The Challenge of the Taliban

While the American government has decided to prematurely discharge their commander in Afghanistan, McKiernan, from his job and to replace him with a special forces specialist, the army of Pakistan is undertaking a renewed offensive against the Taliban-identified forces in the tribal areas and the Swat valley. This valley used to be an idyllic holiday spot for the Pakistani elite – the entire region is known for its natural beauty due to its rugged characteristics, which greatly hinder operations by modern conventional armies, but give it a great romantic charm – but now some 800.000 are said to have fled as the hammer of war beats the population on the anvil of tribal fanaticism. We can safely assume that the Pakistani army will succeed in driving the Taliban from the areas in the Swat valley that are accessible and relatively close to the capital, since if only for reasons of prestige they cannot fail at this. But Pakistan’s central authority has not had real control over the tribal lands and border area with Afghanistan for a great length of time, and the Taliban resurgence is for an important part to be credited to precisely this; the totally ineffective nature of central government and its bureaucracy in the area has led to passive local support for tribal leaders and clerical authorities resorting to their own measures, which are invariably based on the strictest and cruelest forms of implementation of Islamic religious law and local customs.

Of itself, there is nothing whatever positive to report about either the ideology or the measures of the Taliban (or the medley of tribal-clerical forces operating under this name), neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan. But some counter-points must be made.

First of all, the Western presence in Afghanistan is not justified by the ferociousness and cruelty of the Taliban, since not only does the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the population increase rather than decrease support for the insurgents, but the West as always to retain control is forced to make opportunistic alliances with warlords, sometimes reincarnated as provincial Governors, many of whom are no better than the Taliban. The commander of the Afghan National Army is the feared Tajik warlord Rashid Dostum, whose violent and cruel nature surely matches that of his opponents. With Afghanistan’s reform-minded central government having a very weak urban base in this backward and rural country, reliance on one criminal to defeat the other is inevitable. It does nobody any good for the Western troops to be involved in this.

Secondly, tales of the cruelty of the old leaders, the tyranny of the rulers and the immorality of the barbarian laws have been a pretext for imperialist activity and occupation since the Enlightenment, if not before. Many will perhaps remember still the use of the practice of suttee, or widow-burning, in certain Hindu upper classes being a pretext for British occupation of India. V.G. Kiernan in his excellent history The Lords of Human Kind gives many examples of this. The Mahdi revolt, finally repressed by Kitchener, was described as “unparallelled for horror and human depravity”.1 The disbanding of the Turkish empire was permitted because of its “centuries of unremitting misrule”, its “roguery, corruption and falsehood and deep anti-social selfishness”.2 Bukkhara was to be conquered by Russia because its ruler, the Emir Nasrulla Khan, was “an embodiment of all the country’s degeneracy, an unredeemed tyrant kept going by a swarm of spies, reactionary clergy, and executioners”, and the Khanate of Khiva “weighed down by the most course and unbridled despotism”, its people known for “treachery, mendacity, cruelty and rapacity”.3 The Malays were “the most fierce, treacherous, ignorant and inflexible of barbarians”, which practically begged for conquest; as a certain Major McNair therefore concluded, “it may be taken for granted that amongst the most enlightened Malays there is a disposition to welcome the English”.4 Indeed, no surprise then that a certain George Borrow remarked about the campaign to conquer Sarawak: “What a crown of glory, to carry the blessings of civilization and religion to barbarous, yet at the same time beautiful and romantic lands…”5 This might as well have been a relatively eloquent American officer in Afghanistan today.

Of course, we may have every cause to be enthousiastic about the defeat of such reactionary clergy, local landlords and tribal robber chieftains as can be found among the Taliban. Compared to the feudal serf relations and the religious darkness of old, capitalism and the world market are beyond any doubt an advance. But things are no longer as clear in that regard as they may have been in the 1800s. After all, Afghanistan is already in the world market, as is proven by the agricultural produce of the country, in particular in those areas occupied by the Pashtun landlords favoring the Taliban. If religion is the opium of the people, then in Afghanistan opium surely is the religion of the people. It is by far the most valuable cash crop that the country can produce under current circumstances, and its integration in the world market is shown by the opium of Kandahar becoming the heroin of Los Angeles.

Moreover, as will be shown in a later article on this topic, capitalism does not always relieve the peasantry of semi-feudal burdens or the yoke of feudalistic landlordism. A greater social revolution among the peasantry is needed to achieve this, destroying the landlord class and turning peasants into farmers, while pushing the excess rural population into the cities. This process is the only guarantee of modernization having staying-power in formerly backward areas, as even now Russia shows: impoverished, battered but modern in outlook, despite the recent resurgence of racism out of despair. During the times of the Soviet Union, Russia underwent this process irreversibly, and this has been the guarantee of its future being free of the ignominious backwardness and ignorance of Czarist times. While we encourage the Pakistani government to defeat the Taliban in their regions, and we also hope that after the departure of the Western occupiers the Afghan people will be able to do the same to their variegated warlord groups locked in struggle, from a Marxist perspective it is inevitable that any government to have lasting success in the region must force this revolution upon the peasantry of the mountains of Central Asia, or the peasantry must do this themselves and free themselves of landlordism. The failure of the Babrak Karmal government and its successors to do the former indicates that perhaps the best chance would be the latter, but historical evidence seems to indicate that more often than not the peasantry, when not yet pulled out of ancient tribal and religious modes of thought, is self-defeatingly stubborn, and may require a ‘push’. This is the challenge the Taliban poses: can the countryside of these regions, among the most backwards on the planet, undergo social revolution on its own strength? For it to do this, it requires the oxygen of self-determination, and continued occupation of Afghanistan by Western powers strangles it.

1.V.G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire (Boston, MA 1969), p. 216.->
2.Ibid., p. 114.->
3.Ibid., p. 100-101.->
4.Ibid., p. 83.->
5.Ibid., p. 86.->

Comments

All in all your two posts on Afghanistan have presented a very interesting case for why America and NATO should not be involved, and you’ve dismantled a number of arguments for keeping a foreign military presence on Afghan soil. But you ignore the intention of the invasion from the beginning: to prevent another attack on the United States.

I think this is more of a problem with academic writing and thinking and it’s why academics are not trusted in government (at least here in the US). You make all these good sounding arguments, but at the end it’s all a bit pointless because the threat of transnational “terrorist” groups — or whatever you want to call them — killed several thousand people in Manhattan one morning. Americans simply won’t tolerate that happening again. So ultimately you have to make a case for whether leaving Afghanistan or laying off the various Jihadist organizations will keep the US safe from attack.

And you make an interesting point in your previous piece. You say, the failure of the US to capture Osama Bin Laden reflects poorly on national prestige. Surely if the US were to utterly abandon the fight it would be much for the worse? It’s possible such a defeat and subsequent loss of prestige would embolden enemies of the US to press home their victory. Such concern made up a large part of the rationale for the invasion post attacks on New York and Washington. If the US doesn’t go on the offensive, and stay on the offensive, then we’re only inviting more attacks — the strategists assumed.

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