, and not merely a transition to a new form of domination.

     The fall of Afghanistan makes it evident that imperialist support for Islamic literalism has backfired.  That opportunistic and cynical policy has led to the dissemination of Islamic fundamentalism, undermining a normal evolution toward a modern reformulation of the essential principals of Islam, which could have been central to the development of more cooperative economic and political relations between Western and Islamic civilizations, with implications for the world-system as a whole.  Subsequently, the U.S. turn to direct economic and military support of Islamic fighters in the 1980s generated a new form of terrorism, characterized by the indiscriminate killing of civilians, directed against the West and its allies.  Thus, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are consequences, perhaps not entirely unintended, of aggressive imperialist policies.

      Moreover, the construction of a viable pro-U.S. government in Afghanistan was doomed from the beginning.  There are two natural indigenous political forces in the colonized regions: traditionalism, with age old religious beliefs and particular loyalties; and anti-colonial national liberation, which is secular (but not anti-religious), and which seeks to forge a unified national identity, overcoming ethnic differences.  The Western strategy of supporting an accommodationist sector against the national liberation revolution can work for a period of time in particular circumstances, in which the colonial process itself has created a significant economic and social sector that has interests in common with the colonial powers, as has occurred in Saudi Arabia.  But these conditions did not exist in Afghanistan in 2001.  In Afghanistan, political leaders backed by the United States did not have the remotest possibility of developing a modern nation-state subordinated to the USA. 

      In such a neocolonial situation, where political leaders cannot promote the good of the nation, they normally turn to corruption, with the intention of at least helping their extended families and friends.  And in such a neocolonial situation, the armed forces have the undignified role of carrying out the policies of imperialist masters, and repressing the people when necessary; thereby generating a lack of commitment in the security forces.  Thus, the rapid collapse of the government of Afghanistan in recent days, lacking the support of the people for its corruption, and with security forces unwilling to defend it, is entirely predictable from a vantage point rooted in attentive observation of the characteristics of the neocolonial world order.  Nothing other could have been reasonably expected.

     For its part, the Cuban government has remained silent thus far on the return of the Taliban to power.  Perhaps the Cuban Revolutionary Government is cautious because of the Taliban’s record with respect to women’s rights and association with terrorism, two issues concerning which Cuba has taken a clear and unambiguous stand in word and in deed.  Thus far, Cuban newspaper and television analysts have focused on the failures of U.S. policies with respect to Afghanistan; they have stopped short of celebrating the Taliban return as another victory of the anti-imperialist forces of the world.

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Preface - April 6, 2021

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Ansary is the author of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes.