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”

Prison Camp America

Today, the news came that the United States Court of Appeals in Sacramento, California, has ordered the state government of Governor Schwarzenegger to free 40.000 prisoners, an estimated 25% of the total prison population of that state. The immediate cause is the immense overcrowding in the prisons, which even after implementation of the measure would operate at 137.5% of capacity, and currently operates at almost 200%. (1) This is however not an isolated phenomenon. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, not just in absolute numbers (some 2 million), but also relative to population. It significantly surpasses such bulwarks of freedom as China and Russia, and according to official statistics, even North Korea. Blacks but also Hispanics in the United States are disproportionately part of this burgeoning prison population, and in fact more so than in the past, indicating a ferocious war against the American underclass and especially its minority members that has been going on since the 1960s. The black imprisonment is now seven times higher than the white one, whereas during the days of segregation and the civil rights movement, this was four times. (2) Continue reading “Prison Camp America”

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.->

On the Present War in Afghanistan

The multinational, NATO-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, undertaken in response to the terrorist attack by the islamist organization Al-Qaeda who were said to have been harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban government, has developed into a disastrous quagmire. Not only has it proven impossible for the imperialist powers of NATO to actually control events in Afghanistan and prevent continuous attacks on their soldiers as well as on the institutions of the newly planted government of Hamid Karzai, but the presence of NATO forces has greatly strengthened both the force and popularity of the Taliban.

The Taliban itself was mostly a Pakistan-based Pashtun organization, appealing to religious sentiment to form a coherent force, which drove out the extortionist warlords of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani and others from the Afghan lands. However, their religious and anti-modernist inventions of tradition with regard to the demands of islam in Afghanistan itself quickly made them not only a byword for deepest obscurantism and religious fanaticism internationally, but also made them intolerable for the Afghan population themselves. Various warlords continued to combat them, while the Afghan people were waiting for an opportunity to rid themselves of all the different forces attempting to subjugate them altogether. However, all experience has shown that all peoples prefer the devil they know to any foreign invader, even if the latter operates under the flag of supposed liberation of the people involved, and Afghanistan also proves this rule true. The Taliban are now stronger than ever, since the devastation wrought by the imperialist forces has caused many an Afghan villager to join the forces of religious illusion, which at least provides the benefits of suggesting a kind of heavenly justice where no earthly order or control can be found. It has also strongly repudiated the foreign occupation of the country, unlike the few imported Afghan liberals which mostly appear as collaborators to a harrassed population seeking peace. The Taliban moreover have a reputation for resisting corruption, as many islamist movements do, and Karzai’s government has been nothing if not corrupt.

What then is the purpose of occupation? Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan himself has stated the following: “First of all, the victory, as defined in purely military terms, is not achievable, and I cannot stress that too highly. (…) What we’re looking for is the definition of our vital national security interests”.1 Holbrooke recognizes the impossibility of victory even as thousands more soldiers are sent into the country, many pulled out of the other failed American adventure in ‘nation-building’, Iraq. But what then are these national security interests Holbrooke speaks of? Indeed the American government feels aggrieved because the spectacle of the terrorist attacks on New York City itself, heart of the empire of capital, was according to them planned and undertaken from the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the least developed areas on earth, where old feudal ties and religious barbarism are still strong. The weakest of all attacking the strongest of all in their own base is an example to the world of a kind that the American empire cannot afford.

Yet that is not all. For although enthousiastic American military press articles would have us believe that the fight against their shadowy enemy of Al-Qaeda has achieved major victories with the elimination of some of their top leaders, this is of itself a sideshow. Indeed, the US shows little interest in even bothering with finding Osama Bin Laden, despite this renegade son of the Saudi elite having been depicted as the veritable puppetmaster of ‘international terror’ and the anti-Christ of Western morality for years; by which is meant that prolongation of his very existence after his attack on New York City would be a continuous loss of prestige on the part of the United States and the wealthy nations in general. If they are willing to accept that loss now, what then keeps them in these barren lands?

There are several considerations. The first here is the fact that Afghanistan is the primary producer in the world of opium. That addictive soporific that British imperialism used to destroy the Chinese empire has now turned against its manipulators: the highly addictive drug heroin is produced by means of opium, and heroin is considered a serious blight and instability problem in the Western nations, where great wealth allowing purchase of exotic drugs goes together with great despair and alienation making that purchase desirable. The Taliban, who do not desire any illusions other than their own brand of religious fanaticism, had actually succesfully wiped out much of the opium production in 2001.2 The newly installed pro-Western government in Afghanistan however has not been so successful, since the warfare in Afghanistan has destroyed most opportunities for growing regular crops – indeed, Afghanistan now again produces 92% of the world’s opium, representing half the annual product of the country.3 The Taliban of course have recognized this situation, and are now supporting the opium growers, whom they ‘tax’, providing their main source of income for warfare against the occupiers. Since they no longer attempt to repress the only viable crop in the drought and war-ridden countryside of Afghanistan, this has greatly increased the fervor for islamism on the part of the Afghan farmers. Of course, the effects of opium on Afghanistan’s own institutions can be foreseen: if mighty China’s celestial bureaucracy, the oldest and strongest on earth, could be torn apart by the corruption due to opium within the span of a few decades, what resistance then could former warlords, now government officials, offer to the bribery of the drug trade? The imperialists’ weapon of old is now undermining their very efforts at providing a modern and capital-friendly structure to Afghanistan’s institutions. Yet they dare not give up on it, not just because of the great amount of government and police officials in the United States who are parasitic upon the drug trade and depend on its continued yet ever-failing ‘war on drugs’, but also because if they cannot even determine what crops Afghan farmers shall sow, then this is truly an admission of total defeat in the effort to control Afghanistan’s economy. Indeed, the various invading powers have even had to resort to the ignominious weapon of counter-bribery, but this has mostly failed. This should come as no surprise since local production prices come to about thirty-three dollars from an acre of wheat, and between five hundred and seven hundred dollars from an acre of poppies.3

Karzai’s weakness has also left Afghanistan as wracked by class and ethnic differences as it ever was, meaning that any attempt at ‘nation-building’ by the NATO forces is going to be an exercise in futility, comparable to the game of whack-a-mole. The corruption inherent in the newly installed government has mostly benefited the local landlords, who exploit the share-cropping opium farmers and at the same time take bribes for normal government functions. Many of these landlords are the same people who operated as warlords in the pre-Taliban phase of recent Afghan history. Moreover, the forces from the north, many of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik descent, are angry about the weakness of the resistance against the Pashtun Taliban, who are their old enemies in the struggle over Afghanistan’s agricultural land as well as smuggling routes. Karzai himself is a Pashtun, but few of his ethnicity support him, and it is likely that the old Northern Alliance will reform – an alliance of northern forces that combated the Taliban in the days of their reign. This alliance will challenge Karzai, whose loyalty to their interests they doubt. This year new elections for the presidency of Afghanistan are to be held, and if the northern candidate wins, this means the internal strife in Afghanistan will come even closer to a boiling point, which neither bodes well for the peace of the area and its supposed defenders nor for the Afghan people.

Then there are as ever the considerations of the ‘cash nexus’. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had a very differentiated and high import tariff system, which used high valuations of the currency to determine its quantity in a given case. The Taliban’s hold over the country was not strong enough to fully enforce this, and indeed effective tariff rates were significantly lower. Nonetheless this formed  a significant source of non-drug income, in particular since many smugglers used Afghanistan to import goods which were subsequently re-exported illegally to Pakistan, a country which also has significant protectionist measures and is very reliant on income from its foreign trade.4 Under the current regime, these tariffs have been significantly lowered, accession to the World Trade Organization is pursued, and further attempts are planned at reducing transport costs and indirect taxes on exporters, mainly in the hope of attracting foreign investment. The importance of export from a poor country like Afghanistan is easy to underestimate: the warlord Achmad Shah Massoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, received his main income from taxing the production and export of gems from the mines of the Panjsher Valley in northern Afghanistan, which produce among other things valuables such as lapis lazuli and emeralds.5 Massoud was killed by the Taliban shortly before the attack on New York City of September 11, 2001.

Also of importance concerning trade is the strategic location of Afghanistan: oil and gas-rich countries of Central Asia suffer from poor location and lack of connections to world ports, and Pakistan in particular has aimed at causing a pipeline to be created through Afghanistan, which would connect the Central Asian states with its own ports in Beluchistan by means of Herat. Both the Pakistani and American government as well as such companies as UNOCAL had in fact been negotiating this pipeline just before the events following the Taliban occupation and the Al-Qaeda attacks disrupted the plans. At the same time, the Pakistan-supported Taliban had greatly reduced the costs of transport and security in Afghanistan, which enhanced trade, particularly the above-mentioned smuggling into Pakistan itself. This undermining of Pakistan’s own financial basis, as mentioned very dependent on its transit location, is an activity of Pakistan’s own security forces, which consider their own government to be pro-imperialist and wish to replace it by a religiously inspired resistance regime.5 In the case of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, such neo-Mahdist regimes garner much legitimacy from the lack of legitimacy of the alternatives, in particular the existing and prior state bureaucracies, which have mostly been predators on the extremely poor peasant populations of both countries. The removal of the Taliban by the Western forces has destroyed the safety of the roads that prevailed in most of Afghanistan, which in turn drives local farmers even more towards opium production. Marketing of wheat on the international market legally is now much more difficult than marketing of opium is illegally, even if little of the market price in the West of heroin is captured by the Afghan farmer. Foreign capital, including Chinese mining interests, has however certainly expressed interest in developing Afghanistan’s own gas fields as well as the significant resources of iron ore and coal the country possesses. The USSR had spent hundreds of millions on exploration of these resources when they occupied the country, and if only safety could be guaranteed for capital movements in and out of Afghanistan, it is quite likely that American and other foreign companies shall endeavour to absorb Afghanistan into the world market as well.6

A deal with the Taliban, therefore, seems the most beneficial option for the Western interests. If the Taliban can be appeased and counted on to provide, or at least not disturb, the ‘security’ needed for foreign investment, and in turn the Taliban do not hinder the development of capitalism in that country, then imperialism shall have cleared the way once again for capital’s adventures in foreign shores. The degree of foreign capital’s vulnerability to extortion by the many local landowners, warlords and so forth does not make this likely, however. More likely, the NATO forces shall be forced to withdraw sooner or later after having to deal with the Taliban on the latter’s terms, and much shall be as it was before in Afghanistan. The tens of thousands of dead Afghans and the loss of men and prestige on the part of the Western empires will be the only ‘result’ of the Afghan expedition.

1.Associated Press article, Feb. 18, 2009.->
2.“Opioids in Afghanistan”. ->
3.Anderson, J.L. “The Taliban’s Opium War”. The New Yorker (July 9, 2007).->
4.“Afghanistan: Trade Policy and Integration”. World Bank report. ->
5.Rubin, B. The Political Economy of War and Peace in Afghanistan. Council on Foreign Relations, 1999.->
6.Daly, J.C.K. “Analysis: Afghanistan’s untapped energy riches”. UPI article, Oct. 24, 2008. Also: “Ahadi: Afghanistan’s Economic Fortunes”, interview by Greg Bruno. Council on Foreign Relations, Apr. 15, 2008.->