The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war

In the discussions on the question of anti-imperialism versus the necessity of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the gender dimension has been a much undertheorized one. While I am by no means a scholar of gender studies and barely qualified to speak at length on the topic, it has struck me that in the political dynamic around the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan this dynamic presents itself at least in part in the form of a politics of masculinity. This is true, it seems to me, of many of the major participants in the political and military conflict regardless of which ‘side’ they were on, and with an underlying drive not as dissimilar as has often been suggested. I can do no more than to vaguely sketch out my impression of this politics of masculinity, in the hope that some greater specialist can perhaps correct or elaborate upon this hunch. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because the interaction between gender and the ideology of politics is a potent one and has been throughout history, and it may serve to deflate somewhat the arrogance and pretensions of the different parties concerned with regard to their own significance and motives. Continue reading “The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war”

More on Afghanistan, Iran

Two developments from central Asia dominate the news: on the one hand, there is the higher pitch of battle in Afghanistan, where the new ‘surge’ strategy by America and its allies seeks to regain control over the wayward provinces and political stability, and on the other hand there is the nuclearization of Iran during a time of internal strife in that country. Just now, coalition forces together with the hastily drummed up ‘Afghan National Army’ are assaulting a Taliban stronghold in the backward and dangerous province of Helmand, attempting to dislodge the Taliban from the southern provinces and regaining the political initiative. This latter point is relevant because of the fiasco of the recent elections for the Afghan Presidency. These elections were widely suspected to be fraudulent, including by the foreign commission to supervise them, but more importantly perhaps the turnout for them was vastly lower compared to the first elections not long after the defeat of the Taliban. The cynicism which saw Hamid Karzai retain power despite the fraud and the manner in which he managed to call the Americans’ bluff when it came to replacing him over it will do nothing to reinvigorate the flagging Afghan confidence in their new government structures. Karzai in the meantime is attempting to consolidate his now more independent position. He has always been much more favorable to the warlords and more inclined to compromise with the old forces than the West and its supporters in the region enjoyed, but now the Americans have shown themselves unwilling or unable to find an alternative to his rule, he can more safely afford to ignore their political demands in the domestic arena. This is shown in practice by his proposed electoral law changes, which would make candidates for office highly more dependent on external financing (i.e. robbery and drug trade, like the warlords) and reduce the participation of women in national politics, much disliked by the traditionalists whom Karzai persistently seeks to win over.(1)

All of this therefore makes it clear that the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan have to make a good showing on the scene to regain the initiative and the attention of the Afghans. Everything depends on the degree to which the Afghan population overall perceives the current situation, including occupation, as superior to the alternatives. Continue reading “More on Afghanistan, Iran”

More Hypocrisy from the Imperialists

The Presidential elections in occupied Afghanistan have proven themselves to be as fraudulent as could be expected from a corrupt regime with little legitimacy or authority outside the nation’s capital, propped up by a national army led by one of the worst warlords of the nation’s past. Indeed, although the United Nations praised the fact the elections were held at all, the turnout was significantly lower than during the last elections under American occupation in 2004 (1). Then, some 70% of registered voters were estimated to have shown up, a number which has now dropped to an expected 40-50%. (2)

The widespread expectations of fraud, due to the manner in which the Karzai government has delegated its authority to local warlords in exchange for favors (presumably including favorable election results), so far look to have been justified. Continue reading “More Hypocrisy from the Imperialists”

Commentaries on the News (May 21, 2009)

A Bomb Plot in New York

News of today indicates that the FBI has proceeded to arrest in New York City a number of conspirators, prisoner converts to islam, who are alleged to have attempted to buy heavy weaponry to undertake terrorist attacks on various targets in the city.

The FBI arrested four men Wednesday in what authorities called a plot to detonate a bomb outside a Jewish temple and to shoot military planes with guided missiles.
Officials told The Associated Press the arrests came after a long-running undercover operation that began in Newburgh, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City.
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all of Newburgh, were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The men had planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives outside a temple in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale and to shoot military planes at the New York Air National Guard base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, authorities said.
In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert explosives to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.
The investigation had been under way for about a year.
In June 2008, the informant met Cromitie in Newburgh and Cromitie complained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the war there and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces, officials said.
Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing “something to America,” they said in the complaint.
Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, was briefed on the case following the arrests.
“This was a long, well-planned investigation, and it shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists,” said King, of New York.
The defendants, all arrested in New York City, were expected to appear in federal court in suburban White Plains on Thursday. They were jailed Wednesday night and couldn’t be contacted for comment. The FBI didn’t immediately return a telephone message Wednesday night seeking information on whether the men had lawyers.

It may immediately be emphasized that regardless of our quarrel with American policy at home and abroad, and perhaps with the structure of American society as it is now, nobody can expect the American government or its people to let themselves be targeted by terrorist groups seeking to ‘make a point’. Indeed, such activities are under current circumstances useless, as they do nothing to seriously damage American imperialism, they are likely to provoke a reactionary shift in American politics as a response to a perceived level of threat from inside and outside, and they are additionally likely to increase the general hostility towards the followers of Islam within the United States. All of these results are undesirable.

What it however also proves is the inanity of the supposed policy of the United States and its allies in waging war in Afghanistan and elsewhere in an attempt to wage ‘war on terror’, or to ward off the threat of terror. As the quote from the arrested themselves shows, the war in Afghanistan has provoked many, even safely inside the United States itself, to see the United States as such a menace to world peace and the survival of numerous peoples in the wider world, that they are as a result concluding that it is a legitimate target for terrorist strategies. In this way, the terror of sudden death from the air in Afghanistan today is translated into terror of sudden death by explosion for the inhabitants of New York City. Those who would take the ‘war on terror’ to the wider world are warned that if you inflame popular resentment against the United States and its allies, those fires may come to burn you. Wiser was the author of the Gospel of Matthew when he wrote: Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.2


The Lament of the Dongria Kondh

In other news, the native rights organization Survival International reports that the government of India has given permission to the British mining company Vedanta International to expropriate a holy mountain of the small Dongria Kondh people.3 The Dongria Kondh, about 8000 strong, live of hunting and gathering in a remote region of India, in which Vedanta is planning to undertake mining for bauxite, the valuable ore that is used in the production of aluminium.

This case is representative for countless such cases all over the world. While it must be said that it is not likely that peoples such as the Dongria Kondh can maintain their lifestyle in isolation from the world market and capitalist modernity forever, there is little reason nonetheless to applaud this blatant case of ‘primitive accumulation’ on the part of British capital and Indian government alike. The Dongria Kondh will not benefit by the creation of a bauxite mine, as it is likely that the expropriation of their customary land will cast them into the ever-swelling ranks of the proletariat of the underdeveloped nations.

Possibly they shall be forced by sheer necessity of survival to work in the same factory which has is the cause of their expropriation; here as ever capital acts as a vampire, sucking the blood of the living and ever seeking fresh bodies to exsanguinate. The productive capacities of modern society appear to the Dongria Kondh as Faustian machinery, to which they are to be sacrificed as were they ever so many victims of the Aztec sun gods, sacrificed so the sun of capital may ever bestow its light upon the world. The alternative is the disappearance entirely of the Dongria Kondh as they are pulled from their ancient fixed ways and thrown onto the dustbin of history. Being suddenly thrown into circulation as yet a fresh source of ‘free’ labor will be no blessing to these people, as it has never been to natives so uprooted from their land. The loss of land and the cohesion of community offered by the ancient ways of living destroys the independence and dignity of the communities involved as well as their means of survival.4 Few will adapt in time to the relentless machinery of capitalism, and those are likely to become Indian proletarians indistinguishable from any other of that great mass in time; all others shall die out, lamented and remembered only by anthropologists. Capitalism, after all, leaves not even a permanent tombstone for those it crushes under its wheels, a stronger Juggernaut than any hitherto seen in India. Much may be said about the backwardness of the tribal peoples in this region of the world as well as others, and we must not idolize their ossified isolation and neglect the often brutal and immovable internal hierarchies within the tribe, but if they are to be taken up into the ‘competition of peoples’, it must be done upon terms that can achieve a true Aufhebung, not Enclosure or destruction.

Earlier, tribal peoples were succesful in resisting another plan in the state of Orissa to mine the Gandhamardan mountain range, thanks to the solidarity of the Dalits, who have no reason to be enthousiastic about the ‘progress’ brought by foreign investment.5 That their objections often wore the cloak of mysticism and spiritualist superstition is to be rejected, but he who cannot stand naked before his enemies must go in the most effective battle-dress, which in many parts of the world is still religion.


An End to the Civil War in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government has jubilantly announced to the world their victory over their long-standing enemies of the LTTE, the nationalist insurgency of the Tamils of the north of the island. Photographs have been shown of the dead body of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE (generally known as the Tamil Tigers).6 The Tamil Tigers had a poor reputation, based on their use of suicide bombing, assassinations as well as recruitment of young soldiers, but the successive Sri Lankan governments often responded with equal violence and terror, even during the last stages of their recent campaign indiscriminately bombing Tamil fugitives, killing hundreds.

The origins of the conflict lie as usual in the history of British colonialism in the area. The British took Ceylon in 1796 from the Dutch, and transformed it from merely a fortified trading post into a veritable plantation for tea and indigo. Since the indigenous Sinhalese were resistant and considered untrustworthy workers, the British imported scores of Tamil from the south of India as plantation workers, and educated a small number of them to fill lower administrative colonial posts. This served the double advantage of lowering the costs of administration (a British official in the colonies being endlessly more demanding than a local and therefore unsuited for rote clerical tasks) as well as dividing the population of the island into two camps, making one dependent on British protection against the indigenous majority. Divide et impera has ever been the motto of imperial rule, especially in the direct exercise of sovereignty over colonies. Much harm has come from it in postcolonial times, as the disappearance of the old colonial power has given governments and militants in many a newly independent nation free rein to settle old ethnic and economic scores. Much here is worsened by religious bigotry between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Tamil, who are majority Hindu with a Christian minority. Both sides have treated the Muslims on Ceylon with contempt.

After the independence of the country in 1948, the Sinhalese majority increasingly sought to supplant the Tamil minority as rulers over the island, jealous of their privileged position relative to their numbers. Anti-colonial nationalism went hand in hand here, as often, with repression of minorities in the process of forging a strong national unity by the dominant ethnicity. The name of Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972 as part of this, although it must be noted the British have continued to use the island for military purposes, as was officially enshrining the dominance of the Sinhalese language. The Tamil resisted, initially politically, but voting along ethnic lines did nothing to diminish the potential for strife. The LTTE formed as a result of this repression of the Tamil and a subsequent search for a separate national state in the north, facing the Tamil region of India. The violence of the hammer of Sinhalese nationalism upon the anvil of Sri Lanka was countered by the LTTE with an equally fierce hammering of Tamil politicians and officials inclined to reconcile themselves to the situation, mostly in the form of assassinations. LTTE jealousy of any alternative Tamil organization and anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo and elsewhere led to a cycle of civil war that has lasted 26 years.

The main victims of this civil war have been the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of Sri Lanka both, neither of whom have gained much and both of whom have lost much in the endless strife. The civil war in Sri Lanka is but one example of the ways in which anti-colonialism has of necessity generally taken on nationalist forms, since only in the form of the nation-state can a people in the current political framework of capital claim and enforce their independence. Few indeed are inclined to federalism or power-sharing with any other group after centuries of oppression by outsiders, lack of self-determination and the dignity of independence, and purposeful policies of division by the colonial powers besides. Almost every ethnic-religious group in the underdeveloped world has followed the historical path of nationalist formation, with the advantage that the strength of the peoples in this vast majority of the world to resist imperialism and exploitation has greatly increased. But the price has been a steep one, and has been paid in the blood of many, especially by minority ethnic and religious groups in the respective newly minted states. These wars constitute the painful birth of the postcolonial world, and although lamentable cannot entirely be avoided. However, if the cycle of civil war, ethnic strife and militarist corruption is to end, the people of Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere must organize themselves on the basis of an internationalism that shows that they are no longer too insecure about their status as an independent people to extend a hand to their fellow exploited humans. Only when this is done and the workers of the world truly unite against exploitation, and fight for their emancipation not against each other but against capital, can the real development of their societies begin.

1. Associated Press (May 20, 2009).->
2. Matthew 26:52.->
3. Survival International, “Government approves controversial mine” (18 May 2009).>
4. There is much evidence on the negative impact of loss of native land claims on the peoples involved, in terms of survival as well as perception of well-being. See e.g. Survival International, “Progress Can Kill: How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples”.>
5. Peter Foster, “Mining in Orissa threatens Dongria Kondh tribe”, in: The Daily Telegraph (21 April 2008).->
6. “Sri Lanka’s 26-year war ends as LTTE leader Prabhakaran killed”. Indo Asian News Service (May 18, 2009).->

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.->